November 03, 2017: Former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi finally returned to Akshardham temple in his bid to raise votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the coming assembly elections in the state.
In a speech of extraordinary significance, he paid glorious tributes to the temple, the Swaminarayan Sect, its Pradhan Pramukh, himself, his role in the Ekta Yatra which he had actually organized for then party president Dr Murali Manohar Joshi from Kanya Kumari to Kashmir (KK to K).
The significance lies not so much in the speech but the venue.
It signals the Sect’s open allegiance to Modi and the possible affect it might have on the voting by Gujarati Patels and therefore on the fortunes of the Congress.
Why is the Swaminarayan Sect important to these election?
Traditionally, the sect has always kept its distance from politics. It has been ideologically opposed to Dayanand Saraswati’s Arya Samaj — the fountainhead of the Brahmanical Sangh movement in Gujarat. It’s major followers include the politically powerful Patels like former BJP Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, not the greatest fan of the current prime minister or dispensation.
Post-independence, growing affluence drove some of these Patels towards towns and cities looking for education and jobs. They weren’t available. This was pre-liberalization and most jobs and education was government owned.
At the time, the Congress was busy building the KHAM coalition and it’s own Mandal base with reservations. Affluent Patels like Keshubhai and his ilk turned towards the Jan Sangh in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They were the rebels of the time. This was then known as the Nav Nirman movement and signaled the first broad basing of the Sangh.
It didn’t take long for that movement to turn communal with the Sangh at the heart of it. 1985 anti-reservation stirs took a communal turn and the BJP was soon in power with Keshubhai at the helm. In Gujarat, this gave people like Narendra Modi a chance to power. In Uttar Pradesh it meant the growth of people like Kalyan Singh. Meanwhile, poorer Patels in Gujarat, who now call themselves the Patidars or small landholders — kept waiting for their turn at the table. Hardik Patel represents that group.
Successive Mandal and socialist groups, or even the Liberalization movement of Dr Manmohan Singh, however have had no interest in land rights or agriculture.
In fact, the Modi government has taken specific steps under the Land Reform (sic) act, to make it easy for governments to take land away from rural owners without consent.
This has hurt farmers, including the Sangh’s own Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (BKMS), Patidars and immigrant Punjabi farmers. Rajasthan farmers recently dug themselves into holes , demanding the government recognize their right to own their land.
The Patidar movement under Hardik Patel had begun with a demand for land rights but soon turned into one for reservations. In the last week, schisms seem to have appeared within the Patidars too. Hardik Patel’s earlier organization, the Patidar Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti (PASS), or (Patidar Reservation Struggle Committee) has spoken independently with Amit Shah and according to one report, has pledged its allegiance to the BJP.
Mr Modi’s welcome to Akshardham indicates that the Swaminarayan Sect has given him their nod of approval. This consolidates the non-Dalit, non-OBC Patels among the Hindus. At least, a blessing was asked and given.
The chief Pradhan of Swaminarayan sect had shunned Mr Modi even in the aftermath of the Akshardham attack in 2002 when he was at the peak of his popularity among Hindu Gujaratis. Blood was spilt in the very premises from where Modi addressed the political meeting on Thursday. Gujaratis will not miss the significance. So this is huge for Modi. The Question is why?
What really happened at Akshardham?
For those who don’t remember much about the Akshardham case, here is a rundown of the facts.
- The Akshardham Temple was built in 1992, a year remembered for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya
- The temple is most remembered in Gujarat for the Akshardham Blasts on September 24th 2002, the year of it’s tenth anniversary.
- 2002 is also most remembered in India for the Gujarat Riots of February 2002.
- 37 people died and 81 were injured in the Akshardham Attack which lasted 16 hours.
- The NSG was flown in the same day from Delhi to contain the “terror attacks” as it was being called then. It took about 99 highly trained men , five hours from midnight to 6.45 am the next day to corner the attackers.
- The attackers turned out to be two men. Why they hung out for 16 hours was never revealed.
- They were found dead, drenched with blood and dust and riddled with bullets. But with a pristine, clean note in Urdu was found on the body of one of them. The SC wrote it off as nonsense. Then DGP K. Chakravarti claimed they were Pakistani terrorists, but how he deduced that, was never clearly explained.
- Finally, the Supreme Court acquitted all the 6 accused. It passing strict strictures against then Home Minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi and the investigative agencies. It also released four convicts , who in turn filed a case for compensation, which the SC refused, worrying about the precedent it might set on wrongful incarceration cases.
Bottom line — the real attackers who killed 37 people and injured 81 at Akshardham temple, have still not been caught.
Events after Akshardham
Rumors have been rife of course. Then Congress general secretary Madhusudan Mistry told Indian Express that Narendra Modi had prior information about the Akshardham Attack. To quote: “Asked if he was suggesting that Modi had a role in the attacks, he said, “I suspect [it]. He must be knowing it.””
Daily Bhaskar reported ” the Akshardham Temple is located yards away from CM Narendra Modi’s residence and police failed to detect the people who had come to kill him?” In fact, Modi was scheduled to start the fourth leg of his 2002 Miyan Musharraf Gaurav Yatra that very Saturday from Ambaji, and had to postpone it in view of those attacks.
Rumors are however just rumors. They may have as little familial relation to fact as did BJP’s rumor mongering that the Akshardham attack was the work of Muslim terrorists.
That September though, Narendra Modi went to meet the head of the temple. He wanted to speak at the prayer meeting after the event. According to reports of the time, he was roundly rebuffed by the Pramukh Swami Narayan Swaroop Das. The Sect quietly buried the dead, purified the temple and refused to make a political event out of the tragedy.
According to a one report of the time Modi was told: “Whatever has happened at Akshardham has happened. Whoever has done it, we don’t want to blame anyone. There is no need to drag any names into this now. And I think you should also stop referring to the ISI and `Miya Musharraf’ and make efforts to maintain peace.”
Modi’s road show resumed on October 5 2002, and he has since made it a point to conduct a Gaurav Yatra before every election .
In April last year Brahmaviharidas, a witness to the blasts and its aftermath, wrote a book called Swaminarayan Hinduism published by Oxford University India . He confirms the story in his book and speaks to the Pramukh’s determined opposition to politicizing the event. In the excerpt carried in Scroll he wrote:
“In the prayer assembly on 29 September on the open lawns of Akshardham, which was attended by religious, political, social, and community leaders along with over 25,000 people, there were no speeches or slogans – only bhajans and prayers. Only religious leaders were on the platform. No aggression. No protest. No communal bitterness.”
November 2nd brings politics to the temple doors. The Sect has openly thrown its robes in with Modi. No one yet knows why. But Thursday’s speech may well be the event that will be remembered as the day that marked the Congress loss at Gujarat.
With inputs from Sanjana Reddy/Hyderabad
Picture credit: Screen Grab from Quint broadcast on Facebook, November 2, 2017