A peace process is never easy, and hurdles are only to be expected. What cannot be anticipated is a sudden annihilation of the very grounds the process had begun to build on. The letter of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, written on July 1 in answer to the clarifications requested by the president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on the proposal for an Ayodhya settlement that had been made earlier, does precisely that. The damage is immeasurable, because the sankaracharya’s gentle moves and reasonable approach had encouraged the strengthening of the moderate Muslim voice on the other side. It was possible to see the fragile beginnings of trust. This could have been an auspicious opening of doors, even if the goal remained elusive for some more time. But the terms of the sankaracharya’s latest letter are, it would seem, made deliberately unacceptable for the AIMPLB, which in any case was coming to the negotiating table against considerable opposition from the extreme factions in its own community. Not only does the letter say that the disputed area would be included in the scope of the discussion, it does so in direct contradiction of earlier assurances that the disputed area will be subject to the court verdict. It is not the substance alone, but the spirit of the statement too, that seems intended to hurt the dignity of the other negotiating party and render the terms unacceptable.
And this is not all. That which began, at least to all appearances, as a well-meaning attempt to make a non-political, out-of-court settlement, has now been distorted to ignore the law altogether, and to wield religious majoritarianism as political advantage. The disputed land should be given away to the Hindus, suggests the letter, and Muslims should mentally prepare themselves to give up Kashi and Mathura at some future time, never mind that law forbids any change of status there. In essence, this message is similar to the exulting remarks of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary, Mr Praveen Togadia, who has told the world that the majority community is 85 per cent, it can change polity, it can change law.
Suddenly the new story has turned old, with the Hindutva campaigners already projecting the minority community as intransigent. It is a day for the hawks on both sides. Clearly, the conversations the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders had with the holy man of Kanchi were crucial. It can be imagined that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the real mover behind the scenes, could not risk alienating the RSS before the elections. But that was not an unknown risk. The priorities must have been decided upon before this elaborate exercise began. Presumably, peace and understanding between the communities was considered the more important. Inevitably, the question here would be whether the attempt was a fake one from the beginning. The BJP has not only to rebuild the minority community’s trust, but also to make sure that such unhealthy imaginings of bad faith are banished from the minds of the majority community.