Communalism

Babri Masjid Demolition As It Happened: Reporters Look Back

At an event organised by The Wire, journalists who reported on the Babri Masjid demolition 25 years ago talked about their experiences, from having their equipment broken to being sexually assaulted.

New Delhi: Senior journalists recounted their experiences of reporting the Babri Masjid demolition on the 25th anniversary of the watershed event at a discussion organised by The Wire today. A majority of the speakers asserted that it had become clear on December 5, 1992, a day before the demolition, that thousands of Sangh parivar karsevaks who had gathered in Ayodhya had already planned to bring the mosque down.

This eyewitness view lends credence to the widespread belief that the real motive of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Ram janmabhoomi movement – carried out across India to generate traction for the Sangh parivar’s viewpoint that a temple should be built at the disputed site – was actually to destroy the masjid’s structure. Whether the demolition of the masjid was a pre-planned conspiracy or not is a matter that is being heard at the courts currently. Senior BJP leaders like L.K. Advani, Uma Bharti, Murli Manohar Joshi and others are accused in the case.

The panelists – Seema Chishti (deputy editor, The Indian Express), Mark Tully (former chief of bureau, BBC), Praveen Jain (associate editor (photo), The Indian Express), Ruchira Gupta and Saeed Naqvi (both independent journalists), all of whom were present in Ayodhya on the day of the demolition – talked about the immense risks involved in trying to report amidst large-scale violence.

They talked about how reporters and photojournalists covering the demolition were systematically attacked by the Sangh parivar karsevaks so that photos of them razing the masjid to the ground did not become public. Each of them spoke about how the BJP leadership, including Advani and Joshi, ignored their repeated warnings about the violence taking place against journalists and women before the demolition.

“…lots of so-called karsevaks broke into that area and started attacking the press, breaking the cameras…Suddenly I saw that a vast assembly of people started moving towards the mosque and there was no resistance from the police…I saw the police staff walking off…the main road leading to Ayodhya was blocked with burning cars…When I entered the mosque, I was surrounded by karsevaks, some of them who wanted to beat me up and others argued that BBC was a world-renowned organisation and it would be bad for them,” said Tully, adding that he and some other Indian journalists were locked up in a dharmashala subsequently.

“Eventually, I was released by a mahant of a neighbouring temple…,” he said.

“What was particularly disgraceful was that the authority of the government had completely collapsed…In fact, there was no government that day,” he added, saying that a large number of central forces stationed there did not act against the mob at all.

The audience at the event held at Press Club. Credit: The Wire

The audience at the event held at Press Club. Credit: The Wire

He further spoke about the prevalence of “obscene slogans being shouted against Muslims” and added that the primary issue of the temple was “not very prominent” on December 6, 1992. Tully ended his speech by saying that despite what happened in Ayodhya and the subsequent impact it has had on Indian politics, he has faith in Indian secularism, which he thinks is integral to the soul of India.

Naqvi concurred with the view that the temple was not prominent at all in Ayodhya that day. “The scenes that I saw were those of young girls sitting in a circle and singing ‘ab yeh jhanda lehrayega Pakistan pe‘ and young men shouting ‘bomb girega Pakistan pe, abhi humein Rawalpindi jaana hai, abhi humein Lahore jaana hai‘. The point here is that not one word was said about Lord Ram, it was all about Pakistan. There was a sense among karsevaks that they had defeated the Mughals and defeated what Mr (Narendra) Modi thinks of a thousands of years of foreign rule. It was amazing,” said Naqvi, who was reporting for World Report in 1992.

Naqvi talked about how the Congress too contributed to the masjid’s destruction, although not directly. He recalled how Congress leader Arjun Singh on December 4, 1992 had told him that the mosque may be pulled down, but added that his party did not act against it because of an “intense factional fight within the party”, with both factions having different points of view on the possibility of a demolition.

Chishti was of the view that the demolition represented many breaking points in India.

“There was a clear method in what was going on. The whole idea was to battle the reporters and ensure they do not cover it. This is the biggest change between then and now. If they wanted to pull down a mosque in 2017, beating up reporters may not be necessary. At that time, they needed to do that so that the news does not get out.”

She said that Ayodhya is one of the most beautiful towns of India but the slogan of ‘Mandir wahin banayenge‘ and talking about only Ram while wiping away Sita and many other syncretic myths took away the culture of confluence that Ayodhya represented. “That was done very well. We were nervous about construction, we were not even thinking about demolition… To me, demolition was a breaking point as it narrowed down the definitions of citizenship,” Chishti said.

Photojournalist Jain brought out multiple photographs of a dress rehearsal that the karsevaks organised a day before the demolition. He was the only one to gain access to the rehearsal ceremony. “B.L. Sharma Prem, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, gave me access to the rehearsal. I was given a VHP identity card. People were being trained professionally with different machines and weapons to pull the structure down. There was a dome-shaped structure and people were being trained to climb that with ropes, carrying different instruments. Later, Prem told me that we will use the same method to bring down the mosque, but no one in the media believed me at that time,” he said.

He further said that photojournalists were specifically targeted by Hindutva activists. “They snatched cameras from us and threw them down from the tops of the buildings. I was also beaten up. In a roughed up state, I approached Mr Advani and requested him to save me but he refused. All those leaders were watching the demolition. The leaders were asking people to obey the Supreme Court’s instructions, but those words only drew laughter from the mob.”

Panelists at the Press Club event. Credit: Shome Basu/The Wire

Panelists at the Press Club event. Credit: Shome Basu/The Wire

Gupta narrated her ordeal on the day when she was sexually assaulted by the mob. “There were slogans which were full of toxic masculinity invoking an aggression. Sadhvi Rithambhara and Uma Bharti at different times asked the men whether they were wearing bangles…I decided to get into the mosque. It was absolutely packed with Hindutva activists. I tried to squeeze past them, when suddenly someone shouted ‘Musalman‘ after looking at me. And immediately after that, some hands began to reach out to strangle me. I was literally seconds away from death. And simultaneously they were feeling up my body. They were trying to poke my breasts, poke my waist…That was horrible. Throughout I was trying to shout that I was a Hindu.”

She said that a man she had interviewed a day before saved her and helped her reach out to Advani. “When I reached where Advani was, he was trying to look at something through his binoculars. In my dishevelled state, I asked him to ask people to stop this attack on journalists and women. At that moment, Advani said ‘aapke saath jo hua usko bhul jao, dekho kitna aitihaasik din hai… aap kuch meetha khao‘. Then one of his security guards offered me some sugar and he (Advani) handed me his binoculars. When I said I don’t want to watch anything now. He said, ‘see Muslims are setting their own houses on fire for compensation’,” Gupta said, pointing out that the BJP’s top leadership was entirely complicit in mosque’s demolition.