Twenty five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, The Wire, through a series of articles and videos, captures how the act of destruction changed India forever.
The photographs accompanying this article were taken by T. Narayan 25 years ago. By his admission, it was one of the most difficult assignments he has ever had. The images of the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition and its immediate aftermath present a stark archival document of an inflexion point in independent India’s history from which we have never recovered.
December 6, for a long time, had been a happy day for me. It was the birthday of my dear friend, colleague and mentor – the dancer/choreographer/writer Chandralekha.
As usual, on the morning of December 6, 1992, I had woken up early to call her in Madras and greet her, first thing in the morning. I had moved to Delhi the previous year to handle the arts pages of The Economic Times, as their Arts Editor.
Chandra was her ebullient self. But there was an undertone of foreboding in our conversation. Both of us were acutely conscious of the build-up at Ayodhya over the Babri Masjid-Ram janmabhoomi stand-off, precipitated by the calculated brinksmanship of L.K. Advani and the criminal conspiracy of his ‘rath yatra’.
Cartoonist R.K. Laxman had brilliantly captured the malefic intent of this DCM-Toyota ‘rath yatra’. He started off by drawing Advani as a mock-Arjuna, with a crown and a frown, perched atop his ‘rath’ like Don Quixote atop his pathetic horse Rocinante. Within weeks, the ludicrous aspect of the ‘yatra’ wore off as it serially instigated communal tension. Laxman’s cartoons turned savage. In his windows, Advani’s head started getting bigger and bigger even as his crown got smaller, until it was miniaturised to the size of a thimble. You couldn’t fool the cartoonist. Clearly, this was no ‘dharma yuddha’.
That morning, Chandra expressed her disquiet over the tension in Ayodhya. Her political antennae were sharp as ever as she remembered and recited Harindranath Chattopadhyaya’s quatrain:
I’m sure that good god above
Would cease to feel a fool,
If every temple and mosque were to be
A hospital or school
By the time I reached office by 11 am, information had started filtering in from Ayodhya about assaults on mediapersons, particularly photographers. By mid-day came the dreaded news that one of the three domes of the mosque had been destroyed. The mind turned numb. Many of us assembled at the Press Club, anger and helplessness writ large on our faces. This was a script we had not anticipated.
By 3 pm or so we knew that almost 40 press photographers had been assaulted and their equipment vandalised by violent foot-soldiers of the Sangh parivar, with the exalted sobriquet of ‘karsevaks’. The constructive attribute of ‘karseva’ had turned destructive here.
By evening, we knew that the main structure had been reduced to rubble. With this, we also knew that while it was the Babri Masjid that had been destroyed, in fact it was the constitution that had been damaged beyond repair. All arms of the state – the legislature, executive and judiciary – had failed the moment and had collectively betrayed Indian secular democracy.
By that evening, a few photographers had managed to get back with their bodies and cameras intact. Looking at the visuals they brought was cathartic. For one, these were photographs taken at some personal risk, in the face of assault by organised gangs that had been specifically given the task of targeting photographers and smashing their equipment. This was not accidental or something done in the heat of the moment. It was pre-planned and organised. The camera-eye as an external witness was to be treated as an enemy.
I wrote a piece likening the mass smashing of cameras in Ayodhya and the targeted aggression on photographers as a metaphorical extension of the blinding of the eye, symbolic of a nation rapidly losing its vision.
A few days later, I anchored another piece for a photo-feature with images from Ayodhya on that fateful day. In an eerie way, what I wrote then 25 years ago still seems valid. It’s worth reproducing:
The photographs that intrepid lensmen shot on that dark, un-illumined day of December 6, in Ayodhya, will remain historic benchmarks of the illness that is spreading across the nation. It is not madness; not lunacy. It is the creeping iron in the soul. It was such reports of the Algerian war that had provoked French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to observe (in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth): “France was once the name of a nation. My dear countrymen, let us take care that in our times it does not become the name of a dreaded disease…”
These photographs will stand mute testimony to a time when, for the want of positive intervention from right thinking parties, institutions and individuals, a criminal set of lumpen goons hijacked a religion, a Constitution, a parliament. A time when high on the chariot of a mythical Ram, rode in a very real Kalki. A time when, in one fell blow, all genteel notions of democratic and secular practice were consigned to the rubble heap of a desecrated totem.
The question really is, how does one read these photographs? After all, they are ‘news pictures’ of the type one has got inured to seeing day-in and day-out in the print media – pictures one merely glances at without investing them with any deeper semiotic. For that very reason, it is now imperative that we investigate these ‘innocuous’ images – both to shake ourselves out of our benumbed state of auto-paralysis as well as to understand why the struggle against burgeoning fascism has to be fought at ever so many involved levels.
Take the pictures of the Babri Masjid being overrun and the thousands of specially recruited, trained and indoctrinated men who are leaping over the barricades in the pursuit of their goal. This is no vanguard of any ‘holy army’. No shivaganas or ramachenchus, these. It was positively disgusting how practically every single national paper on Monday, December 7, honoured these bandits with the exalted title of ‘sevaks’. All those fellows in pants and banians with dreadful headbands and post-modern trishuls in hand, in fact, represent the unholy amalgam of the entirely non-spiritual aspirations of the BJP/VHP/RSS combine (aided by their white armies like the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and the Durga Vahini), and the crass influence of celluloid-bhakti of the Jai Santoshi Ma variety.
There is a deceptive calm in the photograph where a few ‘peaceful’ volunteers sit below a fierce banner screaming, ‘We will give our blood, we will give our life; we will build the temple’. In fact, every banner and every slogan of the proto-fascist brigade has been crystal clear of its intention. Last month itself, throughout north India, posters had sprouted announcing: Nahin rukega ab abhiyaan; jag utha hai naujawan (no way the movement can now be stopped; the youth have woken up).”
Most worthy of our attention are photographs of people with self-inflicted physical marks – whether tattoos or ramnaami tonsures or the excruciating self-torture of using plastic emulsion to paint yourself up as Hanuman. When ideology erupts in the body that is when all sensible antennae need to go up, for they indicate a deeply disturbed state of mind. Such grotesque self-infliction is a sign of repressed egos which seek to draw attention on themselves with acts of gross excess.
And what can one say of the uniformed paramilitary jawans prostrating before the spurious idols at the makeshift structure erected at the site of the demolished masjid in Ayodhya? It is a photograph that captures all the contradictions of the moment. The travails of maintaining a civil society and a secular state in India. The absurdity comes full circle when protectors of the law seem to endorse both the vandalism as well as the illegitimacy of the very crime they are asked to set right.
There may well be a time in the not too distant a future, when we may rue the day we saw these visuals. When we might wish we had remained, like Samson, ‘eyeless in Gaza’.
As I re-read the piece above today, I am convinced that the Babri Masjid demolition was merely a dress rehearsal, a preliminary social experiment (as a RSS apparatchik has openly claimed in the latest Outlook) to gauge the mood of the nation and quantify the public outcry against such acts.
Almost the whole of this December 6, many channels have been repeat-casting visuals of Advani, Uma Bharati, Murli Manohar Joshi, Vinay Katiyar, Ashok Singhal et al under the shamiana opposite the Masjid, exhorting the trained squads: Ek dhakka aur doh; Babri Masjid tod do. Not one of them has had to pay any penalty for this open incitement to violence and vandalism – legally or politically.
Having sufficiently satisfied themselves of the implicit immunity for such crimes, the parivar machinery can now cheerfully proceed with their project of eventually making India ‘mukt’ of every Islamic symbol. The Taj Mahal is certainly on the radar. Prominent artist Atul Dodiya painted a triptych many years ago as a tribute to the magician P.C. Sorcar. Panel one shows Sorcar hovering above the Taj Mahal; in panel two, the Taj is a blur; and, in panel three, the Taj vanishes with only a beaming Sorcar in it. With a very large part of the population not particularly bothered or affected by it, the Taj might as well vanish soon – though not magically, but through direct action. After all, if Padmavati is fact, the Taj might easily be fiction.
As usual, on December 6, I remembered Chandra and also remembered her spirited response to the attack on the masjid through her choreographed production ‘Bhinna Pravaha’, inspired by Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa. Rama points out to Sita the dark waters of the Yamuna flowing alongside the fair waters of the Ganga and exclaims, vibhati Ganga bhinna pravaha Yamuna tarange – an extraordinary tribute to the beauty and richness of diversity in which each retains its own character and identity and co-exists in a celebration of mutuality.
It is probably the artistic community that will trigger a cultural change in these dark times when the political class is in a deep quandary and confusion over the politicisation and abduction of religion.
T. Narayan is an independent photojournalist based in Delhi. He has worked as photo editor of The Week, Outlook, India Today and Hindustan Times.
Chennai-based Sadanand Menon explores the charged space linking politics and culture through his work in media, pedagogy and the arts.