How Rajiv Gandhi fell for bad advice to open Babri Masjid locks in 1986

In this excerpt from How Prime Ministers Decide, Neerja Chowdhury writes on Rajiv Gandhi who, in 1986, green-signalled the opening of Babri Masjid locks in a bid to appease Hindus over his decision on the Shah Bano judgement.
Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv GandhiWikipedia
Written by:

Neerja Choudhury's How Prime Ministers Decide is a book on decisions taken by India’s Prime Ministers that changed the course of India’s history. In this chapter on Rajiv Gandhi, the award-winning journalist and political commentator goes beyond the news headlines to provide an eye-opening account of how he was influenced by Arun Nehru, a businessman-turned politician who became his advisor.

'Taala khulwa do,' Arun Nehru advised the Prime Minister (Get the locks opened). This was in the third week of January 1986. A worried Rajiv had called his cousin over to get his advice. On 18 January 1986, R&AW and IB chiefs had both reported to Rajiv Gandhi that unhappiness was growing amongst the Hindus over the government's decision to undo the Shah Bano judgement.

Nehru suggested that the locks - there were two locks at gates 'O' and 'P'-  be opened at the enclosure in the Babri Masjid. As noted, a Ram idol had been clandestinely placed in the sanctum sanctorum by militant Hindus in December 1949. The mosque, which became a disputed structure, had been locked up, and neither Muslims nor Hindus were allowed entry. Hindus were allowed to offer prayers from outside the locked grill. The Shri Ram Mukti Yajna Samiti, a front for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, had organised a Rath Yatra from Sitamarhi (where Sita is said to have appeared) to Ayodhya on 25 September 1985, calling for the liberation of the Ram Janmabhoomi.

If Rajiv got the locks opened and a temple built there, 'Hindus khush ho jayengae (The Hindus will be happy), Nehru told Rajiv. Many Hindus, he told his cousin, were feeling aggrieved with Rajiv's appeasement of Muslims.

Arun Nehru did not pull his punches. He told the Prime Minister that he was losing ground. It was not just conservative and fundamentalist Hindus who were upset with him, even liberal opinion was now turning against him. The editor of the Times of India, Girilal Jain, had penned a blistering piece against Rajiv Gandhi, which would sway the middle class. They had, until now, regarded Rajiv as their new messiah. Another eminent editor, Arun Shourie, had written two equally critical pieces in the same paper-flaying the Prime Minister for his turnaround and for betraying Arif Mohammed Khan; he also criticised Rajiv for ignoring the advice of his own departments - the Law and Home ministries - not to overturn the Shah Bano judgement.

Rajiv Gandhi asked Arun Shourie over. They met in the PM's office in Parliament House. Narasimha Rao and H R Bhardwaj were also present. "I found Rajiv completely innocent of Muslim Personal Law, of case law in India and even the bill (he was planning to pass),' Shourie recalled. 'I told the Prime Minister the bill would stoke a reaction. Already people were beginning to feel that the state was bending before extremists. This had happened in Punjab (and it had claimed the life of his Mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.)'

"How could paying 179.20 a month to a seventy-three-year-old destitute woman endanger Islam?" Shourie asked the PM. Women's groups were also on the warpath.

'Taala khul sakta hai kya (Can the locks be opened)?' Rajiv asked Arun Nehru, according to Arif Mohammed Khan who told me this story.

'Examine it, can this be done?" Rajiv told his cousin.

'I will find out what can be done,' Nehru said. Nehru then (according to what he told Khan), spoke to Vir Bahadur Singh, the Congress Chief Minister of UP, where the disputed Babri Masjid was located.

Unknown to Rajiv, Vir Bahadur Singh had already been on the job. A month earlier, on 19 December 1985, the UP Chief Minister had visited Ayodhya to attend the Ramayan mela celebrations in the temple town. While there, Singh asked officials to show him the entire file on the Ayodhya dispute. Going through it, and briefed by officials, he discovered that the locks had been put there by an 'administrative-and 'not a judicial order in 1949. He 'reportedly found no specific court order regarding its closure'. During the visit, he met with members of the VHP to gauge their thinking on the issue.

Since Vir Bahadur Singh was a protégé of Arun Nehru, it is not inconceivable that Nehru had put him on the job even before he called on Rajiv and suggested the opening of the locks. Singh felt indebted to Nehru for having installed him as CM in UP in September 1985, after Rajiv took over as PM. On 18 September 1985, UP Chief Minister ND Tiwari had suddenly written to Rajiv Gandhi expressing his desire to step down as CM. There was only one name mentioned by all the MLAs as his successor-Vir Bahadur Singh. The squat and rustic Vir Bahadur Singh, who knew UP like the back of his hand, took over as the new Chief Minister of the state on 24 September 1985. The next morning Tiwari took a flight to Delhi to be sworn in as the Minister of Industry in Rajiv's cabinet. During the 1985 elections to the UP assembly, of the 269 Congress MLAs who won, a majority (around 150) were Arun Nehru-Vir Bahadur Singh followers. When Indira Gandhi was alive, she had shot down Nehru's idea of making Singh the Chief Minister. But in September 1985, Nehru had his way-and firmed up his grip in UP.

Nehru, according to Arif Mohammed Khan, reported back to Rajiv on the opening of the locks.

'Tell Vir Bahadur, khulwaye (Tell Vir Bahadur Singh to get it opened),' the Prime Minister directed Nehru. Nehru called the Chief Minister from the Prime Minister's office.

'DM se kaho ki taala khole (Tell the DM to get the locks opened),' Nehru told Singh in the presence of Rajiv. In how many days can the locks be opened?'

Then, suddenly he handed the phone to Rajiv. 'Lo PM se baat karo (Here talk to the PM),’ Nehru said.

Nehru was to tell Arif Khan later, 'I did not want it said later that Arun Nehru had given instructions to Vir Bahadur Singh (of his own accord).' 'It was Rajiv who gave the instructions to Vir Bahadur,' Nehru told Khan.

‘I don't know whether what Arun Nehru told me was correct or incorrect,' Khan told me years later, 'but this is what he told me.'

At the time, the situation was such that if Nehru gave directions, they were seen to be coming directly from the Prime Minister. 'All I can say is that Arun Nehru was managing the whole affair (from Delhi),’ Vir Bahadur Singh told friends, when he became a union minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet in 1988.

With clear instructions coming from Delhi, the UP CM moved with despatch. He first called on Mahant Avaidyanath, the head of the influential Gorakhpur peeth in eastern UP; Avaidyanath had been appointed as the head of the Ram Janmabhoomi Yagna Samiti on 18 July 1985. They enjoyed a cordial relationship. Like Avaidyanath, Vir Bahadur Singh also belonged to Gorakhpur. It was through him and through the local officials - that Singh sent a message to the VHP, suggesting that the VHP approach the court for opening the locks. This time they would get the response they were looking for. The authorities (the allusion was to the district magistrate and superintendent of police) informally asked the VHP to move an application, KR Malkani, was to write later, 'for the unlocking of the premises, with assurances of (a) positive response, Malkani was the editor of Motherland, a paper sympathetic to the RSS-VHP.

But the VHP decided not to take the bait. 'The VHP...was interested in unlocking but not in going to court,' Malkani revealed. Having agitated for years to have the locks opened, they wanted to take the credit for it, and not let others run away with the issue.

Arun Nehru, who had wanted to consolidate Hindu sentiment behind the Congress, had established his own direct line of communications with the VHP - one of his links to the VHP was BP Singhal, VHP leader Ashok Singhal's younger brother. In 1986, BP Singhal was additional secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, working directly under Arun Nehru when he was minister of state, Home, in charge of Internal Security.

Ashok Singhal had told me during the course of an interview in April 1986 that the decision to open the locks had been taken 'right at the top'. 'Arun Nehru masterminded this coup,’ Singhal had said. We had met at the VHP office, then in South Extension in New Delhi.

From what Ashok Singhal told me that day, Arun Nehru had conceived the idea, sold it to Rajiv Gandhi and then executed it. The VHP had been given the 'assurance', in advance, that the 'locks' at the Ram Janmabhoomi would be opened.

'Rajiv Gandhi had indicated in no uncertain terms that the gates of the Ram Janmabhoomi must open to devotees before Shivratri on 8 March 1986,’ Singhal said.

(Excerpted from How Prime Ministers Decide with permission from Aleph Book Company)

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute