“The preparation was accomplished with phenomenal secrecy, was technically flawless with consistency and assured results. The theme was power. It attracted clusters of young men to support the hidden agenda. Leaders know how passions are aroused and how to prevent the same; they however always see what would be beneficial to them rather than what would be good for the nation. This is what happened in Ayodhya.” – Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of Babri mosque.
The Babri Masjid has become history. A thing of the past.
By now we also have a Supreme Court judgment on the case regarding the mosque, but I will refrain from commenting on that verdict. As we know, the name of the case itself was something vague, it was called the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute case. It is about two entities, and just like the first one, the second is also nearly a myth by now.
The problem with things of the past is that we soon forget what it was and where it stood. And it will not be a surprise if after a few more years, the Babri masjid does not even find a place in the history books taught in schools. The discourses on this topic have mostly been about beliefs and people’s sentiments than about historic and archaeological evidence. But when an ‘almost’ Hindu nation weighs its sentiments, the sentiments of a large section of the people go unnoticed. Forgotten. Ignored.
That is precisely why an alternative recording of events becomes important. Babri Masjid, 25 Years On is a collection of essays edited by Sameena Dalwai and Ramu Ramanathan and was published in 2017. The multitude of accounts and angles covered, and the spectrum of authors, including journalists and artists, makes it a more than worthwhile read today when the Supreme Court’s verdict has brought the ‘Ayodhya’ issue back into the headlines.
Countdown and a witness account
In his essay ‘Countdown to Ayodhya’, senior journalist Anant Bagaitkar describes political developments centred around the Ayodhya issue close to the demolition. He recollects how he and some other journalists secretly met a senior RSS leader and the conversation they had, where the leader clearly said they were prepared to break the structure if the government did not yield to pressure by the end of the three month deadline that they had given. This was in July 1992. Later in September, VHP leaders V.H. Dalmiya and Ashok Singhal declared that a temple could not be constructed without the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In October 1992, the VHP organised a meeting of the dharma sansad to consider the future course of action on the issue. In this meeting, the decision was taken to resume ‘karseva’ and the date set was December 6, 1992.
He also recalls that by November end, the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena workers had gathered in Ayodhya as kar sevaks, and even before December 6, the assembled mob had indulged in attacking mosques and mazars (shrines) in the vicinity of Ayodhya.
What follows is a witness account of the events from December 1-6, 1992, in an essay by Pratap Asbe, then a journalist with Maharashtra Times, who was entrusted with reporting the events in Ayodhya. He recollects that on December 5, during the rehearsal of the karseva, leaders had announced that the karseva on the 6th would only be a symbolic gesture. They said, “On December 6, two lakh karsevaks will put a fistful of soil in the four-acre premises of Ram Mandir and the monks will clean the Ram Chabutra with the holy water from the river Sarayu.” However, we know that was not to be the case.
On the afternoon of December 6, BJP leader L.K. Advani gave an inflammatory speech that went like this: “No power in the world can stop the construction of Ram Mandir. If the Central government tries to obstruct, then we will not allow the government to run. Those who have come to be martyrs let them be martyrs. Let the fortunate ones be able to make it to Lord Ram’s feet. Let them be martyred.”
It is particularly interesting how the crowds manhandled media persons who tried to cover the incidents of that day. “Many national and international journalists were standing near Ram Chabutra. Karsevaks and saints started misbehaving with these media persons. The so-called holy men started abusing journalists. One of the monks was hitting a journalist from Voice of America. This was followed by a Time magazine journalist getting beaten up. Even the BBC’s Mark Tully couldn’t escape this. And then anybody and everybody started hitting the journalists. Just then, television cameras faced the wrath of this aggressive mob of karsevaks. Around 60-70 television cameras were damaged..” “Only the photographers with a still camera were able to put the cameras in a leather bag and escape. They were also followed and beaten up. As a result, the photography and video shoot of the karseva came to a halt. This attack on the press was pre-planned and a well-co-ordinated strategy..”
The final acts of the drama unfolded soon. In his own words:
“As if the doors of a dam were opened, mobs of karsevaks started jumping on the compound surrounding the Babri Masjid. In no time, they broke the compound and entered the mosque and with an unswerving determination, climbed the mosque up to its dome. They started hitting the mosque with anything that they could catch hold of. Immediately, they were being supplied with spades, shovels and ropes. This boosted the demolition process. High on the sadistic pleasure derived from the act, karsevaks were repeatedly attacking the mosque as if it was a living human being. Unable to withstand the shocks, the mosque began disintegrating. The soil and bricks started falling apart. At this end, the voice on the microphone announced, “Siyawar Ramchandra ki jai, mandir yahin banayenge.” Seeing the attack on the mosque, women spectators along with their men counterparts started dancing and shouting slogans..”
“At 2.45 p.m., the first dome of the Babri Masjid was demolished. The moment the dome collapsed, Uma Bharti joyously embraced Murli Manohar Joshi. Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara shouted inflammatory slogans, instigating karsevaks. Sadhvi Rithambara announced: “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do” (‘Pound and thrash till it collapses’). While all this was happening, the police was also seen clapping and expressing its joy. Around 4.00 p.m. in the evening, another dome collapsed. And then the third and the last dome at 4.46 p.m. Sadhvi Rithambara congratulated the Hindu population on the microphone by saying, “The shameful structure has fallen.”
The first among the six artists’ accounts in the book is that of theatre actor, director and activist Sudhanva Deshpande of Jan Natya Manch New Delhi. He weaves his narration beginning with his memories of Operation Blue Star and Indira Gandhi assassination that he witnessed as a teenager and his experiences during 1992.
In the next essay. ‘How it feels to be a Muslim in India’, award winning playwright Shafaat Khan talks about the post-Babri Muslim life in India and in Mumbai in particular. He says, “The Mumbai riots ensued by the demolition of the Babri Masjid had brought a change in direction. Until that time I believed that violence was in the hands of a few goondas and politicians. For the first time I saw that physically and mentally, the common man was imbibed with the destructive forces all the way. A whole society was given over to violence with a strong belief that it provided all the answers.” He explains how this affected his life as a playwright and director, and how his adaptation of Asghar Wajahat’s Hindi play Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Nai, was an attempt to communicate with ‘the rioters, supporters of riots and those who strengthened them by standing upright on the street.’
Unfortunately, around 27 years on, that ‘whole society’ is still at large, making use of every opportunity to ‘annihilate the other’. The hatred machines have got more and more official channels at their disposal and perpetrators of hate crimes are rewarded with election tickets, increased popularity and more and more power.
In her essay, ‘Why I never wish to forget the violence’, playwright and screenplay writer for popular Marathi TV serials Manaswini Lata Ravindra narrates how her mother – who never wore religious symbols – was forced to wear a bindi to escape violence from a Hindu mob. She also recollects memories from her school days, about how the dominant ones in class silenced those who had different opinions, or were just different, say by name/religion. “The day the episode of Shivaji Maharaj chopping off Shaista Khan’s fingers was taught in the class, all the Hindu boys assumed themselves in the role of Shivaji and the Muslim boy was obviously considered to be Shaista Khan. I remember the Muslim boy was so petrified that he skipped school the following day.”
Veteran theatre artist and television host Dolly Thakore has contributed a piece titled ‘Joining hands, building trust’. She was also a volunteer for an NGO ‘Citizens For Peace’ that did relief works in riot-struck Mumbai. Playwright, actor and women’s rights campaigner Sushma Deshpande feels the ‘obsessive need for communicating the ideologies of Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule to the masses’ and writes about her experience of conducting a theatre workshop for Muslim girls in Hyderabad. She notes that ‘when the whole community is under attack, the scope to address the issues and the rights of the weaker sections within that community get further eroded.”
Insecurity of Muslims
In her account ‘Where is the place for the activist’, academician and activist Shama Dalwai explains how being a Muslim or having a Muslim in the family in Mumbai became a frightening prospect by end of 1980s. During the riots that broke out post the demolition of the mosque, as a Hindu mother of half-Muslim children, she recounts how she became terrified for the safety of her children (Sameena is her daughter). The police violence, mayhem by Shiv Sainiks and, most shattering, she says, was the withdrawal of the Leftist comrades from the scene. She also talks about how the media selectively omitted certain kinds of news, and talks about her attempts to calm down the Muslims.
Helen Bharde, a former corporator affiliated to Indian National Congress, is a Christian woman married to a Muslim. Her article is mostly about setting up and running the relief camp at her locality, Golibar. She writes about how that place, near Santacruz, became a haven for the Muslims during the riots. How Muslims, fearing for their lives, had run away from their homes and sought refuge there. It does not mean it was all safe there. She recalls an incident when a young boy who was playing in the vicinity was mistaken for a rioter and shot down by the police. And ‘if that wasn’t tragic enough, the old man who went to retrieve the boy was also beaten up brutally’, she adds.
Rekha Thakur of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh in her note writes about the ‘dual agenda’ of massacring the Muslims and criminalising Bahujans at the same time. But such a reading is surely problematic, as the growth of Hindutva from the late 1980s to 2019 cannot be understood only as a savarna ideology. It is essentially based on hatred of Muslims (and Christians, though to a lesser extent). Many of the Sangh leaders were from OBC communities. It also succeeded in containing the OBC angst post the anti-Mandal uprisings of 1990s.
In her essay ‘A bruised nation’, Shaila Satpute, who was a leader in Maharashtra of the Janata Dal, confesses that she is more afraid today than during the days of riots. “At that time there were sporadic incidents of violence. Today, I notice that the seeds of hatred that were planted have grown into a poisonous tree. Now, everyone is a target. At that time, the Babri Masjid incident provided a reason for violence. Now, people don’t need a reason to resort to violence”, she says.
Not an isolated incident
Sameena Dalwai and Ramu Ramanathan do not see the demolition of the Babri mosque as an isolated incident, and place it in a context. Reading from Sangh parivar idol V.D. Savarkar’s Six Epochs of Indian History, they observe that “In this, Savarkar admonishes the Marathas for not taking revenge on Muslims in response to the atrocities committed around the year 1757 by Abdali. It seems, Savarkar would have liked the Marathas to not merely take revenge, but to annihilate Muslim religion (Mussalmani Dharma) and exterminate the Muslim “people” and make India Muslim-free.. According to Savarkar, the Maratha army should have exterminated ordinary Muslims (i.e. not just soldiers), destroyed their mosques and raped Muslim women.” This is particularly relevant in a time when the uBJP makes election promises of honouring Savarkar with the Bharat Ratna, which can be seen as a token of gratitude for laying the foundation stones of a religious hatred that they have built their political empire on.
The book’s co-editors also take into account another major factor that has contributed heavily to the hatred against Muslims in this country – partition. They observe that “India’s partition is not documented very well. The blame can hardly be placed on the British as the main culprits, as that remains untold. So does the fact, that arson, murder and rape was done by both sides to the ‘other’. Now young authors and curators alike are trying to keep alive the history of partition through collecting stories that turn into artefacts from a dying generation into live narratives”. These narratives are crafted well in order to produce hatred. Connecting to more recent times, “Khairlanji happened. Gujarat Carnage happened. Mumbai riots happened. Otherwise our next generation will only be told to remember Godhra and Mumbai Bomb Blast, but not what happened before or after.”
Times of extraordinary stress, distress
In his foreword to the book, Upendra Baxi says ‘Sameena Dalwai and Ramu Ramanathan collect here the reminiscences of living together in the times of some extraordinary stress and distress twenty-five years ago’, but it is not only about a time frame that is 25 or 27 yearw old. It is about living together in times of extraordinary stress and distress in contemporary India. It is also about how we move forward from this point.
I can think of no better way to end this review than with a 1956 poem written by Zbigniew Herbert, that is quoted in the book:
We stand on the border
We hold out our arms
For our brothers, for our sisters
We build a great rope of hope
Yes, we stand on the border
That is called reason
We gaze back at historical fires
And we marvel at death.
K.S. Sudeep is a Kerala based writer and activist.