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REPUBLIC OF SILENCE - P.V. Narasimha Rao's forgotten promise

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Cutting Corners - Ashok Mitra   |   Published 18.12.09, 12:00 AM

Hokum must have its kingdom. The judicial report on the culpability for the crime perpetrated on December 6, 1992, was first leaked and then laid on the floor of Parliament. The predictable sequel was an uproarious parliamentary debate. Countrymen are however not any more enlightened than they already were.

That horrid outrage was committed over 17 years ago, in broad daylight, with the world’s media looking on. Thousands watched the proceedings on the television screen; they even had the opportunity to watch the gleeful post-demolition celebrations and the faces of the celebrants. All that the judge’s report does is to state the obvious. The government is delighted; it has responded to the judicial blah-blah by an ‘action taken’ report, equally blah-blah, the purport being to make it plain that no action whatever is contemplated.

The parliamentary debate has been marked by the same bogus quality. Each party went through the motion of parading its anger, sorrow, indignation or self-righteousness for the sake of record, nothing beyond. It was hypocrisy reflecting a kind of mutual agreement among the different parties of the you-do-not-embarrass-us-too-much-and-we-too-will-behave genre. The nation is taken for a ride, since politicians are confident that the nation will accept the charade with philosophical equanimity: these are turbulent times, enough new problems are cropping up every day, little purpose is served by raking up the embers of that hideous episode, let bygones be bygones.

A similar consensus has presumably been reached on a related matter too. Whether P.V. Narasimha Rao, the then prime minister, was ‘daydreaming’ — as the judge’s report suggests — or actually taking an indolent Sunday afternoon nap while the Babri mosque was being demolished is no longer terribly important. To what extent he was responsible for what happened is now little more than academic speculation. What is, however, very much relevant is the commitment he made at twilight of that infamous day in a telecast address to the nation. It was a commitment by the nation’s prime minister on behalf of the Government of India. After disposing of the preliminaries concerning the events of the day, he had then announced his government’s resolve to ensure that the destroyed mosque was soon rebuilt on the same site.

It was a categorical announcement, with no ambiguity about it. At least, it was assumed there was no ambiguity about it: a grievously wrong thing had taken place, the government was sorry it could not prevent its occurrence. It had, however, resolved to set right the wrong that had been done and decided to arrange the reconstruction of the mosque on its original foundation. Those who listened to the prime minister took it for granted that the restoration of the mosque at its original site would happen as early as possible, perhaps in the course of the next couple of years, certainly not at the fag end of a century or a millennium.

The pledge the prime minister of the day made has not been implemented till now. But it has not been repudiated by any succeeding regime either. The executive authority within the framework of a parliamentary democracy is supposed to be a continuum; unless a particular commitment made by a previous government has been formally rescinded or amended by a succeeding one, it remains an official commitment. Quite a few changes in the political complexion of the regime in New Delhi have, of course, taken place since December, 1992. The Congress was not in power between 1996 and 2004. A rainbow coalition was in charge for a while during this period, and was followed by a regime led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. For the past five years and a half, though, the Congress has been back in government. It has dispatched P.V. Narasimha Rao to posthumous oblivion, but no record exists to show that the pledge he made on behalf of the Congress government was ever publicly disavowed by the party.

Some bigots might have thought otherwise, the prime minister’s statement was, however, accorded a quiet but firm welcome at the time. Sections of the BJP leadership were struck by awe realizing the implications of the dastardly act perpetrated by their acolytes. None of them openly protested against the government decision to have the mosque re-built, nor was any dissonance voiced from any other quarters. It has nonetheless been an astounding display of forgetfulness. Debate still continues over the assignment of responsibility for the outrage. The investigating judge’s damp squib of a report has given a new lease of life to that debate. But it is an impressive republic of silence as far as the question of arranging the reconstruction of the mosque is concerned, talk of building a Ram temple on the site is sought to be kept alive instead.

Excitement is caused every now and then over the supposed breach of this or that parliamentary privilege. If a minister makes a promise on the floor of the House and fails to carry it out, it is taken to be a breach of the privileges of Parliament. That apart, any outsider who in any manner dishonours or disparages Parliament is considered to be guilty of breach of privilege and is liable to be charged with contempt of the House. Should not there be scope for a similar breach of privilege where the government makes a commitment to the nation and does nothing about it subsequently?

We, however, exist in a realm of fakery. Politics has been reduced to an artefact of simulated amnesia. Politicians and political parties can get away by pretending that they have managed to forget the pledge P.V. Narasimha Rao as prime minister had made to the nation. Or that pledge, it will perhaps be suggested, was made by a flustered prime minister of a cornered government in a state of half confusion and half contrition. He could not possibly have meant it, or even if he had meant it at that particular moment, second thoughts made him realize the necessity of discretion, for any initiative to implement that commitment might have enormously combustible consequences. It might generate social tension of the same magnitude as the demolition of the mosque had given rise to. Politicians and political parties of practically all hues have evidently gone along with this judgement. Many amongst them would even feign surprise that such a pledge was ever made.

Honouring the commitment the government undertook on that dismal evening more than 17 years ago is evidently not ‘politically feasible’. The BJP would be scandalized if the proposal to rebuild the mosque were to be revived; the party is still — even if only nominally — determined to build a Ram mandir on that site. The Indian National Congress would scamper away with fright if reminded of the promise made by its own prime minister; there is, after all, a substantial overlap between its constituency and that of the BJP. Even politicians of other species, who take pride in flaunting their secular credentials, have chosen to remain silent on the issue. They will not actively campaign for the restoration of the mosque because they hate the idea of igniting a fresh controversy. They will grant the moral case for rebuilding the Babri mosque where it once was. Even then, they will prefer to let the sleeping dog lie. In the recent parliamentary debate, not one member cared to suggest that the foremost imperative action for the government to take is to help restore the mosque on its original foundation.

India, its Constitution asserts, is a socialist republic. Nobody loses sleep over that huge joke. The Constitution also claims India to be a secular republic. It is however a soft variety of secularism, the republic is secular to the extent ‘practical’ politics permits it to be so. Not merely that those who claim to defend the Constitution lack the courage of their conviction, the conviction itself, have no illusion, is greatly wobbly.

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