Interview with former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao

The only Congress Prime Minister outside the Nehru clan to continue in office for a full term, Narasimha Rao stanched the insurgency in Punjab and cooled it in Jammu & Kashmir

Interview with former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao
Interview with former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao

Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister of India from June 1991 to May 1996, a period that saw him lay the foundation for the transformation of the Indian economy and a shift in foreign policy from sentimentality and shibboleths towards realpolitik. The only Congress Prime Minister outside the Nehru clan to continue in office for a full term, Narasimha Rao stanched the insurgency in Punjab and cooled it in Jammu & Kashmir. However, his term in office ended in electoral defeat, in part caused by the continuing aftershocks of the December 6, 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid. This is the former Prime Minister’s first on-the-record interview about the fateful demolition, given to Prof. M D Nalapat:

Q: It is now nearly twelve years since the Babri Masjid was destroyed by a mob of kar sevaks. Looking back, would you have handled the situation differently?

A: On the basis of the information available to me then and the situation as was perceived at the time, there was no way I could have acted differently than what I did in the four months preceding December 6,1992. After all, the problem had not been created by me but was bequeathed to my government. The idols of Ram Lalla were placed there in 1949 and worship conducted at the site since that time. From then, namaz stopped being conducted at the structure. These are facts. The gates of the structure were opened by judicial order in 1986 and a shilanyas took place a couple of hundred metres from the disputed structure in 1989 when I was only a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government. In 1990, during the time of the BJP-supported V P Singh government, a Rath Yatra full of religious imagery was begun by L K Advani that had the effect of inciting passions on the issue.

Q: Why was no effort made by you for a negotiated settlement of this a longstanding dispute?

A: The contrary is true. From the beginning of my term (as Prime Minister) I tried repeatedly to get the issue settled peacefully. At first, there were successes. I was able to prevail on the sants to halt their ongoing kar seva on July 26, 1992, by pointing out to them that what they were doing was violative of court orders. After that, I met with religious leaders from the two communities to nudge them towards a solution. In the three months before December 6, 1992, in October, two meetings of both sides were held and the date for the next was set as November 8. The Hindu sants agreed at the second meeting to come to an agreement with the other side on a plan that would resolve the substantive issues ( of the dispute) by this coming meeting, failing which they had promised to back a reference to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the sants went back on this word and instead of trying to reach an accommodation with the other side, convened a meeting of the Dharam Sansad, which unilaterally decided to perform kar seva at the disputed site on December 6, 1992. When the November 8 meeting took place, the other side said that there was no point in holding further talks as the date for the seva had been decided upon in such a unilateral way. Thus the negotiations broke down.

Q: There is a perception that you never accepted the historical validity of the mosque, and that the negotiations conducted through you were merely a ploy to gain time for the other side to carry out the demolition.

A: Read the White Paper that was issued by my government after the demolition. On Page 1 itself (para 1.1) is written the words: “The structure commonly known as Ram Janambhoomi Babri Masjid was erected as a mosque by one Mir Baqi in Ayodhya in 1528 AD. The White Paper was prepared under my instructions and presented views that I saw as accurate. How then can you argue that I did not “accept the historical validity” of the proposition that the structure was, in fact, a mosque? And as for the negotiations, I went into them with the intention of finding a settlement, or at the least making both sides agree to respect the verdict of the Supreme Court, in case a settlement by them proved elusive. As for me personally, I was in favour of the solution mentioned in the Congress Manifesto, which was to construct a temple without dismantling the mosque. This had been my view since 1987 when I was appointed by Rajivji to head the Committee of Ministers examining the Ayodhya dispute, an appointment that lasted till I was shifted from HRD to External Affairs two and a half months later.

Q: But why didn’t you stop the December 6, 1992 kar seva from taking place? It was no secret that the then chief minister Kalyan Singh and other BJP leaders had publicly called for the mosque to be replaced with a temple.

A: Politicians say many things in public. Are we to act on the basis of such statements? A solemn commitment was made not just to me but to the Supreme Court of India by the UP government that the structure would be protected and that the kar seva would be merely symbolic. Kalyan Singh’s government undertook before the Supreme Court that it would ensure that “no construction machinery or material would move into the acquired land and that no construction activity would be permitted to take place”. After getting such an assurance, the apex court permitted the kar seva to take place as scheduled on December 6, 1992. In its order, the Court refrained from prohibiting any individual from coming to Ayodhya to undertake the seva. In effect, the Court’s order dated November 28, 1992, told the Central Government to keep out while it and the lower courts considered the situation. In view of such an order, on what basis could I have imposed a central rule, especially in a context when the Marg Darshak Mandal had announced on December 5, 1992, that a decision had been taken that the next day’s karseva would be peaceful? On my part, I had earlier ordered 20,000 paramilitary personnel to go to Ayodhya and be available to the UP government to protect the structure. I contacted Chief Minister Kalyan Singh several times during those final weeks and emphasized that he was bound both by law as well as by his word of honour to ensure the safety of the structure. People, in whose word I trusted, such as Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Rajmata of Gwalior, assured me that the structure would not be harmed. If you expect me to have had foreknowledge of the future, then I am sorry. I did not. Neither did the Intelligence Bureau nor any other official agency, for I received no warning from any of them that there was any risk that the structure would be demolished on December 6.

Incidentally, my government gave a blank cheque to the Supreme Court to take whatever decision the learned justices saw fit. We undertook to fully implement them. This assurance was conveyed in writing to the Court on November 23, 1992. You should also remember that in July 1992 a situation very similar to December 6 took place, which was defused peacefully. Based on that precedent, the President of India was justified in expecting that the December 6 situation would similarly get resolved without the need for recourse to Article 356. It was after December 6, 1992, that President Sharma changed his view and went to the opposite pole, taking a very negative view even of the activities of the other three BJP-ruled states. He got them dismissed as well, an action that formed the backdrop for the Supreme Court’s Bommai judgement.

Q: Both AIR and Doordarshan gave extensive publicity to the proposed kar seva.This created an impression that it was taking place with the government’s blessings.

A : It was the Supreme Court which directed both the central as well as the state government to ensure that “extensive publicity” be given. Are you suggesting that I should have disobeyed the orders of the apex court?

Q: Why did you not take action even after being told by the Union Home Minister, Shri S B Chavan, that there were inadequacies in the security arrangements at Ayodhya?

A: The action was for him to take. I didn’t believe in micromanaging my Cabinet colleagues. Yes, tasks were assigned to them by me, but afterwards, full freedom was given to ministers to do their job. I did not think it necessary or desirable to interfere via a hyperactive or omnipotent PMO while they were presumably doing so. The Home Minister was given the freedom to act in the execution of his duties, and it was my presumption that he did.

Q: But you ordered the then HRD Minister, Sri Arjun Singh, who had reached Ayodhya on December 3, 1992, to return to New Delhi the next day.

A: Arjun Singhji told me when I contacted him that he was in Ayodhya to participate in a “peace demonstration”. It was my view that the presence of a Central Minister in Ayodhya at that time would only inflame the situation and serve no beneficial purpose. So I requested Arjun Singhji to return.

Q: There were persistent rumours in New Delhi at the time that both the HRD Minister (Sri Arjun Singh) and the Union Home Minister (Sri S B Chavan) wanted to take action against the UP government, but that you stood in the way.

A: There were so many rumours! The fact is that I left during November 1992 for Senegal for a G-15 meeting and handed over charge to a colleague during that time, who was given full authority to convene Cabinet meetings and take decisions. I am told that informal meetings were indeed held by Arjun Singhji, Sri Sharad Pawar and Sri S B Chavan on November 20 and 21,1992. In case they were in favour of “firm” action, they could have taken it then when the responsibility vested in their hands. They took several other decisions, and as is my way, I never questioned their right to do so. But not this one.

Q: You declined to implement the recommendation made by Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole that central forces be sent in the night previous to the demolition to protect the structure and impose President’s Rule on Uttar Pradesh?

A: So did the three colleagues I referred to just now when they were in charge. But speaking for myself, President’s Rule is not an option to be exercised casually. This belief is an article of faith with me. I myself was a victim of the use of Article 356 in Andhra Pradesh in 1973. This is a provision that should be used only in the rarest of rare cases. Till the morning of December 6, 1992, there was no serious law and order problem in Ayodhya. Assurances both written and verbal had been given to the central government and to the Supreme Court by the state government that it would protect the structure. The Governor of UP (Mr Satya Narayan Reddy) had warned in writing against imposing President’s Rule. In his report, the Governor mentioned that the state government had “assured full protection to the disputed structure and adequate arrangements have been made to protect the disputed structure”. He had gone on to add in his written report on the situation in Ayodhya that in his view,” the time is not right for taking any drastic steps like a dismissal of the UP government or the imposition of President’s Rule in the State. If it is done, it may have far-reaching consequences. It may also lead to large-scale violence not only in the state but in other parts of the country”. This was categorical advice. Many of those who subsequently criticized the fact that President’s Rule was not imposed prior to December 6 were themselves against the use of Article 356 at the time. Even the President of India (Sri Shankar Dayal Sharma) would have been difficult to convince, had I gone to him before the demolition with a request that he sign an order imposing President’s Rule in UP.

Q: Was the Governor your appointee?

A: No, he was appointed during the term of Sri V P Singh in 1990. I had nothing to do with it.

Q: Coming back to what could have been done to protect the structure but was not, why didn’t you, as the Prime Minister of India, order the central forces to go in and protect the structure even if the state government was not cooperating?

A: Please read the Constitution of India more carefully. The 42nd Amendment incorporated Article 257A, which provided that “The Government of India may deploy any armed forces or any other force subject to the control of the Union (not of the State) for dealing with any grave situation of law and order in any State”, which “shall not, subject to the superintendence or control of the State Government or any officer or authority subordinate to the State Government”. This provision would have given us the authority to act without needing to take recourse to the extreme measure of dismissing the state government. But, without assigning any reasons for such a drastic step, this provision was removed from the Constitution by the 44th Amendment. After the nullification of such a crucial provision, the remaining articles would have rendered any except the extreme action of dismissal (of the state government) ineffective except in case of a threat to the unity and integrity of India, such as insurgency aided by a foreign power. This was hardly the situation in Ayodhya. Also, at that point in time, even the Intelligence Bureau did not foresee what unfortunately took place on December 6, 1992. It is easy to pontificate after the fact, but the reality is that before the demolition there was hardly anyone in authority who was in favour of the use of Article 356 against the Kalyan Singh government. And barring such a step, there were — and still, are — very few weapons in the Centre’s armoury to deal with a situation such as that which developed in Ayodhya. The law provides only that central forces can be stationed anywhere on the orders of the Union Government but that orders for their deployment have to come from the state government. We stationed forces for the convenience of the State authorities, who unfortunately did not use them even though they were camped just 15 minutes from the structure. The reality is that the state government held the rest of us, hostage, thanks to the constitutional barrier in taking swift action without their consent or without imposing Central rule. The effect of removing Article 257A was to render Article 355, Article 257 and Article 356 much less potent in a situation such as what was extant in Ayodhya. The only choices available to us was to ensure that enough forces were ready on standby for the state government to deploy or that President’s Rule be imposed even when there was no obvious sign of breakdown of the constitutional machinery. The question is: can Article 356 be used pre-emptively? I don’t think that such an option was the intention of the framers of the Constitution, nor would it be in the spirit of the Sarkaria Commission or the Bommai decision

However, please note that my mind was not closed on the question of the use of Article 356. In fact, I had asked the Home Secretary on November 28, 1992 to put up a Cabinet note on Article 356, just in case the situation called for that. However, the consensus view among those dealing with the issue was that it was not. That this was wrong became blindingly clear only when it was too late (to save the structure).

Q: To return to the contingency plan that had been drawn up by the Union Home Secretary, why was it not followed?

A: In the first place, the gentleman had kept his plan so secret that even the Prime Minister was not informed about its existence till the last minute. Further, it called for highly unorthodox measures, such as a “secret midnight meeting of the Union Cabinet” to take steps under Article 355 to be followed hours later by Article 356. The then Home Secretary was against even Cabinet ministers being given a Cabinet note about the subject of the meeting. Such opacity about the purpose of such an extraordinary “midnight” meeting would inevitably have generated wild speculation about the agenda, which would then rapidly have become public. This is no longer the India of the Raj, after all. We have a free press and we have ministers and officials who are not always averse to communicating privately with the media. The Home Secretary wanted central forces to enter the disputed area stealthily on the night of December 5 and take control of the structure, to be followed almost immediately by President’s Rule. My view was that such a decision could have inflamed the situation and did not appear to be warranted by the situation, especially in view of the assurances that had been given to the Supreme Court and to the Centre. As for a midnight Cabinet meeting, such a meeting — which to my knowledge has never taken place in India — could not have been kept secret for even an hour. The reality is that at that time, there was no consensus that the situation was so irretrievable that Article 356 was inevitable. On the contrary, the consensus was to try and ensure that a symbolic kar seva, which would be followed by a resumption of negotiations to settle the matter amicably, be permitted rather than forcibly halted. However, I realize that failure has no father while success sees many claimants.

Q: What exactly took place on December 6, 1992? When did you know the structure was being demolished, and what did you do to try and retrieve the situation?

A: Around noon I was told that far from being peaceful and doing a symbolic kar seva, a section of the mass suddenly began an attack on the structure. I thereupon instructed the concerned officers to do whatever was possible to save the situation. The Home Secretary told me that central forces had been sent from Faizabad after the first reports had been received of an attack on the structure, but that this force had been given a written order by the Magistrates to return to their barracks. There is no way of disobeying or circumventing these orders. Any such disobedience would, in law, be tantamount to action without authority, therefore illegal. Every consequence of such action taken by the forces would be open to a criminal case and the central forces would be held responsible. If there are firing and deaths, every such death would amount to murder. Obviously, the central forces would never act in such a way.

Q: What was your response?

A: To call a Cabinet meeting to immediately impose President’s Rule. It had become clear at that stage that there had been a breakdown of the constitutional process in the state that warranted the use of Article 356.T he Union Cabinet met at 6 pm and the recommendation (to impose President’s Rule) was sent to the President of India, who approved it at 9.05 pm. As soon as we were informed that President Sharma had signed the proclamation, the Advisors who had been designated earlier were dispatched to Lucknow. We were busy the entire evening with this exercise, and in monitoring the situation all over the country, to ensure that matters did not spiral further out of control.

Afterwards, I saw to it that the President of India sought the opinion of the Supreme Court of India on whether a Hindu temple had stood on the site of the Babri Masjid . Further, my government undertook to ensure that the Court’s orders got complied with, whatever the verdict. We also issued an ordinance (which was subsequently converted into law by an Act of Parliament: Act 33 of 1993) to acquire all the area in dispute (in the legal suits pending in the Allahabad High Court) as well as the adjacent area. The plan was to hand over the area thus acquired — barring the place where the disputed structure had stood — to two trusts, one that would build a mosque, and the other that would construct a temple. However, we undertook to respect the status quo until the Supreme Court had given its verdict.

Q: Why was there a delay of nearly a month after the demolition before the central government took custody of the site on January 7, 1993? Why could this not have been done earlier?

A: There were legal formalities to be completed. And anyway, the site was under the control of central forces since December 7, 1992, once it had been cleared of kar sevaks.

Q: What is your expectation about the future course of the dispute?

A: After the December 27, 1992, Cabinet meeting that decided to issue the ordinance taking over the land, I publicly clarified that the demolished structure would be rebuilt. That was my promise and my intention, and I hope to see it take place during my lifetime.

(As told to the writer on 11th May, 2004 at 9, Motilal Nehru Marg, New Delhi)

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M D Nalapat

Editorial Director at Sunday Guardian
Madhav Das Nalapat (M.D. Nalapat) is an Indian academic and columnist. Currently Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian and Itv network (India),[1] Vice-Chair of Manipal University's Advanced Research Group, and Director of the Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University. He has been the Coordinating Editor of the Times of India and editor of the Mathrubhumi. He is the son of renowned author and poet Kamala Das.

Nalapat writes extensively on security, policy and international affairs.
M D Nalapat
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