The much-marginalized Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani turns 94 today. He has been past his prime for a long time but versions of what he unleashed almost three decades ago are very much the predominant political discourse of India, particularly since 2014 when Narendra Modi first became the country’s prime minister.
During my decade in Delhi between the late 1980s and 1990s, I used to interact with him on a fairly regular basis as part of my work as the South Asia chief correspondent of the wire India Abroad News Service (IANS) as well as the India Abroad weekly newspaper. I think it is timely to republish a piece I had written about one of those meetings and especially a handwritten response that I got from Advani.
The following is a somewhat reworked version of a reminiscence I wrote on the same day in 2012 which I wrote on December 6, 2020, but it focuses on a significant if deeply fractious part of his legacy on his birthday.
Anniversaries of seminal news events afford fading journalists like me the excuse and opportunity for a “been there, done that” reminiscence. I suppose there is not much else that one can really claim by way of accomplishment.
We are about a month from the 29th anniversary of one of independent India’s most defining and wrenching political, social and cultural moments. It was on December 6, 1992, that the Indian state suffered its worst body blow as fanatic Hindu groups razed the contentious Babri mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
Hundreds died in the immediate aftermath in riots that broke out in the country and subsequently at least 2000 others were killed in violence triggered by the event.
The destruction of the mosque constructed in 1527 by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, and which bore his name was claimed by Hindu groups to have been built after destroying a temple heralding the birth of Ram. In fact, Hindu groups had steadfastly maintained that this was the spot where Ram, one of the most important figures in the Hindu pantheon, was born and hence its name ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ (The birthplace of Ram).
I could dwell on the complex historical and cultural aspects of the issue but for today’s post I would restrict myself to a small part of an hour-long interview I had with Lal Krishna Advani, the politician then credited with having single-handedly revived the fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which led the anti-Babri mosque movement. On his 94th birthday today, it is as good a time as any to rework some of what I have written about him.
After the interview, which I recall took place only months after the Babri destruction, I realized that I had forgotten to ask him one particular question. I have kept that piece of paper on which I wrote the question and sent it to Advani even as I was leaving his home. (See below)
The note said, “Dear Mr. Advani, Since you seem pressed for time, I would not persist with raising the remaining questions but I would appreciate if you could answer just one question.
Q: In the event of the BJP coming to power, what will be the status of the 200 million odd non-Hindus?”
Advani was gracious enough to actually handwrite his answer (See at the top of the post) in which he said, “The Indian Constitution guarantees equality and justice to all citizens, irrespective of their faith.
The BJP holds that this commitment of our constitution makers is a commitment of the nation. Anything else would be contrary to our history, tradition and culture.
The BJP rejects theocracy. In India we can never have Class I citizens and Class II citizens as you have in Pakistan and several Islamic countries.”
I found Advani’s reply characteristically mature but equally intriguing given that it was he who had been credited with having given the so-called Hindutva (Hinduness) movement a sharp political edge with the Babri agitation. During one of his subsequent interactions Advani told me that he saw the destruction of the mosque as wrong and in contravention of “true Hindu values.”
I have always found it difficult to square what he said in that interview and handwritten reply to me and what he had just done to unleash the very forces that sought to create versions of that theocracy.
Since 2014 when Narendra Modi rose to prime minister for the first time and returned with an even greater force in 2019, what Advani did is on full display and not what he wrote in that little note.
I have never been the one to hyperventilate over political, social and cultural twists and turns in a nation’s life but it is undeniable that India is in the throes of sharply heightened ethno-nationalism that has grown steadily since 1992 and picked up extraordinary momentum in 2014.
It is unquestionable that at the heart of the rise of this ethno-nationalism is the staggering failure of imagination of the so-called secular forces in making a distinction between what is legitimate and eminently justified cultural pride in historical Hindu-Buddhist-Jain India and the fiendish weaponization of some aspects of it that we now see on full display. In that failing imagination by the so-called secular forces the all-important space for a gloriously plural India has been ceded so significantly that I think it is too late now to reverse that.
Over the years I have written extensively about some astonishing intellectual accomplishments of that historical Hindu-Buddhist-Jain India straddling fields as diverse as brilliant nuances of grammar and metallurgy and the idea of an illusory or momentary essence of the universe and nano technology-fueled frescoes. It is that India I am fascinated and deeply moved by and not the kind that the lumpenized social media hordes who read nothing and opine on everything pretend to be legatees of.
I stay away from saying whether that what we are witnessing in India is right or wrong for the simple reason that those are lazy value judgments. What I can and do say is that we all need to take a fresh look at everything. Equally though, it is undeniable that the profound societal malignancies originally caused by Advani’s 1992 action have now become the norm.
Of all the BJP leaders, Advani had the power and imagination, not to mention historical perspective, to moderate his party and its cultural and religious affiliates but for whatever reasons failed to do so. To his credit, every time I raised uncomfortable questions about his political legacy, he addressed them without getting agitated and self-righteous but, more importantly, without going into an epic surly sulk. During one of his many interactions, he told me, “My faith in the pluralistic underpinnings of India’s constitution is complete. I reiterate that India is not and can never and should never become a theocracy.”
Superficially, that may still be true but there are trimmings cropping up every day that suggest otherwise.