A deeply embarrassed government has decided to withdraw from its affidavit in the Ram Setu case the portion which said there is no historical and scientific evidence to establish the existence of Lord Ram or other characters of the Ramayana. The government will file a supplementary affidavit in the Supreme Court on Friday.
The decision came in the backdrop of the Opposition BJP lambasting the UPA for disputing Ram’s historicity. The controversial affidavit was filed by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in response to petitions challenging the construction of the Sethusamundram ship canal project that can damage the prehistoric Ram Setu (or Adam’s Bridge.) The bridge, according to believers, helped Hanuman reach Lanka.
On her part, Congress president Sonia Gandhi hastily intervened to contain the damage. She asked the UPA government to take immediate remedial measures — a message that prompted the government to address the matter on a war-footing. She has also ordered an informal inquiry into the matter.
The top Congress leadership has also sought details on the movement of the file. It ostensibly emanated from the ASI and travelled via the ministry of culture, where it should have been studied by minister Ambika Soni (currently in Japan). Then it went to the law ministry headed by HR Bhardwaj. “Somebody has played mischief or has been grossly derelict,” said a source.
The ASI officer, on whose name the affidavit has been filed, told HT that the file went through the legal cell of the Culture Ministry.
On Thursday, Bhardwaj told reporters, “Ram is an integral part of our history and culture. Ram ki vajah se saari duniya exist karti hai. It is an article of faith and cannot be made a matter of litigation.”
Bhardwaj quoted liberally from scriptures to negate the impression that his party is anti-Hindu as its adversaries would make it out to be.
Bhardwaj said he was in touch with additional solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam over the draft of the supplementary affidavit and its explanatory note on withdrawing the controversial paragraph 6 that, according to him, should not have been there in the first place. He added he would also meet the Culture Secretary. The Minister, who earlier said Sonia had not spoken to him on the matter, later got a call from Subramaniam that she had expressed strong and serious concern about the contents of the original affidavit.
"Don’t make it a political issue," was Bhardwaj’s appeal to all parties. His plea notwithstanding, the issue is unlikely to die out, specially when its opponents have said that any construction should ensure the setu’s protection.
The BJP, which has demanded an apology from the PM and Sonia and called for fixing responsibility for the faux pas, will use it to expand its base in South India and consolidate its Hindu vote bank across the country while accusing the Congress of minority appeasement, particularly when juxtaposed with the Centre’s keennees to implement the Sachar panel’s report on the status of the muslim community.
Leader of Opposition LK Advani lodged his protest over the contents of the affidavit at a dinner with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bhardwaj. He assured the BJP leader that the issue of Ram’s existence cannot be made a subject matter of debate.
But the minister sidestepped the twin questions of fixing responsibility for the mishap and whether Ram Setu was — or wasn’t, as claimed by the original affidavit-a man-made structure. “I am not authorised to take action,” he said to the first query. As for the second, he said that it was for the Court to go into the merits of the case.
This is not the first time that the government has messed up things. It did so when it did not advise Sonia Gandhi on the office of profit issue when she became the National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson.
It happened again when George Fernandes was given a clean chit on the defence deals scam.At that time, the Law Ministry claimed that it was not consulted when, sources said, it had in fact been consulted on the matter. An angry Pranab Mukherjee, then defence minister, reportedly even threatened to quit at the time.