Listen to this article:
This excerpt from Sagarika Ghose’s book Atal Bihari Vajpayee is republished with permission from Juggernaut.
6 December 1992. Down Ayodhya’s winding, narrow streets, on a grassy hillock, stood the three-domed Babri Masjid. The small mosque was in the eye of a storm, the focal point of hysterical rage on one side and defiant assertion on the other. Railings, barricades, steel fences and ropes ringed the controversy-ridden structure. A thin line of police stood against an advancing wave. Thousands of self-styled ‘kar sevaks’, mobilized and galvanized over two years by the VHP, Bajrang Dal and other Hindu organizations had descended on Ayodhya.
By early morning on the 6th, angry crowds gathered some distance away from the Babri Masjid at Karsevakpuram, the camp that had been created for them. Shouts and cries rose: ‘It is time for kar seva at the Babri Masjid, it is time to seize the Babri Masjid, it is time to destroy the Babri Masjid.’
Wiry, bright-eyed young men, some with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ tattooed on their chests, jumped and jostled, waving saffron flags and trishuls, their voices high-pitched. ‘Jis Hindu ka khoon na khaule, woh khoon nahin pani hai [The Hindu whose blood doesn’t boil, doesn’t have blood in his veins but water].’ ‘Jai Shri Ram, mandir yahin banayenge [We will build the Ram temple right here].’
Gathered at a nearby dharamshala, BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders watched the oddly excited crowds with a growing sense of unease. Today, Sunday, 6 December 1992, was the day they had set for a ‘symbolic’ kar seva, to establish the presence of the Ram temple at the disputed site. The leaders hoped the ‘Ram bhakts’ or kar sevaks would gather at the puja and that their planned public meetings would divert the crowds away from the masjid.
But the kar sevaks had other plans. As early as 6 a.m. they began to arrive in front of the 2.77-acre disputed area where the masjid stood. ‘If the leaders do not allow kar seva, they will face our maar seva,’ shouted one of the kar sevaks. Police stood at the ready, guarding the security cordon around the mosque. PAC jawans patrolled the barrier. RSS volunteers wearing armbands stood in single file alongside the police.
At 10 a.m. L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and the VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders arrived at the site and went to the Ram Katha Kunj, 150–200 metres from the disputed site, where a raised dais had been placed. They began their speeches. But who cared about the leaders and their orations? This was the hour of the kar sevak, the moment of historical vendetta, the time to unleash pent-up and well-mobilized fury. The kar sevaks had their eyes fixed on the masjid, as the leaders speechified in vain. The leaders were irrelevant. The crowd took charge. Some youths began to push against the barricades and security cordons. In big groups, they shoved aside the police and RSS volunteers and lunged at the metal fences, some attempting to clamber over them.
The police fell back.
At around 11 a.m., one youth emerged running from the crowd. He pushed aside the constable trying to stop him and jumped clear over the barricade. There was a split-second pause, then others followed him, racing towards the security line and vaulting over the barrier at several places. A scream rang out: ‘Mandir yahin banayenge.’ The RSS men scurried after them, trying to stop the flow of running, leaping kar sevaks, but the kar sevaks powered on, deftly dodging the cops. As the PAC looked on helplessly and units of the CRPF quietly departed the scene, groups of kar sevaks broke free of security.
Behind the masjid another group of kar sevaks pulled themselves over the barricades. When police and some RSS volunteers tried to stop them, the gathered crowd began to hurl stones, providing a cover for those pushing forward towards the masjid.
As stones and brickbats pelted down, the police melted away and hundreds of kar sevaks breached the barricades and streamed towards the Babri Masjid. A slightly built youth leapt up the steel railings encircling the structure like a ‘circus acrobat’. Others gathered at the base of the masjid and, using ropes and grappling hooks, clambered to the top of the middle dome ‘as if they were trained mountaineers’. On the ground someone planted a saffron flag. The crowd action didn’t seem like a sudden insurrection; instead it appeared well planned and executed by an able-bodied infantry.
RSS general secretary H.V. Seshadri’s voice came over the loudspeaker, appealing to the kar sevaks in several different languages not to damage the masjid. But by now the crowd was shrieking and chanting so loudly that he could barely be heard. Well equipped with pickaxes, chisels, huge blacksmith’s hammers and shovels, the kar sevaks, holding up saffron flags, climbed to the top of the masjid. They swarmed all over the three domes as riotously as a colony of bees shaken from their hive. Advani, looking flustered, asked Uma Bharti to try to pull the kar sevaks away from the masjid. Trying to draw them off the masjid and towards the kar seva site, Uma Bharti cried, ‘Ram bhakton se meri appeal hai ki kar seva ka samay ho gaya hai . . . wapas aa jayen [I appeal to the Ram devotees that it is time for the kar seva, they must come back].’
The same Uma Bharti would be pictured hours later beaming before cameras after the domes were demolished when she said: ‘Today is the most blissful day of my life.’
The mob was working to its own rhythm, deaf to the leaders’ pleas. An almighty battering and bashing began. The kar sevaks worked with maniacal energy in coordinated teams, as if well trained for the task. Some hammered, some chiselled, others slithered down ropes for tool supplies. Clouds of dust mixed with columns of dark smoke which began to billow from mosques and homes in Ayodhya town that had been torched by the crazed kar sevaks. At Ram Katha Kunj, Sadhvi Rithambara, dressed in flowing saffron, began to sing and dance, like a high priestess of doom, her eyes half closed, a smile playing around her lips: ‘Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do [Give one more shove, bring the masjid down].’ Gangs of kar sevaks waving saffron flags stood on the domes of the Babri Masjid, like a ragged pirate army aboard a conquered vessel. The scene flashed into the camera lenses of gathered journalists, some of whom were beaten and had their cameras smashed.
As the masjid began to crumble, kar sevaks held up bricks – ‘Babur’s bricks, Babur’s bones,’ they yelled – as if they were trophies. All of a sudden, at 1.55 p.m. the first dome collapsed. Some kar sevaks fell and were buried under the rubble; they were extricated and rushed to hospital. Others attacked the base of the other domes with long wooden poles. A four-centuries-old structure, weather-beaten by time, could not withstand this ferocious demolition squad working as if possessed by supernatural spirits. Within hours the other two domes of the masjid broke apart and fell to the ground. By five that evening, in a cloud of blood-red dust, the Babri Masjid came crashing down.
‘The Republic Besmirched’, thundered the Times of India in a front-page editorial the next day: ‘The pernicious features of Hindutva espoused by the Sangh Parivar have been exposed . . . the hate, bigotry
It had taken a little over five hours to flatten the Babri Masjid and to arrive at that fraught moment of its demolition had taken five years of a systematic campaign of religious hatred. A decade later, the VHP’s president Ashok Singhal said in an interview: ‘Ever since the movement began, it was certain from the first day that the masjid was bound to fall.’
In Delhi, Vajpayee was, initially, aghast. He was the only top leader of the BJP not present in Ayodhya at the time of the demolition, part by calculated design, part by political instinct, part by a personal recoil from the spectre of violence, and part because of wanting to remain loftily aloof from sharing the stage with a gaggle of VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders. On 5 December evening he had said in Lucknow: ‘I wanted to go to Ayodhya, but I was told to go to Delhi and I’ll respect that order.’ A day after the demolition he expostulated outragedly in Delhi: ‘This is the worst miscalculation my party has made.’