by Anand Patwardhan
Frontline, January 14, 1994
In November 17, 1993, a small item in an evening newspaper announced, “Ex-priest shot dead.” Immediately I caught myself praying that it wasn’t Pujari Laldas. But my worst fears had come true. Three years after we had interviewed him in Ayodhya and two years after the film Ram Ke Naam began to be shown publicly, Laldas had been assassinated.
The evening we first interviewed him had also been a sad occasion. It was October 30, 1990. Hindu mobs led by the Viahwa Hindu Pariahad-Bajrang Dal-Bhartiya Janata Party combine had succeeded in attacking the Babri mosque despite Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s boast that “not a bird could fly through” his security arrangements.
Outside the temple we were sitting in, we could hear firecrackers set off by those celebrating the assault on the mosque as a second “Deepavali”. As a vociferous opponent of the VHP, Pujari Laldas had already faced several death threats and an attempt on his life. A few months earlier, Mitrasen Yadav, the Communist Party of India candidate from Faizabad who had defeated his BJP rival, had been shot at and injured for his efforts. Seeing this, the Government had provided Laldas with a bodyguard to complement the small group of loyal followers always at his side. At this time Laldas was the chief priest of the Ram janmabhoomi temple, but owing to a recent increase in the VHP’s muscle power he had beeri advised not to go to the temple for a few days until things calmed down again. But calm down they never did.
We h«d all expected October 10 to pass off peacefully put it did not. Communal tensions in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh and in the rest of India have continued to spiral to the present day. As Laldas had predicted, thousands of lives have been lost and there has been a dangerous polarisation in the country.
Even as we recorded the interview we asked Laldas if he would be safe if the interview was publicly shown. He assured me that his greatest desire was to reach people with his message, no matter the consequences to him personally.
We were to meet once again. Laldas came to the premiere of the film in Lucknow in January 1992. By this time the BJP ruled the State and had managed to remove him from his post as temple priest. At the end of the film Laldas took the microphone and spoke movingly of his commitment to the universalist elements in Hinduism. He loved the film and promised to show a cassette of it all over the Ayodhya region, brushing aside all my fears for his safety. His only argument — a beaming smile. That is my last memory of him.
‘It’s a kind of frenzy’
Pujari Laldas was interviewed on October 30, 1990 for the film “Ram Ke Naam / In the Name of God” by Anand Patwardhan. Excerpts:
What do you think of the Vishwa Hindu Parithad’ plan to build a temple?
This is a political game played by the VHP. There was never a ban on building a temple. Besides, according to our tradition, any place where idols of god are kept is a temple. That the Hindu custom. Any such building is considered a temple. And even if they wanted to build a separate temple, why demolish a structure where idols already cxist?
Those who want to do this are actually more interested in creating tensions all over India in order to cash in on the Hindu vote. They don’t care about the genocide that will occur — how many will be killed, how much destroyed, or even about what will happen to Hindus in Muslim majority areas.
Since 1949 no Muslim created any trouble here. But when these people began to shout: “The sons of Babar must pay with their blood,” then the whole nation was engulfed in riots and thousands were killed. Still they felt no remorse for the tensions they had created. Till now, Hindu-Muslim unity has existed in our country. Muslim rulers granted land for temples- Like Janki Ghat, and parts of Hanuman Garni were built by Muslims. Muslim rulers donated all this property to temples. Also, Amir Ali and Baba Ramcbaran Das made a ‘ pact of harmony between Hindus and Muslims, dividing the Janma- bhooml so Muslims could pray in one part and Hindus in the other. Now, all this effort has been laid to waste.
All the communal riots that have rocked India have been caused for financial and political gain lt has nothing to do with Ram’s birthplace I am the priest of the Ram Janma-bhoomi temple and I honestly say that until today VHP members have never made a single offering or even prayed at the temple. Instead they created obstacles and it took a writ petition to get prayers restarted. So the local populace never accepted them. But tbere are some priests who are greedy and were bought. Then the Ram templr bricks cam-paign began and they built their own rooms and houses. They fooled the public and made big buildings. They collected millions in donations which they deposited in various banks, some of it into their personal ac counts. So, if people are killed, they don’t care. All they care about is money and power. Those who talk of a Hindu nation and create violence in the name of Ram are from the upper castes and they all love the good life. There’s not an iota of renunciation or sacrifice or public concern in them. They merely exploit people’s religious feelings in order to maintain-their own lifestyles.
And instead of going on foot we go by air — we go first class and live in air-conditioning. So, where once we renounced worldly comforts in order to meditate and work for the public good, now we are so fully immersed in worldly matters that we can only think in materialistic terms What can we say of today’s religious leaders? They merely perpetuate the material order. Big businessmen say: “Defend the Hindu religion” and the country’s rich, like Ashok Singhal here, claim themselves to be devotees of Ram. Was It Ram’s ideal that the people must starve to death? This great deprivation in our country — shouldn’t our religious leaders be concerned with it? If yuu have money or if the rich listen to you, shouldn’t you use that money to help the poor? Like Mother Teresa does? Or like our religious leaders did in the past?
Those who don’t like you accuse you of being a Communist?
To be called a Communist is a matter of pride for me. Doesn’t the Communist speak of the right of every individual to food, clothing and shelter? If we believe in the ideals of Lord Ram, we know (quoting the Ramayana) — “In Ram’s kingdom none suffered, all werehappy.” So, the Communist toowants the same thing: food, clothing,
education for all. We believe in Ram’s ideals and if others say the same things we respect them as well. At least Communists never called for genocide!
Not only in Ayodhya but all over India people should oppose this. We should never hurt the religious sentimcnts of others and break their hearts.
Today, there seemto be a wave in our country — those who speak of hatred get a bigger following than those like you who speak of love.
It’s not like that. When a flood comes, when there’s a cyclone, all the trains and buildings fall down, all roads and utilities get destroyed. There’s a verse written in the Ara-nya chapter of the Ramayana. “When the rains are heavy the grass grows so tall that it’s difficult to find the right path.” So, when charlatans speak, the truth gets hidden. Like if someone eats an intoxicant, he’s capable of anything. He can go mad, attack, even commit suicide. In the moment of frenzy the capacity to think gets destroyed. But the rainy season is short. Afterwards, people regain their ability to reason. So, today the things people do, it’s s kind of frenzy. But when they’re faced with the truth….