Ayodhya, Aug. 25: The officer’s voice was crisp as the pre-dawn air as 75 armed policemen clicked their heels and saluted him on the Saryu’s banks.
“Say ‘Jai Hind’,” senior superintendent of police K.B. Singh barked. “Jai Hind,” echoed the jawans.
“Now repeat after me, ‘We shall do our best to discharge our duties with dedication and discipline’.”
The next six hours were a study in discipline and restraint as the police and paramilitary waged a battle of attrition against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, smothering its plans to defy a ban on its 84 koshi parikrama — a 300km, 20-day march through six districts to press for a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid stood.
The Provincial Armed Constabulary and Rapid Action Force arrested three high-profile VHP leaders and some other office-bearers without incident and kept the rest holed up in their mutts and akharas.
Ashok Singhal, the outfit’s president, was detained at Lucknow airport and nearly 1,700 activists were rounded up from various districts as they headed for the temple town.
During each arrest, the forces demonstrated patience and politeness, avoiding any repeat of the flare-up 23 years ago when an unprepared police had fired on kar sevaks.
Among those arrested were leading monk and former BJP parliamentarian Ramvilas Vedanti, Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas president Nritya Gopal Das and senior VHP leader Praveen Togadia.
VHP sources put up a brave face and claimed they would take the administration “by surprise” by launching the parikrama at some unspecified date. But officials said the security deployment and crackdown would continue, if need be, till the programme’s scheduled conclusion on September 13.
“Preventive detentions will continue and those still attempting to join the yatra will be arrested,” special secretary (home) Kamal Saxena said in Lucknow.
The battle of nerves began last evening with the administration zip-fastening 18 mutts where members of various temple trusts live, virtually putting them under house arrest.
RAF jawans held periodic marches, on thoroughfare and alleyway alike, to mount psychological pressure.
The morning’s first “catch” was Vedanti, 55, who had for the past two days been virtually barricaded in his residence, Hindu Dham, on the Saryu’s banks close to the parikrama’s planned Ground Zero.
Around 7.15 this morning, he attempted the first move after contacting colleagues over the phone.
Donning his saffron robes, the bearded sadhu with flowing locks and beard ignored the 100 policemen ringing his home and, followed by five vociferous supporters, headed for the river to take a dip and start the parikrama. The police let him through but stopped him within 100 yards.
“You cannot go, sir; the area is under Section 144 of the CrPC (which prohibits public assemblies). You have violated the law and are therefore under arrest,” district magistrate Bipin Dwivedi told him firmly.
By 8.05am, the narrow lanes buzzed with claims that the sadhus were preparing to start the march. Tension began building at Maniram Chhawni, the temple complex where the 88-year-old Nritya Gopal Das lives.
At 8.10, as journalists and some 200 jawans laid siege to the compound, the corridors of the temple inside were reverberating with the chimes of bells, the moan of conch shells and the beating of drums as Das conducted morning aarti.
Outside, where four buses waited to ferry those who might be arrested, young sadhus taunted the RAF: “Aap ready hain to hum bhi hain (if you are ready, so are we).”
The aarti stopped at 8.40. Two minutes later, Rajkumar Das, a robust 32-year-old sadhu arrived with 40 associates and met the Nyas president. The slogans grew shriller, with threats to build the temple, come “baton or bullet”.
At 8.50, Nritya Gopal emerged with some 150 followers and made for the Saryu’s banks. They too had barely walked a few hundred yards when additional district magistrate Arvind Kumar Chaurasia and 140 armed policemen blocked their way.
“Sir, you cannot go any further. You have violated Section 144, so we are putting you under arrest but are releasing you considering your age. You can go back to the temple,” he was told. Das and his men decided that retreat to the Chhawni was the best option.
Some devotees burnt an effigy of Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav, father of the chief minister, but the police looked on impassively.
Hide ’’ seek
Around 9.30, news spread that Togadia had reached Ayodhya and was in the town’s warren-like northern fringes. The administration appeared clueless how he had sneaked in.
Togadia moved from house to house to fox the police. Word came that he had been spotted at a house in Lakhsman Keela, but he had slipped away by the time the police arrived.
Soon a sadhu, Baba Ram Swaroop, apparently a police informer, provided a tip-off saying Togadia was holed up in a house, Sadguru Sadan, in Golaghat.
A team of 200 armed police picketed in front of the house, issuing appeals for surrender and arresting a few of the VHP demagogue’s supporters.
At 10.05, Togadia stepped out cocooned in a human shield. But the resistance melted away as one of his supporters fainted and collapsed. Amid the pushing and jostling, the police escorted Togadia out, put him in a van and sped off.
“I’m not going away,” Togadia shouted. “I will go to the districts tomorrow.”
As he repeatedly refused to leave Ayodhya, he was produced in court, ordered to 14 days’ judicial custody, and was shifted to the Narendra Dev Agriculture University guesthouse at Faizabad in the afternoon. Vedanti, given a similar remand after rejecting requests to stay home, has been lodged at the same guesthouse.
The tensions ebbed after Togadia’s arrest.
Singhal had been detained as soon as his flight from Delhi touched down at Lucknow airport around 8.45am. Till late evening, he was refusing to return to Delhi and officers said he might be sent to a makeshift “camp” too.
Inspector-general R.K. Viswakarma said in Lucknow that 1,696 arrests had been made till evening. He said all those arrested would be held in judicial custody for 14 days.
“Since the yatra’s scheduled conclusion is on September 13, those arrested cannot be released now,” Saxena, the special secretary, explained.
Among the 100 people arrested in Faizabad district are monks and VHP officials Savitri Bai Phule, Acharya Kushmuni, Mahant Santosh Das alias Sathu Baba, and Mahant Ram Saran Das.
The Peethadheshwar of Sagra Ashram, Abhay Chaitanya Mauni Maharaj, was put under house arrest in Amethi as a precaution.