Atal Bihari Vajpayee—A secular face with a saffron heart




In the death of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee the saffron army of India has lost a patriarch, a campaigner, an ideologue, a crafty statesman, a poet and politician and, over and above, a fiery orator. Vajpayee passed away on Thursday (August 16, 2018) at the age of 93. It was under his leadership that the saffron tribe ascended to the highest positions of power and politics in India.

Vajpayee’s rise to power

Few would dispute with the fact that the Hindutwa brigade caught the imagination of the Indian voters after the demolition of Babri Masjid. L K Advani, on several occasions in the past, admitted that the Ram Mandir Movement (of which demolition of Babri Masjid was essential ingredient) helped them to gain political power. The 500-year old mosque structure in Ayodhiya was brought down by a mob of tens of thousands of Hindu zealots on January 6, 1992 to build a temple in the name of Ram at the site. Vajpayee’s close aides L K Advani, Murli Mannohar Joshi, Umma Bharti and others were leading them.

Vajpayee visited Ayodhiya on December 5, 1992—one day before the demolition of the mosque. The same day he addressed a gathering of kar sevaks at Jhandewalan Park in Aminabad, Lucknow. He told the cheering crowd of karsaveks “I don’t know what will happen there tomorrow. I wanted to go to Ayodhya but I was told to go to Delhi,”. He also talked about “sharp-edged boulders and the need to level the ground (at the mosque site)” much to the cheers and delight of the crowd. Many temple volunteers and karsaveks took it as ‘orders’ to bring down the mosque.   The Liberhan Commission – constituted to look into the demolition of Babri Masjid – strongly indicted Vajpayee in 2009. The Commission called him a “pseudo-moderate” who was party to the decisions of the Sangh Parivaar in demolishing the mosque.

Vajpayee had three stints as Prime Minister. He, first, made to the office of the Prime Minister in 1996 that lasted for 13 days only. In 1998, he again bounced back to power but 13 months. In 1999, he again grabbed the seat to last for full term.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a good Hindi language poet and had a great command over words. He would choose rights words to be used at right place and right in time. That projected him as a “soft-spoken” person. Some would call him “liberal”. Some would even call him “secular among communalist” or “right man in wrong party”. This image around him was mostly built by media circles with right-wing influence. Many a so-called professional journalists also fell prey to this propaganda and adored him as a “statesman” and “man of peace”.

The “secular” Vajpayee

It was not his so-called secular credentials that made him RSS’s choice of Prime Minister. Vajpayee was an RSS man from the core of his heart, and stood and worked for RSS ideology and values rights from his early age. As schoolboy, he was reported to have penned a poem which went on to attain him fame in the Hindutwa circles. The lyrics, Hindu tann mann, Hindu jeevan, rag, rag mera Hindu parichay (I am Hindu in heart and body, my life is Hindu, Hindu is my only identity), inspired many generations of RSS volunteers and continues to be sung at RSS shakhas. (Vidya Subrahmaniam ..The Hindu December 9, 2009). This poem obviously reveals the mental set up of the late Vajpayee.

In 1983, he set Assam on communal fire by asking the people of the state to “cop Muslims (Bangali) into pieces) in an election rally. More than 3000 Muslims were massacred in the aftermath of Vajpayee’s provocation in Nellie region of Assam. The carnage embarrassed even his own mentors, who disowned his statement.

In September 2000, Vajpayee shared stage with VHP in Staten Island New York, and declared himself a swayamsevak first. Three months later, on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, he described the construction of the Ram temple as “a national sentiment” that awaited fulfillment.

The “secular” and “statesman” Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India when around 4000 Muslims were butchered by Hindu mobs in the state of Gujrat in 2002 where the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister. Vajpayee defended the Hindu rioters saying “kisne lagai aag’. He accused Muslims of killing Hindus at Godhra and justified rest as reaction. He did not stop just there but went on to target the very religion of Islam. In a public rally in Goa capital, Vajpayee said “Islam has two faces: one that teaches tolerance and respects human sentiments; another that fans militancy where there is no place for tolerance. Muslims are intolerant and they don’t want to live in peace with other communities.  Where there are Muslims, there is problem. In Indonesia, Malaysia, wherever Muslims are living they don’t want to live in harmony. They don’t mix with the society [ghul milkar nahin rehte]. They are not interested in living in peace”.  His admonish (which in essence was mere rhetoric) to Modi for not upholding “Raj Dharma” was just a passing reference.

Vajpayee and Kashmir

A section of people in Kashmir too mourned the death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Death of a person is not something to be joyous about. It is always painful. It makes one naturally sad. So when Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, one of the three main leaders of Kashmir’s Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), said that former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death made him sad, he expressed his feeling that the news of the death of someone you know generates spontaneously. But Mirwaiz appears fictional or naive when he says Vajpayee was ‘rare’ leader, (who) sought resolution of Kashmir dispute. There are others leaders in both, Pro India and anti India camps, who believe that Vajpayee was a “man of peace” and he had the guts to resolve the issue of Kashmir. They used to refer to his “initiative” as “Vajpayee doctrine”.

Nobody has ever been able to explain what it exactly was and what solution it suggested for Kashmir. Vajpayee doctrine is the most undefined thing which suggested nothing more than playing with words and delaying solutions.  Neither separatists nor pro India activists ever deconstructed the Vajpayee thought. In his initial days as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi was reluctant to make any reference to the “Vajpayee doctrine” perhaps, for the fear that the so called doctrine might be something meaningful. But the way Modi now makes frequent references to Vajpayee’s “Jamhooriyat, Insaniyat and Kashmiriyat” it makes one believe that he has got the real import of it.  One needs to know what was Vajpyee’s policy and how is it relevant today.  His doctrine of peace, progress and prosperity in Jammu & Kashmir under the purview of Insaniyat (Humanity , Jamhuriyat (Democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Identity of the people of Kashmir), though nationally acclaimed, was simply to maintain and strengthen the status quo on Kashmir.

It was at the fag-end of his power that Vajpayee took some initiatives with regard to Kashmir issue. He invited Hurriyat Conference leaders for talks on January 22 and March 27 in 2004. This was mostly seen as election stunt by Vajpayee whose party BJP was facing a serious challenge by the Congress in general elections. It however did not work for the BJP and it lost the elections paving way for Congress to rule India for next 10 years. The BJP is again in power now and there are voices that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi should follow Vajpayee’s path to resolve Kashmir issue. And to cap it all, Modi himself is quite enthusiastic to invoke Vajpayee doctrine in his public speeches. We see little merit in such claims as Vajpayee’s policy on Kashmir was in no way different from his predecessors. No less a person than Modi himself broke the riddle of Vajpayee doctrine when, inaugurating the Chinanni-Nashri Tunnel in Jammu, promised to move ahead with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s doctrine of Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jhamooriyat “for the balanced development of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh”. One should give credit to Modi that, at least, he sounds less deceitful in his uttering. By explaining it (Vajpayee dogma) as a way for the equitable development of the state, MOdi has set at rest all the speculations and conjectures being associated with Vajpayee doctrine.

Vajpayee and Pakistan

It goes without saying that Vajpayee took some bold initiatives to make peace with Pakistan. Despite setback like Kargil conflict, high-jacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandhar and terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, Vajpayee did not allow the peace process with Pakistan to derail. It was during his government that cricketing relations and people to people contact got a huge flip. It was reported that he had reached on a solution to Kashmir issue with the then Pakistani President Gen Parvaiz Musharraf during Agra Summit but for the last minute sabotage by some unknown hands. But neither Musharraf nor Vajpayee ever revealed what was the solution and how was it reached upon

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