After Rajiv Gandhi, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, formed a coalition Government with the support of BJP in 1989. Congress was still the single largest party with 197 seats in the 9th Lok Sabha, but Rajiv Gandhi preferred to sit in the Opposition.
I was 18 plus and, by then, somewhat started to comprehend the political climate of the country. My readings were largely influenced by the political views of my father (a staunch non-Congressi), who used to work for ‘Indian Express’ a reputed English daily known for its fearless journalism from the days of Emergency to the Bofors pay-off and Swiss bank scandals. In fact, this was the newspaper which gave Ram Jethmalani the space to publicly pose his legendary 10-Questions per day to the Rajiv Gandhi government in the wake of Bofors scam.
As I said earlier, by this time the Congress had become a party of plunderers in the eyes of people. The environment was increasingly anti-Congress and people were generally happy with the ‘change’ in country’s leadership after VP Singh took over as the 7th Prime Minister of India, oblivious of the chaotic situations in which the country was to be gripped soon.
The first thing that the new Government brought to fore was its decision to implement the recommendations of the SEBC (Socially & Educationally Backward Classes) Commission (popularly known as the ‘Mandal Commission’) set up in 1979 by the Morarji Desai Government. The Commission had submitted its Report in December 1980 only, however, by that time Morarji Desai Government had already fallen and the subsequent leaderships preferred to keep the Mandal Commission Report under the carpet, which recommended that members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) be granted reservations to 27% of the government jobs (making the total number of reservations for SC, ST and OBC to 49%). VP Singh’s decision to implement the recommendations stirred a hornet’s nest and the whole country went into turmoil.
The country witnessed widespread student protests which snowballed into a formidable anti-Mandal movement in a matter of days. On 19th September 1990, a final year student from Deshbandhu College of Delhi University Rajiv Goswami attempted self-immolation which led to even larger protests and a series of self-immolation bids by students. News of violent clashes between the police and the students became an everyday affair.
One of my elder cousins was actively participating in anti-mandal agitations those days and through him we came to know that some of the prominent Congress leaders were extending their active behind-the-scene support to the movement. Understandably, no political party could have come out in open against the Report lest it could have affected their backward class vote bank.
This was also the time when country’s first video news magazine Newstrack was started to flourish. Newstrack used to come out with investigative stories in video cassettes for news hungry people. I remember having watched one of such video tapes during those days where a police firing incident near INA market was covered. In the video, one young man was seen fallen to the bullet fired by the police. A few police personnel seen rushing towards the victim and picking him up by the hands and legs and carrying towards the police van. Blood was seen oozing out of his back like a running water tap. For a fleeting moment, the camera even focused on the face of the victim which showed no sign of life. The video clipping had shaken me to the roots. The lifeless face of that young man remained in my memory for long. Later it came to be known that the young man was not in fact part of the agitating crowd and was there to shop for his impending wedding.
Just around this time, when the country was engulfed in the flames of anti-mandal protests, the then BJP President Lal Krishan Advani launched his Rath Yatra from Somnath Temple to Ayodhaya (September 25, 1990) demanding construction of Ram Temple at the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid site at Ayodhaya (Uttar Pradesh) with a view to expand party’s base among the Hindus apparently by instigating anti-Muslim sentiments. I would like to quote Khushwant Singh Ji here from his book “The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous” (2013) :
“The one event that pitchforked Advani to the centre stage and reshaped India’s politics was his rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, leading to the destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. He, more than anyone else, sensed that Islamophobia was deeply ingrained in the minds of millions of Hindus; it only needed a spark to set it ablaze.”
LK Advani’s Rath Yatra resulted in widespread communal riots in which hundreds of people reportedly lost their lives. The Yatra was finally halted at Samastipur (Bihar) with the arrest of LK Advani under the National Security Act by the Lalu Prasad Yadav government on 23rd October, 1990. Despite this, a large number of activists (Kar Sewaks) managed to reach Ayodhaya and marched towards the disputed site which was heavily fortified by the Uttar Pradesh government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav to protect the structure from any possible damage by the activists. The march was halted by the Police/Para-military forces which led to fierce clashes between the forces and activists resulted into loss of dozens of lives. This enraged BJP and the party withdrew its support from the VP Singh government at the Centre. Thus ended BJP backed VP Singh’s 11-month rule in November 1990.
VP Singh’s announcement to accept the Mandal Commission recommendations just two days before the sacked Jat leader Devi Lal’s ‘Kisan Rally’ in Delhi was seen as a master-stroke to consolidate the backward caste vote bank for his party. From a veritable messiah of social justice to the most hated politician of his time, VP Singh later observed – “Though my leg was broken, I hit the goal.”
BJP President LK Advani too had a reason to embark on his Rath Yatra at such a volatile time. Fearing alienation of the backward class votes, BJP could not have opposed the Mandal Commission recommendations openly, although implementation of the same (especially by a party which had BJP’s support) had made the upper strata of ‘majority’ community feel insecure. Under such circumstances, BJP found it most appropriate to play its communal card to cloud the Mandal issue as well as to unite the ‘majority’ vote in its favour. In a way, Atal Behari Vajpayee was correct in his observation that had there been no Mandal, there would not have been Kamandal.
Whatever be the immediate reasons for their respective actions, my personal view is that, sooner or later, both the leaders, or someone from their respective parties, would have resorted to exactly what they had done. The BJP reaped rich dividends in future elections and ultimately came to power in the Centre full-fledgedly in less than a decade.
Back to anti-mandal agitation days, I remember, my response to the situation was quite passive, except towards the loss of young lives on the streets. So self-assured I was of my future prospects back then that I did not, in fact, perceive the recommendations as something which could put our future in peril. My anti-Congress mindset must also have been one of the reasons behind my aloofness. Surprisingly, however, the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid issue did pierce my impressionable mind and steered my consciousness on a different course.
As far as I remember, it all started with the killing of Kar Sewaks at the hands of security forces while they were marching their way towards the disputed site at Ayodhaya. I thought, how could a centuries old abandoned structure could be more precious than the lives of people. And, how could such a structure be so important for a particular community that it just could not let go of this in the larger cause of communal harmony and peaceful coexistence.
It took me quite a few years to realize that it was not just an old abandoned structure that the then State government was trying to protect, but it was the symbol of our country’s secular character – its identity which was being protected. And the answer to my second question was hidden in the slogan which was raised for the first time on the fateful day when the disputed structures were finally pulled down by the Kar Sewaks on December 6, 1992 – “ये तो सिर्फ एक झांकी है, मथुरा काशी बाकी है”.