The Congress Party Wednesday (January 10) said it will skip the upcoming consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22.
“The inauguration of the incomplete temple by the leaders of the BJP and the RSS has been obviously brought forward for electoral gain,” the party’s statement said.
This is the latest chapter in Congress’s vacillating stance on the the Ram Janmabhoomi issue — an attempt to keep both Hindus and Muslims happy, but ultimately getting the support of neither side. Here is a brief history.
Parivar ups the ante
In the 1980s, when the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was already in the courts for several decades, the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) adopted the position that the construction of a temple was a matter of faith, not of litigation.
In 1986, the RSS Pratinidhi Sabha urged the government to “hand over the Janmabhoomi site and adjacent land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust”; the following year, it said that like the Somnath temple in Gujarat, “the ancient but dilapidated Ram Janmabhoomi temple too needs to be restored to its old glory”.
The BJP too held the view that the dispute was outside the purview of courts. Its Palampur Resolution of 1989 said it “should be resolved through mutual dialogue between the two communities or, if this was not possible, through an enabling legislation. Litigation is in no way a solution for this matter.” In later years, in keeping with its coalition dharma, the party revised its position in favour of a resolution in court or through aapsi baatcheet (consultations).
Temple’s locks are opened
In the VHP team for the agitation, Ashok Singhal included former UP Congress leader and minister Dau Dayal Khanna and former IPS officer Shreesh Chandra Dixit. The VHP held several meetings with officials of Rajiv Gandhi’s government, but no resolution was reached. The VHP remained firm on its demand for opening the locks of the Babri Masjid.
The Congress was unable to either address Hindu sentiments around the temple or pacify its Muslims voters. On September 24, 1985, the Congress, fighting an erosion of its support base, replaced N D Tiwari with Vir Bahadur Singh as chief minister of (undivided) Uttar Pradesh. On February 1, 1986, a local court in Faizabad (now Ayodhya) ordered the opening of the locks of Ram Janmabhoomi.
Congress leaders could not openly claim credit for the development, but worked to silently spread the message that it was their government that the locks had been opened.
Flip-flops followed by more flip-flops
The BJP under L K Advani ratcheted up the pressure with allegations of “pseudo-secularism”, and by openly joining the Ram Temple movement. After the opening of the Babri Masjid locks, the Sangh accelerated its campaign for the temple through programmes of “mass awakening”. There were communal riots in several places, including in Barabanki and Allahabad (now Prayagraj).
In 1987, personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) massacred Muslims in Hashimpura near Meerut. The Vir Bahadur Singh government was accused by several Congressmen of allowing a pro-Hindu line on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute — allegations that Singh denied.
In his attempts to keep both the Congress’s Hindu upper caste and Muslim bases intact, Vir Bahadur tried to play both sides. In June 1986, his government impounded three raths of the VHP’s Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagya Samiti in Ayodhya, but on November 22, sent them to Lucknow under police escort to appease the VHP. Earlier on December 19, 1985, Singh had attended a three-day Ramayan Mela in Ayodhya, an annual gathering of sants and mahants that one of his predecessors, Sripati Mishra, had started in 1982.
Loss in, and of, UP
The Congress was fighting multiple crises at the time, including the rebellion of V P Singh, one of its tallest leaders in UP and chief minister of the state from 1980-82. In June 1988, after V P Singh won the Lok Sabha by-election from Allahabad, Rajiv called Vir Bahadur to Delhi as a Union Minister, and N D Tiwari was sworn in as chief minister for the fourth time.
The Congress was facing an exodus by then, with several leaders joining either V P Singh or the BJP. In 1989, the party lost its governments in both Delhi and Lucknow. The government of Prime Minister V P Singh held a series of deliberations with the state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and the VHP. After the BJP withdrew support from the governments of V P Singh and Mulayam Singh, the Congress propped up the government of Chandra Shekhar in Delhi and saved Mulayam’s government in UP.
But the Congress’s days as a consequential player in UP were ending. Mulayam took a hard line on the temple and captured the Congress’s minority vote bank. The BJP’s social engineering project combined the politics of kamandal with that of Mandal, and in the Assembly elections of 1991, the party won 221 out of 425 Assembly seats on a consolidation of Hindu votes.
Efforts by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to resolve the temple issue did not succeed. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the dismissal of BJP governments in four states did not bring the Congress any benefit. In UP, the political polarisation was between the BJP and parties like the SP and BSP.
This is an updated version of an explainer published last year.