Peace is hard work, and the prime minister is willing to take it on. That is the clearest signal to have been received so far from the rather hush-hush talks being held between Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, in the hope of reaching a negotiated settlement in the mandir-masjid controversy. This is not the first time that talks have been tried: earlier such attempts helped elicit the minority community’s questions and requirements. The hard line of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which will not stop short of a temple on the disputed land, has gradually eroded the willingness of the minority community to come to an understanding. It had said that it would accept the court’s verdict, when it came. The VHP countered this with the war cry that the court can have no say over faith — or its version of it, that is, Hindus believe Ram was born at that particular spot and that is absolutely that. This is deadlock, and certainly not the healthiest atmosphere a prime minister can desire for his country. His efforts this time have been carefully projected as a step towards understanding between communities. Political parties have been asked to stay out of the dispute. This is a token gesture indicating that the matter is most closely linked to the culture, belief and history of the two communities, and it is on that platform alone that a solution may be sought. More specifically, the negotiations are to be perceived as a kind of out-of-court settlement, where the emotions and sentiments of the communities involved are to be given priority over judicial technicalities.
The secretiveness of the talks is presumably to fob off religious radicals on either side till some formula is arrived at. No effort will be spared, as the Sankaracharya has assured representatives of the minority community, in addressing the concerns they have articulated. But the contradiction at the heart of the problem remains intractable. The Bharatiya Janata Party rode to glory on the back of the mandir-masjid dispute, and on the backs of outfits like the VHP. It is hard to get off the tiger. No doubt Mr Vajpayee is trying his utmost to do so, by symbolically taking the dispute out of the defined political and judicial arenas. It will not help matters if the VHP defies court orders it does not like. The fact that the BJP has never been harsh enough on outfits like the VHP is one of the main reasons behind the minority community’s loss of trust. But to go on talking, to try harder each successive time, has its own value. That is what the prime minister is at, for rebuilding trust is as important as finding a solution.