Tiger tales from the times of Ayodhya

As the nation awaits the Ayodhya verdict with jittery nerves (the UPA government has put out half page advertisements calling for peace; the Bharatiya Janata Party has cancelled its executive meeting in anticipation of problems after the judgment), I cannot help but recall Bal Thackeray’s momentary large-heartedness over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue.Thackeray had called for a secular monument – like a school or a hospital – on the disputed land and said it was time to lay the Babri ghosts to rest. For his efforts he was labelled a `vivekheen (brainless) Hindu’ by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal. But Thackeray, at the time, just did not care.

He was fresh from his first (and so far only) victory at the Maharashtra Assembly elections. And he had been stunned that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance had swept 33 of the 34 seats in Bombay. Which could not have happened unless Muslims had voted for his party in large numbers (the Sena swept even in Muslim majority areas).

I was with The Indian Express at the time. Freshly broken out from the relative anonymity of a wire service during the height of the Babri Masjid imbroglio – both the demolition and the subsequent Bombay riots and serial bomb blasts – I was looking for new angles on the story. The Assembly elections were upon us and, while I don’t read and write Urdu, talking to the Muslim populace had led me to several Urdu language newspapers that were flooded with letters from readers, asking their co-religionists to seal their differences with the Shiv Sena.

They were angry with the Congress for letting them down and apart from the fact that an enemy’s (then the Congress) enemy (Sena-BJP) could be a friend, they were influenced by their experience with the Shiv Sena in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Many Sena corporators had not only treated them as friends, they had actually helped the Muslim community with increasing the Floor Space Index (FSI) of mosques, so that the spill-out during Friday prayers could be contained and traffic on those days remain undisrupted.

“What has the Congress done for us all these years?’’ the letter writers queried, “Except to exploit us for our votes and then serve us up to the enemy as cannon fodder? At least the Sena has been an honest enemy.’’ Bombay’s Muslim community had also almost booed then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar out of a meeting he had held with leaders of the Muslim fraternity. “Show us the colour of your money, first,’’ they had said. “Then come for our votes.’’ Meaning, the Congress government had arrested Muslims involved in the March 1993 bomb blasts (even if these were just sweepers at godowns used by the Memon brothers who triggered the blasts) but had let Shiv Sainiks identified as killers during the riots go scot-free. “When you have the courage to haul up Bal Thackeray, you can come back to us,’’ they said.

Neither Thackeray nor anyone in the Sena believed the story I broke for The Indian Express – that all the Muslim vote that year would go to the saffron parties. But when he made a clean sweep of the metropolis, Thackeray went generous on the minorities. Not only did he call for a secular monument in Ayodhya, he actually allowed a Jamaat-e-Tabligi (a kind of Muslim retreat) in his own backyard (in the grounds beyond his home, Matoshree) with nary a fuss (the Jamaat has shifted premises since).

But the Sena-BJP soon frittered away those gains. By 1999, the hate figures for Muslims – former Prime Minsiter P V Narasimha Rao, who they blamed for allowing the Babri Masjid demolition and Pawar, who they accused of allowing the Bombay riots in 1992-93 to go on relentlessly for days just because he had scores to settle with then Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik – were out of the Congress. Sonia Gandhi was its president. The Nehru-Gandhis had always had the confidence of the minorities and Muslims hoped for the better. And then Gujarat 2002 happened.

When I met Uddhav Thackeray, by then the working president of the Shiv Sena, in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, he grumbled, “Not one Muslim vote is coming to us this time!’’

His father had by then called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims (because they hadn’t voted again for the Sena post-Sonia Gandhi). But they had been hurt more by the BJP’s top leadership in New Delhi who had allowed the Gujarat riots to go on without end – that quite overtook the Bombay riots in their mind. Even Manohar Joshi, former Chief Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker, blamed his 2004 defeat on Narendra Modi. “If I had not allowed him to campaign in my constituency, the Muslim vote would not have turned against me,’’ he had moaned (Joshi had defeated the Congress in this Dalit-Muslim dominated constituency in 1999) .

When the Shiv Sena was wrongly blamed for the demolition of the Babri Masjid – Sena leaders had not been present in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992; they had left the previous day out of pique at not being given hotel accommodation but asked to camp out in tents by the BJP and were in Calcutta en route to Bombay when the mosque was brought down – Bal Thackeray had manly taken the blame upon his shoulders. There was a rider in his comment that very few noticed: “If my Shiv Sainiks have brought down the mosque, I can only be proud of them.’’ That was a big `if’ and his pride was conditional.

That `if’ kicked in a few months later – Thackeray retracted and came out with the truth only when the courts hearing the demolition case began to question that statement and began issuing him summons. “The BJP did not have the guts to admit its workers had brought down the mosque. Sunder Singh Bhandari (now deceased) found it so convenient to blame it on my Sainiks. But I am not a coward. So I said, `if’ my sainiks had brought it down, I could only be proud of them!’’

In both instances – when he called for a secular monument in Ayodhya and when he gamely accepted the blame that the BJP, the main culprit in the act, did not have the courage to take upon itself – Thackeray showed a rare generosity of spirit, even if it was driven by self-interest.

I only hope he can show enough magnanimity again after the verdict, whichever way it might swing. I can assure Balasaheb that generosity will serve his interests again – he will go down in history as someone who could rise above petty politics and keep the nation from burning. And, who knows, he might just be able to take away some of the Muslim vote from the Congress, again. That would give him a fighting chance at the next Assembly elections that a continuing association with a BJP, so far unapologetic about the 2002 riots, never could.

But is the ageing tiger up to it?

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