Sharp differences with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad over who would flag off a rath yatra aimed at consolidating Hindu votes for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections forced Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to cancel his visit to Ayodhya for the inauguration on Tuesday. In his absence, the Ram Rajya Rath Yatra was flagged off by the Right-wing organisation’s general secretary Champat Rai.

The 39-day journey through six states is organised by the Shri Ram Dass Mission Universal Society of Maharashtra. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, are participating in the exercise. Nearly 40 public meetings have been planned during the course of the yatra to raise the issue of the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, in a bid to make this the Bharatiya Janata Party’s main poll plank. In addition, the meetings will talk about establishing “Ram Rajya” and making the Ramayana a part of school curriculum.

The yatra comes six days after the Supreme Court started final hearings in the Ramjanmabhoomi Babri Masjid title suit, pertaining to ownership of a plot of land in Ayodhya on which the 16th-century Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished by BJP-led Hindutva groups in December 1992. The Sangh and its affiliates claim this is the spot where the deity Ram was born and they intend to build a temple here in his name. Hearing petitions challenging an Allahabad High Court verdict that split the disputed site equally between the petitioners – the Nirmohi Akhara and Sunni Waqf Board – and the deity Ram Lalla, the Supreme Court has scheduled the next hearing for March 14.

The Ram Rajya Rath Yatra inauguration ceremony in Ayodhya on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Dhirendra K Jha)

Last-minute cancellation

Adityanath’s aides clarified that his decision was driven by Champat Rai’s insistence that the yatra be flagged off by a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as the organisation had been at the forefront of the Ram temple movement for over three decades. “The VHP believes it has a copyright over Ram Janmabhoomi,” said one aide who did not want to be identified. “As such, it was against the idea of Yogi-ji flagging off the rath yatra.”

He added, “The VHP had felt ignored last Diwali too when Yogi-ji led a grand celebration on the banks of the river Saryu in Ayodhya.”

The Uttar Pradesh government had organised a Deepotsav in Ayodhya by lighting 1.7 lakh earthen lamps on the river’s banks in October.

Ramendra Dwivedi, convener of the organising committee in Ayodhya, said, “Adityanath had given his consent to flag off the yatra from Ayodhya but cancelled his programme in the last minute.”

Dwivedi said Shrishakti Shantanand Maharshi, general secretary of the Shri Ram Dass Mission Universal Society, had met Adityanath in September and then again in November and “in both meetings, the chief minister assured that he would flag off the rath yatra”. He said the organisers had printed pamphlets and posters with this announcement after obtaining the chief minister’s consent. “We don’t know what happened in between and why he cancelled his scheduled visit to Ayodhya,” he added.

At the inauguration, Maharshi announced, “Yogi Adityanath was supposed to come for this meeting but he could not manage. Champat Raiji will now flag off the Ram Rajya Rath Yatra.”

Low-key start

In Adityanath’s absence, the yatra made a low-key start from Karsevakpuram – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s headquarters in Ayodhya and home to a workshop set up by it where workers are carving pillars that the Sangh Parivar hopes to use to build the Ram temple one day. Many prominent sadhus from Ayodhya also chose not to attend the inaugural ceremony.

Rai was silent on Adityanath’s absence, and spoke instead of Ram Janmabhoomi and the “long history of struggle” to “reclaim it” for Hindus.

The rath, a refurbished Tata mini truck, is a replica of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s model of the proposed temple in Ayodhya. Apart from Uttar Pradesh, the rath yatra will pass through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala before coming to an end in Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram town on March 23. While Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are all ruled by the BJP, the party hopes to wrest Karnataka from the Congress in elections due this year and is also working to make inroads in Left-ruled Kerala.

The Union Home Ministry has written to all six states seeking “appropriate action” to ensure the rath yatra goes off without a hitch.