|Ashok Singhal after he was released. Picture by Naeem Ansari
Lucknow, Aug. 26: Ayodhya appeared to be breathing a tad easier today, having been on the razor’s edge at the weekend.
Tension eased somewhat this evening as police released key VHP leaders, including president Ashok Singhal, international working president Praveen Togadia and Ram Bhadracharya.
They were arrested around 10am yesterday to pre-empt them from defying a ban on the VHP’s six-district march to press for a Ram temple on the site that the Babri Masjid stood.
Earlier in the day, Allahabad High Court had ordered that they be released if they had no cases pending against them other than violation of prohibitory orders or the suspicion that they could commit a cognizable offence.
The release order came on a habeas corpus petition filed by two local lawyers. The VHP leaders’ counsel argued that his clients, arrested under CrPC Section 151 — such arrests are made to prevent commission of cognizable offences — could not be detained beyond 24 hours.
Rajkumar Viswakarma, IG (law and order), said 980 of the 2,433 VHP leaders and supporters arrested yesterday had been freed. “The process for release of VHP supporters was initiated on the expiry of 24 hours of their detention. All of them eventually will be set free,” he said.
Security forces remained stationed at key points in the temple town but police deployment on the Saryu river ghats was lifted this morning. Random checks on pilgrims were eased and those from Basti, Akbarpur and Barabanki districts were allowed to take a dip in the Saryu.
Priests, pandas, astrologers, barbers and flower-sellers were back at work. Devendra Upadhya, a senior priest at Tulsi Ghat, said dozens of pilgrims had come for mundan (tonsuring of the head) submersion of asthi (belongings of a dead relative) and to offer prayers after the tenth day of mourning.
Officials said pilgrims wanting to access the Saryu were directed to Tulsi Ghat on the Gorakhpur-Ayodhya road. They said Nayaghat was still sensitive as the VHP’s 84 koshi parikrama — a 300km, 20-day march through six districts — was supposed to have started from there.
Faizabad district magistrate Bipin Dwivedi said prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code would continue to be enforced but pilgrims would not be disturbed.
Earlier, as a precautionary measure, the administration had decided to shift Ramvilas Vedanti and Togadia out of a guesthouse in Narendra Dev Agriculture University, Faizabad, to Etah jail. Another VHP leader, Swamy Chinmayanand, under house arrest for the last two days in Sahjehanpur, was shifted to a guesthouse in Hardwar.
A senior state official said the idea was to keep key VHP leaders as far away from Ayodhya as possible so they do not regroup and create fresh trouble. Yesterday itself, Singhal had called for a day-long protest against what he termed a “police crackdown on religious leaders”.
Mahant Satendra Das, the chief priest of the makeshift Ayodhya temple who was against the VHP’s proposed march, said: “The sadhus of Ayodhya are not slaves of the VHP that anything it does will have to be backed by all the priests.”