The high-profile launch of the talented young 32-year-old historian Vinay Sitapati's biography of PV Narasimha Rao, Half-Lion, has restored to public focus the issue of the Babri Masjid. It is an issue that never really went away from the lived experience of the minority Muslim community despite the efforts of the ruling Sangh Parivar and much of India's Hindu middle class to put it all behind us. The shelving of the Liberhan Commission report was part of that effort to let sleeping dogs lie, and leave it to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court to decide when - if ever - to stir the pot again.
We now have before us PVNR's defence of himself, Sitapati's explanation of PVNR's action - or inaction - and Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra's intervention in the Q&A session that followed the launch. The issue also took up a fair amount of TV time and newspaper space. I am not sure there remain any further angles to be explored.
The principal justification that is advanced for President's Rule not having been invoked against the Kalyan Singh government in UP before Black Sunday, 6 December 1992, is that Article 356 does not provide for an apprehended or prospective breakdown of constitutional governance; it is argued that it can only be invoked after it is established that the constitutional machinery has indeed broken down. And the authority to certify this is the President's representative in the state capital, namely, the Governor of the state. Since the Governor never recommended President's Rule and the Chief Minister was pledged in the Supreme Court to protecting the mosque, the Prime Minister of the day, goes the argument, could not have taken it upon himself to proclaim President's Rule when the structure was still standing.
There has been further embellishing of this argument by underlining that neither the cabinet nor any of it committees explicitly authorized the union government to recommend President's Rule. Attention has also been drawn to the National Integration Council not having passed any resolution or taken any recorded decision to overthrow the Kalyan Singh Raj.
To put this defence of PVNR in perspective, it is necessary to look closely at the wording of Article 356. While it certainly mentions the "receipt of a report from the Governor", the article also says "or otherwise". In other words, there is no legal or constitutional obligation to await a report from a recalcitrant Governor to determine whether "a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution". The union government may make such a determination.
Thousands of kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid in December 1992, triggering communal riots across the country
Given that PVNR was repeatedly warned by his parliamentary and cabinet colleagues of the nefarious plans being hatched for the destruction of the mosque, most especially by former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar on the floor of the House as early as July 1992 that building materials and demolition equipment had arrived and was being stored in the vicinity of the mosque, it cannot be said that there was no imminent threat to the mosque. The apprehensions of secular Indians were further stoked by notorious slogans like, "Ek dhakka aur do/Babri Masjid todh do" and "Ram ki saugandh ham khaate hain/Mandir wahin banayenge" - "wahin" relating to the merab of the mosque where the garba griha of the mandir was proposed to be located. I had joined a large number of fellow MPs in signing a petition we submitted to the Prime Minister after Chandra Shekhar's shock information, seeking his immediate intervention to protect the mosque. Why then could the Prime Minister not have taken pre-emptive action within the framework of the extant wording of Article 356? There would have been no danger of his government falling because the numbers of MPs seeking such action was far more than the votes of the votaries of destroying a place of worship to accommodate another place of worship.
There was an immediate precedent on which PVNR could have relied to make his own judgement. In January 1991, the Chandrashekhar government had concluded that the Tamil Nadu Governor, SS Barnala, was colluding with the state government and the LTTE to the detriment of national security. The union government decided that, in the absence of a recommendation from the Governor to proclaim President's Rule, they could "otherwise" come to this conclusion and recommended President's Rule to Rashtrapati Bhawan. The President issued the required proclamation. The decision has never been challenged or suo moto overturned by the Supreme Court. It constitutes valid action under the Constitution.
There was nothing to prevent PVNR from doing the same. Indeed, that is exactly what he did when faced with the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. He did not wait for reports from Governors of BJP-ruled states. Of his own accord, in retaliation for the outrage at Ayodhya, he simply had all these state governments dismissed. If he could have taken such action and got away with it after the demolition of the mosque, what prevented him from doing so before to protect the mosque? It seems to be an absurd interpretation of Article 356 of the Constitution to say the mosque had to be destroyed before the central government could step in to save it!
PVNR's supporters say he could not have recommended the dissolution of Kalyan Singh's government without cabinet approval. Of course, he couldn't. But the moot point is the Prime Minister never took such a proposal to the cabinet. He initiated discussion in cabinet/cabinet committees, but never presented a specific proposal to recommend that Kalyan Singh be deprived of his rule. He wanted the blame to fall on, or, at the very least, be shared by his colleagues in government. If anything went wrong, he wanted to ensure that the blame would fall on someone else's head.
Similarly, when the National Integration Council gave him the full authority to take whatever action he deemed fit, he chose not to exercise that authority to recommend President's Rule. There is no reason to doubt that his cabinet colleagues and NIC would have gone along with such a proposal. Indeed, the hard-core secular element in the cabinet that had been publicly clamouring for decisive action would have been left with no alternative but to enthusiastically go along with such strong action, whatever the consequences.
Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao being felicitated during the release of the Kannada translation of his book The Insider in Bengaluru in July 28, 2004Photo by: Associated Press
The basic reason for PVNR's hesitation was his mind-set. He genuinely believed that this was not a political problem but a religious one. That is why he recruited an army of sadhus and sants to intermediate between his government and Hindutva forces to persuade them to desist from illegally demolishing the mosque. Interestingly, he made no effort to contact the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal that eventually provided the demolition mob. He just blinded himself to the political dimension. So profound was his commitment to religious appeal rather than political action that after the mosque was brought down, he justified his performance to the Congress parliamentary party by saying that in ancient times, kings always consulted sadhus and sants. He had only followed tradition. But, he ruefully added, once the King had made up his mind, the sadhus and the sants followed the King. Alas, this had not happened in Kalyug. I could barely believe my ears. Had I been elected to a 20th- century parliament or appointed to a durbar dating back to Vedic times?
That evening, I publicly remarked that the Prime Minister had proved that "death was not a necessary condition for rigor mortis to set in". The remark reached his ears. But I do not think that surprised him. For earlier in October 1992, when I was in the midst of what a BJP spokesman described as a "nautanki" - my 44-day Ram Rahim yatra from Rameshwaram to Ayodhya between Gandhiji's birthday (2 October) and Nehru's (14 November) - PVNR summoned me to Delhi from Bhubaneswar. He told me he had no objection to my yatra but disagreed with my definition of secularism. Taken aback, I asked where I had gone wrong in my understanding of secularism. "Mani," he patiently explained, "you don't seem to realize that this is a Hindu country." I was astonished. I had thought ours was a secular country! So, I was left muttering, "But, Sir, that is exactly what the BJP says". He chose not to answer and let me return to my yatra.
On 14 November, as I was about to leave with about a hundred Congress workers from Faizabad to Ayodhya, the police stopped me, politely informing me that Section 144 had been proclaimed over Ayodhya. I insisted on nevertheless proceeding there. They said they would then have no alternative under the law but to arrest me. I was bundled into a police van along with my colleagues and detained for a few hours at the police station. The press were allowed to meet me and I told them I was delighted to be arrested, for if one person campaigning for peace and harmony was being prevented from violating Section 144, the same action must be taken against the hordes threatening to besiege Ayodhya. With three weeks still to go to 6 December, a cordon could easily have been thrown around a radius of say 50 km around Ayodhya. That, as far as I am aware, was not even considered.
At about 5 am on the cold morning of 3 December, I was woken with the phone ringing shrilly. I was amazed to learn the PM wanted to talk to me. When I was put through, PVNR spoke as if he was in the middle of a conversation already taking place. "I have tried everything," he pleaded, "but they are betraying me". I could hear the choked tears in his voice. I offered to come across immediately. "Now" he asked incredulously. "Give me 20 minutes," I said and rushed across.
I was led into his private residence at 3, Race Course Road (the only time I was ever admitted there). He had composed himself. He asked what I suggested be done. I said it was too late to push back the lakhs of kar sevaks, but if we were to arrange a series of flights to Faizabad airport for all MPs who were against the barbarism threatened in neighbouring Ayodhya, TV cameras would show the country the clear divide between those who wanted to preserve a secular India and those who were bent on its destruction. He, I suggested, might be the last to address the meeting. He asked if I would draft a speech for him. I readily agreed. That was the last I heard of it.
The dithering continued to the end - except that the idol of Ram lalla that had been removed to facilitate the demolition was restored to its place, while nothing whatsoever was done for 36 hours - 36 hours! - from which thousands were to die, a tragic blow to our national identity from which the country is still to recover.
PV Narasimha Rao was indeed a half-lion when it came to economic reforms, but only half a man when it came to the Babri Masjid.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Rajya Sabha.)