The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 passed us by incident free. The horror of the actual act notwithstanding, my family members and I watched it calmly on our TV screen with a sense of disbelief.
While there was a cloud of dust on the screen hiding the falling debris and as the camera swerved to capture a joyous Uma Bharti with her arms around a seated Murli Manohar Joshi, we believed that the charade of demolition would end soon.
The reality of the scene playing out on the television hit home when my uncle picked up the phone and uttered three unbelievable words: “Masjid gir gayee (the mosque has fallen)”.
The cloud of dust on the screen settled. In place of the dome was debris. The illusion lay shattered.
We were shocked, but not scared. Our baptism by riots had already happened two years ago, in 1990. We knew the drill. Rooms in Agra’s Mughal Sheraton hotel had already been booked, in case we needed them.
In 1990, when BJP president L.K. Advani’s rath yatra trampled upon the idea of India, leaving behind a trail of blood and bodies, we were caught unprepared. Actually, we were left holding the corpse of our idealistic optimism.
With no prior experience of communal violence, my family was both in denial and a dilemma. First, we didn’t anticipate that riots would break out in Agra; we didn’t know then where we would be more secure— in our upscale Hindu majority neighbourhood where the privilege of residents would throw a security blanket around us, or in the Muslim majority low middle class mohalla of my uncles where numbers would supposedly insulate us.
Each kept urging the other to move out. My father told his two brothers living in the mohalla to shift to our house, and they kept requesting us to move in with them.
Each secure in his optimism, we remained where we were.
Then, violence broke out. But my father was confident in the knowledge that over the last decade, he had cultivated a vast network of friends from among the bureaucrats who had served in Agra – those may district magistrates, senior superintendents and commissioners of police had gone up the hierarchy in the UP state administration.
They were our security blanket.
Then the violence hit home. It came with a fair warning. All through that November 1990 morning, several neighbours visited us to impart solemn advice. “Shift to your ancestral house for a few days,” they told my father. “Or at least send bhabhiji (referring to my mother) and the kids away.”
As the day drew to a close, we huddled together in the family room, waiting for an attack my parents were certain would happen that evening. I was handed a diary with phone numbers of all the police officials we knew, from the local police station to SSPs. I started to make calls. Mysteriously, none were being answered.
“Doesn’t matter, keep trying,” my father told me.
Then the slogans started.
At first, they seemed to come from a distance. But they started inching closer. And closer. My brother and I ran towards the main door, which had a narrow glass panel on the right through which one could see the porch, the gate and the road beyond. A mob with tridents and fire torches was marching towards our gate. My brother and I stood transfixed.
From inside, we could hear my mother screaming at us to get back inside. Outside, the mob was now at the gate and shouting violently. Right in very front was a neighbourhood boy whose younger brother was my brother’s playmate.
“Sanjay bhaiyya,” my brother whispered, as we ran inside to share our discovery.
My father was calm. He told my uncle that Sanjay’s presence implied that the mob would not harm us. “They will shout some slogans and move on,” he said.
Then the mob started throwing stones. We heard windows crashing. “Get back to the phone,” my father screamed at me, shaking visibly. As long as he had been calm, we feared no disaster. But once we saw his fear, there was panic.
In those moments of pure terror, we didn’t notice exactly when the mob outside started to disperse. Just as the noise outside receded, someone picked up my call to the SSP’s residence. That person made a note of our address and promised to send a patrol car.
Once we were convinced of the silence, my mother went to the door to confirm if the mob had indeed left. One of the glass panels had cracked, and by the shattered pieces of glass on the porch, we figured that several windows had succumbed to the assault, as had the car parked in the porch.
That evening, no dinner was served. Everyone stayed together in the family room, not daring to step out and assess the damage. Well after 10 pm, a few policemen arrived. They assured us that they would include our street in their night patrol.
Somehow, we got through the night. In my heart, I believed that everything would be fine in the morning.
And it was, for a few hours at least, when our domestic help started to arrive for work. Since ours was not Muslim area, there was no curfew here. Just as we were settling down for breakfast, someone rang the doorbell.
It was my cousin, my middle uncle’s older son from the mohalla. All of 14, he was dishevelled and quaking with fear. He must have been crying for some time because his voice was choked. That morning, the notorious Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had carried out a cordon and search operation in the mohalla and had taken away all adult men. My cousin was also picked up, along with his father and younger uncle. However, one of the constables took pity on him and allowed him to jump from the jeep as it turned on the main road.
From there, he had walked a couple of kilometres to our house. During the operation, the PAC had ransacked the house and disconnected the phone lines. My two aunts and younger cousins were at the house, and we could not go there because of curfew orders in that area.
There was no way of knowing where my uncles were. Though I didn’t realise it at that time, the memories of the Hashimpura massacre of 1987 must have sent cold shivers down my parents’ backs.
With breakfast left untouched, my father and uncle left immediately. My father went to see the police commissioner, who had been our guest on several evenings and had shared drinks with the host.
My uncle went to the police station closest to the mohalla. He was told that no such incident had taken place. But when my uncle insisted that the information was from from reliable sources, he was directed to another police station.
Something in their manner told him that the constables were lying, so he stayed put. No officer came to speak with him. Meanwhile, my father was told that the commissioner was not available, after which he tried the office of the SSP, another regular at parties at our home. The SSP briefly met my father, appearing to be extremely busy and told him that he was not aware of any such incident.
“But if something like this has happened, I will ensure that your brothers are not harmed,” he assured my father, but not exactly in these words. Word passed down the hierarchy. My uncle, who was at the police station, was handed a few curfew passes. He was also told not to worry and that my missing uncles would return home before evening.
I accompanied my mother and uncle to the house of my birth in his hatchback which had escaped the vandalism of the previous evening as it has been parked inside the garage. The open maidan at the mouth of lane where our house was located looked like a war zone. Stones were scattered all over the unpaved ground, and there were a few carcasses of two-wheelers. The windows of houses facing the maidan were broken and most of the doors hung by their hinges.
Leaving the car in the maidan, we walked inside the lane towards our house. From the outside, it looked normal. My grandfather had installed a heavy-duty door which had withstood the assault. As always, it was not bolted.
A gentle push opened it into the central courtyard. The first thing that caught my eye was a television lying face down on the marble floor of the courtyard. Then glass pieces and remains of crockery came into view, and clothes, toys, a cricket bat, an heirloom copper paan daan, as well as broken remnants of other things.
However, more frightening than this was the eerie silence that permeated the house. When I was growing up, I always associated this house with noise. There were far too many people in too little space. But now, when there was no sound, I could feel the tightness in my stomach and heaviness in my legs. Where was everyone?
My mother’s call to my middle aunt sounded more like a shriek. In response, a scream tore out from one of the rooms. All at once, the noise returned. My aunts, distraught and dishevelled, rushed out and engulfed my mother in a spasmodic embrace. Interspersed with frequent wailing, my aunts started to recount the sequence. How my uncles were dragged out in their sleepwear, how a few policemen came back inside to deliberately break things, how they made salacious remarks at my younger aunt, how they scared the kids and so on.
It took me a while to realise that both my mother and I were crying. Perhaps we were crying about it all – for my uncles, the narrow escape that my aunts had and what could have happened to us the previous evening.
But I knew for sure that some of my tears were for the sheer helplessness that I knew my father and my uncle were feeling. Physically, they may have travelled a small distance from the Muslim mohalla to upper class Hindu colony, but emotionally they had travelled the distance of a lifetime.
In the family comprising six brothers and four sisters, these two had most prominently shed their ghettoised Muslim identities. They were in with the social, cultural and economic life of Agra, hobnobbing with the who’s who. And yet when it came to the communal division, they were nothing but Muslims. Forever suspects, forever victims.
My uncles returned home late in the afternoon. A police vehicle dropped them at the mouth of the lane from where they hobbled inside and into the house which remained unbolted. Their shoulders, backs and calves were bruised and streaked with ugly blue welts. One had a wound just below the eyebrow, where he had probably been hit by a rifle butt or a baton. My aunt said a few prayers over his head, frequently thanking Allah for sparing his life, and his eye.
Soon, wailing women from the neighbourhood started pouring into in our courtyard. Their men were still missing. They pleaded with my mother and my uncle to help get their men back.
The bruised men started to come back during the night and the next morning. No case was recorded, no charges were filed. It was as if the incident never happened. Slowly, the situation started to calm down.
At that time, there was no way of knowing how many people died in Agra that week. There was a huge gap between the figures put out by the local Hindi media and what the people believed. However, according to a compilation by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies under Nagarik Mancha by B. Rajeshwari, 31 people, most of them Muslims, died in Agra in November 1990.
According to the same study, in the wake of Advani’s rath yatra, nearly 1,800 people died in different parts of India between April-December 1990. As it happens with communal violence in India, the majority of the dead were Muslim.
As I prepared to return to college in Delhi at the end of November, my mother told me not to mention the two incidents to anyone.
“Why?,” I asked her.
“Why,” she retorted. “Are they to be proud of?”
I couldn’t understand the shame in being a victim. She explained to me, for my father it was not about being a victim. It was about the humiliation that the two incidents implied. He believed that his successful business, his social commitments, his national and state awards had placed him in a different league, where his name carried respect, and maybe awe. He never went to anyone; everyone came to him.
But those two November days had left him helpless and fearful. The hour he spent outside the commissioner’s office, which was crowded by people who would probably wait outside his own office, devastated him. If he could, he would have erased those two days from his life.
So, collectively we worked towards erasing them from our lives.
Babri Masjid meant little to us then, it means little now. For Muslims, prayer is important, a mosque is not. Prayer is piety. A mosque is vanity. As Mohammed Iqbal wrote:
“Aa gaya ain ladai mein agar waqt-e-namaz
qibla-ru ho ke zamin-bos hui qaum-e-hijaz
ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye mahmud o ayaaz
na koi banda raha aur na koi banda-navaz.
(In a middle of a battle when it was time for prayer
facing west, the devout touched their forehead to the ground
standing shoulder to shoulder Mahmud and Ayaz
remained unmindful of the difference between king and slave.”
The demolition didn’t hurt us, but the impact of the demolition did – the progressive marginalisation, everyday communal profiling and normalisation of violence against Muslims. All of this has been shrinking the access a Muslim has to public spaces in her own country.
Today, when angry Muslims call for the construction of a mosque in Ayodhya, grander than the Ram temple, they are succumbing to competitive communalism. This is a sport they can never win.
The road ahead is both narrow and perilous. Muslims must choose their battles wisely. The biggest challenge is to widen the space available to them. For this, not only do they have to speak in a coherent voice, but also move others to lend their voices to them.
After all, it is the battle for the soul of the nation we call home.
Ghazala Wahab is executive editor FORCE newsmagazine. Her forthcoming book Born a Muslim will be published by Aleph Book Company in early 2021.