Chandra Shekhar called together the main leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas (RJN), a trust formed by the VHP to supervise construction of a temple at Ayodhya, and the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC), as a prelude to a series of confidential negotiations, supervised by Sharad Pawar, who spoke to the Hindus, and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a personal friend of the PM, and considered a BJP moderate, who dealt with the Muslims.
The meetings were in the PMO, and Kamal Morarka had a front row seat. He says:
First, these VHP people came. So Chandra Shekhar starts off very casual—he’ll put you off guard, actually. He asked them: ‘Tell me, what is to be done about this Ayodhya?’ This question is so casual that the [VHP] fellow took it that he could bully him.
He replied: ‘Ayodhya—what is the issue? It is a Ram mandir, everybody knows it. It’s already a Ram mandir.’
After two or three minutes Chandra Shekhar said: ‘OK. Now, let’s be serious. I am prime minister today, I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but while I am prime minister nobody will touch that structure.’ Then he adds, in his own style. ‘I am not VP Singh, who will depend on the state chief minister. I will give orders to shoot anybody who touches that mosque. India is a poor country. We are spending so much money on this—we can’t have it. And why should you bother? If 500 sadhus die, they are dying for God’s cause and going to heaven.’
I could see them thinking. ‘This is a funny prime minister. He’s threatening us in a room. He’s not in a public rally. He means it.’ Then Chandra Shekhar said: ‘Listen. The Muslims also want to come and meet me now. Think it over.’
Then the Muslim delegation came. He said: ‘Listen, I have told them. Your structure is safe, till I’m sitting here. But, there are five lakh, six lakh villages in the country. There are Hindus and Muslims living side by side everywhere. If tomorrow there are nationwide riots, I don’t have enough police to control them. So, tell me what you think.’
In two days, both of the groups came with their tails between their legs, saying they were prepared to settle. ‘OK,’ Chandra Shekhar said. ‘Let’s make ground rules. You start negotiations. Bhairon Singh and Sharad Pawar will sit with you. Whatever you two sides and they agree [on], my government will implement. This is my promise. But there are conditions. About the negotiations, nothing is to be told to the press, except that we are talking. No contents to be leaked to the press till the final agreement.’
The talks went on, for about fifteen-twenty days. Bhairon Singh then came to me. He was laughing.
He said: ‘Both the sides are saying that the matter can be settled, but they are worried they have pumped up their supporters so much, now they don’t know how to bring them down!’
And then the two sides came up with a settlement. The broad agreement was this. The Muslims said: ‘We agree to hand over the structure to the Hindus, in keeping with their sentiments. But this structure we hand over on two conditions. First, you give us some other land, to make our masjid. Second, you pass a law, that after this no other issue will be reopened. As of 15 August 1947, what is a masjid is a masjid, what is a temple is a temple.’ This was what both sides agreed.
Then Narasimha Rao became prime minister. He could have easily sealed this.
He pauses, and waits for the obvious question. ‘So, why didn’t he?’ He shrugs.
Ask me another. One and a half years after Narasimha Rao took over, that mosque was gone. The agreement was all there. There was a deal—on paper. The home ministry must have it.
This account is supported and expanded by Sharad Pawar’s own version of events, contained in his memoir, On My Terms. He believes that Chandra Shekhar’s bid to solve the temple issue is not better known for two reasons: that the effort was entirely unofficial, and that it came to nothing. He reveals that the RJN negotiator was Moropant Pingale, an RSS leader from Maharashtra. Pawar also, very generously, gives credit to Bhairon Singh Shekhawat for playing the major role in the process, recalling that the BJP leader said ‘a few tough things, even to the RSS’.
As for the settlement, Pawar supplies some important details: ‘In one part of the structure, as it stood at the time, Hindus offered prayers to a small idol of Lord Ram, while Muslims used the other part of the structure to perform namaaz. Keeping this in mind, the solution being hammered out suggested retention of the disputed structure and providing access to Hindus and Muslims from different sides to offer prayers as per their respective religious practices.’
But once news of the discussions moved out from the shelter of the PMO, the regular political pressures began to tell.
Sharad Pawar gave Rajiv Gandhi an update on the progress of the talks and told him that a deal was about to be done. Morarka remembers: ‘Sharad Pawar told Rajiv, so Rajiv rang up Chandra Shekhar. “I am very happy that you have done this. Give me two days.” He wanted two days to read the deal and think about it. And then he brought down the government in two days. He thought that if Chandra Shekhar settles the Babri Masjid, he’ll become so popular in the country. He didn’t want the credit to go to him. Very petty, if you ask me. Had that thing been settled, Hindu-Muslim relations today would have been much better.’
A settlement of the temple dispute by others threatened to damage Rajiv politically; he could not stand by and let it boost others in prestige. Resolving the dispute was a card he still hoped, one day, to play for himself.
This excerpt from ‘Chandra Shekhar And The Six Months That Saved India’ by Roderick Matthews has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.
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