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Ashok Singhal: The man who led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement

The 89-year old VHP leader died at a hospital in Gurgaon; he had been ailing for several months

Archis Mohan 

Ashok Singhal, VHP, Narendra Modi, Medanta Hospital
A file photo of VHP President Ashok Singhal who passed away at Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon. Photo: PTI

It could be argued, as several in the Sangh Parivar indeed do, that there might never have been Bharatiya Janata Party governments at the Centre if not for the aggressive Ram Janmabhoomi movement that Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal launched in 1992.

That movement ended in the razing of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and led to communal riots in several parts of India. Four years later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the prime minister. But Singhal, to his abiding regret, couldn't fulfil his vision of helping construct a “grand” Ram temple at the site of the demolished 16th century mosque during his lifetime.

Singhal, 89, passed away on Tuesday afternoon at a hospital in Gurgaon. He had been ailing for several months.

The Sangh Parivar, with the foreboding that their preeminent Hindutva warrior didn't have long to live, had felicitated Singhal on his 89th birthday on October 1. At that event, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Vishnu Hari Dalmia asked Home Minister Rajnath Singh to convey to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Singhal should be “gifted” the Ram temple on his 90th birthday.

On Tuesday, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, also a lawyer in the Ayodhya dispute in the Allahabad High Court, said in his obituary to Singhal: “A grand Ram temple, of course with consensus of all and on very sound legal ground, which is available, will be the greatest tribute to him.”

Singhal was born on September 27, 1926, in Agra. His father Mahavir Singhal was a high-ranking bureaucrat in Allahabad. In 1942, Singhal came in contact with Rajender Singh or Rajju Bhaiya, who later headed the Rashtriya Swawamsevak Sangh (RSS), who convinced him to work for the Sangh. As Singhal recounted last month, this led to recriminations at home. It took Rajju Bhaiya’s persuasive skills to convince Singhal’s mother that her son might remain a lifelong bachelor but will devote his life to the service of his creed. Singhal never married and continued to work till the last days of his life.

Singhal completed his engineering in metallurgy from the Banaras Hindu University and was involved in RSS work by the late 1940s, becoming its Kanpur pracharak in the 1960s.

He was the pracharak for Delhi after the Emergency. In 1981, Singhal was given the responsibility of leading the VHP after the Meenakshipuram conversions, in which hundreds of Dalits converted to Islam to protest caste discrimination.

In 1992, Singhal led the VHP to organise a “kar seva” to build the Ram temple. Singhal, unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders constrained by limitations of being a mainstream political party, would surprise journalists with his penchant for not mincing words about the eventual objective of the movement.

As RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reminisced last month, Singhal would call “a spade a spade”. Bhagwat said Singhal, nearly three decades his senior, was a guiding light. He said Singhal was somebody who could be “sheeghrakopi” or quick to get angry but never “deerghadveshi” that is someone who didn't nurse a grudge.

Apart from the second RSS chief M S Golwalkar, Singhal always referred to the unsung religious preacher Ramchandra Tiwari as his mentor. A fact little known outside Sangh circles is that Singhal, a trained vocalist, put to music most of the RSS songs.

His legacy, however, will be a contested one.

At last month’s felicitation, Swami Satyamitranand, founder of Haridwar’s Bharat Mata temple, said Singhal should henceforth be addressed with the honorific “Mahatma Ashok” for his contribution to the cause of Hindutva. Other speakers said Singhal’s leadership to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was as significant in contemporary Indian history as that of Mahatma Gandhi’s in the freedom struggle and that of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) in the anti-Emergency “JP movement”. It would be safe to assume that neither those who admire Gandhi nor the followers of JP would concur with the comparison.

Among his followers, Singhal is always referred to as “Hindu hridaya samrat”, or the emperor of Hind hearts. Incidentally, he passed away on the third death anniversary of the another Hindu hridaya samrat — Balasaheb Thackeray.

First Published: Wed, November 18 2015. 00:43 IST
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