Veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani mocks our memory every time he gratuitously plays the role of the conscience-keeper of Indian democracy. Like a thespian acting to the script, he points to the rising tide of intolerance sweeping the country, warns against the threat to our civil liberties, and laments the feeble commitment of the political leadership to democracy.

Advani was at it again earlier this week. Shocked at the attack on his former aide Sudheendra Kulkarni, currently the chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, he said, “In the last few days, there are these signs… where any person or any point of view is not acceptable, then you resort to violence or turn intolerant towards them… Democracy must ensure tolerance for a different point of view.”

In June, on the 40th anniversary of the imposition of Emergency, Advani had said in an interview: “At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy…are stronger.” In the unmistakable timbre of an octogenarian, he added: “I do not see any sign in our polity that assures me, any outstanding aspect of leadership. A commitment to democracy and to all other aspects related to democracy is lacking.”

All these words not only ring true but must also sound credible, and conscionable, for those who are below 30 years. But for all of us whose hair has started to turn silvery, the statesman-like interventions of Advani sound hollow and hypocritical. Perhaps he thinks amnesia shrouds our collective memory. Or maybe he believes our fears about the India of 2015 will have us condone his past. There is a chance we might still – a section of the media indeed seems to have.

But it was Advani who sowed the seeds of intolerance in Indian politics – we are merely reaping the bitter harvest 25-30 years later. This is why to all of us grey-heads his sermons on democracy and tolerance are bereft of any meaning. Their only purpose is to embarrass his former acolyte, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Hindutva agenda

It was Advani who articulated the idea of cultural nationalism with the numbing ferocity not seen before. It was he who popularised the term pseudo-secularism. The politics of language barely concealed what was in reality a brand of amoral politics. It was he who clambered onto a rath to crisscross the country, driving a stake into communitarian togetherness.

This stake was plunged even deeper as he delivered speeches in one town after another on his way to Ayodhya, where, on December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished. On that day Advani stood watching as Uma Bharti, now a Union minister, chanted hypnotically, “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid ko tod do (One more push and break the mosque).” This is why Advani is facing a trial for making provocative speeches in the Babri Masjid demolition cases.

But even before the bloody consequences of Advani’s politics are analysed, rewind to 1978. Advani was then the Union Information Minister in the Janata Party government. During his tenure Advani subtly pushed the more sinister aspects of the Hindutva agenda, which we comprehend far better today than earlier. This is tellingly brought out by journalist Javed Naqvi in his essay in the recently released book, The Public Intellectual in India, which historian Romila Thapar and five others have co-authored.

Naqvi says Advani had Doordarshan telecast a 1950s film, Swayamsiddh, the theme of which has a sharp echo in today’s India. He writes, “The story in a nutshell is this: a Hindu woman, whose husband is deaf and dumb, is urged by the village purohit to evict a group of Christian missionaries from the village because that would cure the husband. The Hindu wife gets the villagers to attack and expel the Christians and the husband is healed.”

The film’s theme no longer sounds fictional today: it constitutes the menacing reality of Indian Christians, hounded in isolated hamlets of, say, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Is Advani asking us to tolerate a point of view premised on violence? No, not today, judging from his recent statements that drip with common sense and, yes, humanity.

Trail of bloodletting

But 25 years ago, when he was the principal architect of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, all those who thought its very foundation was hatred and violence were simply tagged pseudo-secularists and derided. A deconstruction of that movement indeed reveals violence was inherent to it.

It argued that the Hindus believe Lord Ram was born at precisely the spot where the Babri Masjid stood, that faith trumped the need to furnish proof to bolster this claim, precisely the reason why the dispute couldn’t be adjudicated in court. To respect the religious sentiments of the Hindus, the Muslims must voluntarily hand over the Babri Masjid site to them. And they, in turn, would help rebuild the mosque elsewhere. Should Muslims not accede to these peremptory demands, well then, they must be compelled into acquiescence.

So it was that on September 25, 1990, Advani stepped into his makeshift rath to undertake the 10,000-km journey from Somnath to Ayodhya. The imagery bespoke of a violent intent – he began his yatra from the temple at Somnath, which had been pillaged and destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni and subsequently rebuilt post-Independence. Advani was the modern-day Hindu Samrat on his way to reclaim the Babri Masjid. An interpretation of history presumably demanded retribution and restoration of Hindu pride, damn the democracy conceived by pseudo-secularists.

From then on till 1992-'93, riots and killings dominated the headlines. The Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, which the Paris Institute of Political Studies, popularly known as SciencePo, maintains, painstakingly lists the riots around the country, sourcing details from newspapers, magazines and books. As you read through it, the 2002 riots of Gujarat simply pale away in comparison to the bloody mayhem India witnessed between September 1990 and March 1993.

Not all of these riots were directly triggered by the Ayodhya movement. But Violette Graf and Juliette Galonnier, who jointly authored the section Hindu-Muslim Communal Riots in India II (1986-2011), repeatedly stress that the movement turned social relations so fraught that even a small incident would lead to bloodletting. This isn’t to say Advani’s rath yatra was never a provocation for rioting. It was.

List of death tolls

Thus, for instance, when then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav stopped Advani’s rath yatra and arrested him on October 23, BJP and Muslim organisations distributed provocative pamphlets in Hyderabad. Eleven people died in rioting. But the cycle of violence continued for weeks, right into December. The Encyclopedia notes, “Official reports established that 134 people killed… But the actual toll possibly amounts to 200 or 300 deaths.”

Advani’s rath yatra was supposed to terminate at Ayodhya, where a congregation of Sangh activists, called kar sevaks, was to assemble at the site of the Babri Masjid on October 30. But Advani was then in jail. Nevertheless, the kar sevaks battled the police to try to reach the site. In the ensuing police firing, 26 of them were killed.

The Encyclopedia observes, “Immediately after, on October 30, to take revenge for the new ‘Hindu martyrs’, outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence occurred in several places (Baroda, Ahmedabad, and Indore, Uttar Pradesh, and in Bihar on November 1 and 2), claiming dozens of lives. The Uttar Pradesh state government had to impose a curfew on more than thirty towns.”

Thereafter, the VHP insisted on carrying the ashes of those killed in police firing in a procession, leading to yet another round of bloodletting. In Aligarh, 92 people died in rioting in December, though the People’s Union for Civil Liberties claimed the toll was anywhere between 150 and 200. In Uttar Pradesh’s Khurja city, 72 died, in Kanpur another 20…the list goes on.

Atonement for the past

The circle of death widened enormously at the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The two rounds of violence in Bombay has been well documented, as also the serial bombing of the city in March 1993, for which Yakub Memon was hanged on July 30 this year. One thousand people perished in the two riots and another 257 in the bombings.

Let us recall the death tolls in some of the states or cities the Encyclopedia mentions – 175 in Madhya Pradesh, 60 in Rajasthan, 73 in Karnataka, 35 in Calcutta, 16 in Delhi, 75 in just one district (Nagaon) of Assam, 200 in Surat in Gujarat… the list is just too long for recapitulation. Add all these deaths, and to it also add those who were killed in 1990, and you can’t but conclude that Advani is a fine one to speak of democracy and tolerance.

Obviously, every person can have a change of heart, revise his ideas and rethink his politics. It is said Advani signalled a change in his outlook when he described Jinnah as secular (not pseudo-secular, mind you) on his visit to Pakistan in 2005. Was this change in his perception genuine? The logic of Hindutva politics demands its leaders must seem hardliners to win the support of Sangh cadres. But those who wish to become prime ministerial candidates must soften their persona to appear inclusive, to appeal to a constituency far bigger than the Sangh’s. India, after all, is still not the Sangh.

For us to take Advani seriously, to believe that his statements on democracy and tolerance are not simply a manifestation of his quest for power, he must atone for his past. What better way for him than to admit his politics in the past was anti-democratic, premised on intolerance.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.