“Ashok Singhal is no more. Announcement coming in a few minutes,” a source in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) told me on Tuesday afternoon. Instantly, my mind went back to October 1989, when I had met him for the first time.
Singhal was at the Digambar Akhada in Ayodhya, meeting Mahant Ram Chandra Paramhans, another emerging figure in the BJP’s frenzied campaign for a Ram temple, which had been gaining momentum ever since the Rajiv Gandhi government had said yes to a shilanyas near the disputed Babri mosque.
From the arched entrance to the Akhada, Singhal emerged frowning. I fired two questions and the frown deepened. He raised his voice and walked past me saying, “The Hindus are going to get a Ram temple at Ayodhya. I won’t die without that happening.”
Ashok Singhal will be remembered as one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics without ever being in active politics. A Sangh senior, briefing me on Singhal’s role, said “the metallurgy engineer did what the Banaras Hindu University taught him – converting raw metal, often in ore form, into a more useable format.”
He re-packaged Hindutva into an instant, easy to sell political mix. He shaped the concept of “kar sewa” for a Ram Mandir in the late 80s and on 6 December, 1992, thousands indoctrinated in the concept of “kar sewa for the Ram temple” brought down the Babri mosque.
Ashok Singhal’s status within the “parivar” zoomed after the Babri demolition.
In 1994, he was in Lucknow at an RSS camp. On the dais sat then RSS chief Rajinder Singh or Rajju Bhaiya and on the lone chair next, Ashok Singhal. LK Advani, the star of the Ram Janambhoomi Rath Yatra and then BJP president, sat in the front row of the audience. I asked Vinay Katiyar, then an upcoming face of belligerent Hindutva, about the seating arrangement.
“That’s the protocol,” Katiyar said.
Ashok Singhal was a trained vocalist. In 1997 on a visit to his palatial house Mahavir Bhawan in Allahabad – located just behind the Nehrus’ Anand Bhawan – Sangh workers and supporters gathered asked Singhal, who was speaking about the importance of patriotic songs, to sing. He agreed to sing only his favorite ‘Bharat Puneet Bharat Vishal’.
That day he recalled his first encounter with the RSS at BHU in the 1940s. At the time, Bhau Rao Deoras, brother of the second RSS chief Bala Saheb Deoras was deputed to Uttar Pradesh to recruit young meritorious students at campuses.
Singhal and Rajendra Singh, who became the fourth RSS chief, were recruited from Allahabad, and Atal Behari Vajpayee from Kanpur.
One year after the riots that erupted after Babri mosque was demolished, I toured towns that were scarred by the communal violence. In Kanpur, Muslims had moved out of Hindu-dominated mohallas or localities and vice versa. Roads passing between these mohallas were called “borders”.
Suspicion lurked in lanes crammed with vehicles and people. In Hindu mohallas Singhal and Advani were heroes. In contrast, members of the minority community talked of Singhal as a symbol of dread. Not Advani who was the face of the Ram temple movement and Babri demolition.
For Singhal was perceived as vitriolic; he was seen to stoke many fires at a time. He led the demand for Vandemataram and the Bhagwat Gita being made compulsory in schools and an anti-conversion tirade against Christians. He breathed fire on the issue of the country’s Muslim population growing faster than Hindus and on cow slaughter.
Ashok Singhal also crafted the international branding of the VHP, opening offices in 40 countries. And that brought funds for a movement that altered Indian politics.
He was the key organiser of the VHP’s first ‘Dharma Sansad’ in 1984 in Delhi. It brought the Sangh, saints and the BJP on one platform and the Ramjanambhoomi temple movement was born here. Which helped the BJP go from two seats in 1984 to power at the Centre a few years later.
Sangh members describe Ashok Singhal as a master strategist. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday said Singhal was a “force behind several noble deeds and social work” and said his demise was a “deep personal loss.”
Last month, while releasing a book on Singhal’s life – Ashok Singhal, Hindutva ke Purodha – RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said his tenure as a prant pracharak or regional in charge of Delhi was an “inspiration to other prant pracharaks” for his intensity and versatility.
If Ashok Singhal was one of the hardline powerhouses that made the RSS-backed BJP a political force, the BJP’s rise to power brought him face to face with the moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Managing a 24-party coalition Vajpayee had to rein in the VHP, and Singhal. In 2001, Vajpayee as PM thwarted Singhal’s attempts to re-ignite the Ram temple movement using the “shiladaan” at Ayodhya.
Visibly angry as he stood in the courtyard of the Digambar Akhada where he was forced to end his “shiladaan” Singhal accused PM Vajpayee of playing into the hands of the UP administration.
It is during the Vajpayee reign that Singhal starting losing his gun powder. The political energy generated by the movements he led helped the BJP but the BJP drifted away from his pet project.
Few electoral losses later Ram temple had served its electoral utility and by mid-2014, Singhal’s peers like Advani had lost ground in the party. None of the BJP’s top brass today is from the Ramjanambhoomi movement.
The rise of Narendra Modi from the ranks of RSS pracharaks to becoming the BJP’s candidate for PM activated the VHP cadres again, but – the Ram temple – remained a mere mention on page 42 of the party’s 2014 manifesto.
In May 2014, when the BJP won the national election, he said, “Modi’s victory put an end to 800 years of slavery.” It was a typical Ashok Singhal comment — loaded with overtones.
(Rahul Shrivastava is Senior Editor, Political Affairs NDTV 24×7)