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.
Some events leave a permanent mark on the history of a people. For many in my generation, one such moment of iconic suffering was the felling by a frenzied mob of a medieval mosque on December 6, 1992. The three domes of the historic mosque came crashing down after triumphant crowds of exultant young men – mobilised and cheered by political leaders who were destined just years later to lead the nation – scaled its walls and planted saffron flags on the pinnacles of the shrine.
That cataclysmic moment 25 years earlier changed India, but I hope not permanently. Today every second Indian is below the age of 25. This means that half of the Indian people have been raised in an India after Hindu supremacists won their first decisive battle in their alternative idea for India, of a Hindu Rashtra, and have never looked back since then.
Earlier generations would recall how for more than a decade in the brief history of post-colonial India, from the mid-1980s, the fate of a small piece of land, not much larger than the size of a football field, in a dusty town called Ayodhya, dominated national politics in India. Governments rose and fell, blood flowed periodically on the streets, thousands of lives were lost and homes gutted, around a single bitter dispute. It was as though nothing else mattered in this country – not hunger, not illiteracy, not the oppression of women and disadvantaged castes, not the near-death of agriculture, not the suffering of footloose workers, not the pauperisation of our tribal people. All that mattered was whether a mosque built in 1527 on that site by the first Mughal emperor Babur should be allowed to stand, or a grand temple be built in its place. A large segment of right-wing Hindu supremacist opinion claimed that Babur had demolished a Ram temple to build the mosque at that site, and national pride required that the mosque should be pulled down and replaced by a grand Ram temple.
The Babri Masjid evolved into a virile powerful symbol used by Hindu supremacist organisations to revive a battle whose lines were drawn much earlier, during India’s struggle for freedom. The combat was not about competing claims of the followers of Ram and Allah to a disputed site. It was about the character of free India, whether it would be a nation which guaranteed all citizens the freedom to practice and propagate their faiths, and assured them equal rights and protection under the law; or whether it would be a state in which people of minority faiths would live as second class citizens, in perpetual cultural and legal subordination.
India won freedom in the agony of blood and separation. Partition riots left a million dead and 14 times that number uprooted from the lands of their ancestors. The Constituent Assembly of the newly independent Indian republic voted for a secular democratic constitution, drafted by the leader of India’s most oppressed castes Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Mahatma Gandhi’s last battle was for a fair deal to Muslims who had migrated to Pakistan. This enraged some members of extremist Hindutva formations and they took his life.
Gandhi’s death stunned people of diverse faiths in India into an initial largely unbroken record of communal peace for a decade and a half. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its political front the Jan Sangh, tainted with allegations of complicity in Gandhi’s assassination, remained for the most in the relative margins of India’s political and social life. It regained initial political respectability when it was permitted to join the struggle against the Emergency in the mid-1970s. In the 1984 general elections, the BJP still won just four parliamentary seats. It sought a cause and a symbol to rally majority Hindu sentiment. It located it in the Babri Masjid dispute.
In 1949, idols of Ram were surreptitiously placed in the Babri mosque, and the then district magistrate K.K. Nair refused to obey Jawaharlal Nehru’s directions to vacate these from the mosque. (Nair subsequently joined the Jan Sangh and became its MP). Worship by Muslims stopped but Hindus were granted limited rights of worship. In 1986, another partisan court ruling and the tacit support of the central Congress government led to temple doors being opened and full access for worship by the Hindus.
In 1989, the RSS launched a country-wide Ram Shila programme, in which bricks were collected from villages and towns to send to Ayodhya to build the temple. There was a surge of popular support for this campaign. I was then posted then as a district magistrate in a small town in Madhya Pradesh called Khargone, and witnessed first-hand how this incendiary campaign rapidly raised the communal climate to feverish levels. In many towns, aggressive mobs marched with the bricks that people donated, shouting aggressive slogans against the Muslims, and riots broke out, targeting lives, gutting homes, livelihoods and shrines. I recall that some 108 towns and cities in the country were simultaneously under curfew in those dark days.
The communal divide widened further with BJP leader L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra in September 1990. As his air-conditioned vehicle advanced nearly 10,000 kilometres from Somnath – chosen for its communally emotive history, as this was where a temple had been razed in 1026 by invader Mahmud Ghaznavi – towards Ayodhya, it left everywhere a trail of communal blood-letting, and fear in the hearts of Muslim citizens across the country.
The slogans raised in those years were chilling. Indian Muslims were told:
Musalman ke do hi sthaan–
Pakistan ya Kabristan.
(There are only two places for Muslims to go – Pakistan or the cemetery).
There were open calls for insurrection to the police:
Hindu Hindu Bhai Bhai
Beech mein vardi kahan se aai?
(Hindus are brothers. Then how can the uniform come between us?)
And the anthem of the movement was mandir wahi banayenge, or a pledge that the temple would be constructed at the very site where the mosque stood.
The leaders of the movement to build the Ram temple deemed irrelevant the fact that it is impossible to confirm the exact piece of land on which Ram was actually born, or even whether he was a historical figure. They declared that this belief was a matter of faith of the Hindus, who constitute the nation’s majority population, and therefore their faith should be respected by Indian Muslims, by the courts and legislature, and by secular democrats. The removal from that site of the mosque and the restoration of the Ram temple that they believed stood there before the Mughal conquest, was to them a matter of nationalist vindication, by avenging and correcting the historical subjugation and humiliation of the Hindu people.
It mattered little to them that their claims were weak in both history and law. Independent scholars mostly agree that there is no convincing archaeological or historic evidence that Babur actually pulled down a Ram temple to build the mosque. The matter was referred to the highest court of the land, but the Hindutva leadership refused to be bound by the mediation of the courts in case these ruled against their claims, because they believed – in defiance of the fundamental premises of secular democracy – that even law must subordinate itself to the faith of the majority. There is also no consensus even of faith among practicing Hindus about the birth-place of Ram: in Ayodhya itself, there are thousands of temples which claim their location to be the place where their beloved deity Ram was born. The majority of residents of Ayodhya opposed the Ram temple movement from the start, not least of all because they believe that Ram was a symbol of righteousness and compassion in governance, and not of rule by violence, partisanship and fear.
The majority of Hindus also opposed the basic premise of the Hindu nationalists, that it is legitimate to avenge and correct today the alleged wrongs of history. Why should people today have to carry the burdens of their respective histories, and to atone for these? And if indeed they must, then why should the responsibilities of these burdens be so selective? History bears witness, for instance, that Buddhism was violently crushed and wiped out from large swathes of India by Brahminical Hinduism; in that case, why should Hindu temples not be pulled down and replaced by Buddhist stupas? And why should all of these not give way to animist tribal shrines? The longest unbroken record of brutal oppression for millennia was against Dalits and women; then why should all upper caste men today not face violent vengeance?
Matters came to a head when youth were mobilised from far corners of the country to converge on the temple site on December 6, 1992. Seventeen years later, Justice Liberhan’s judicial commission indicted the entire leadership of the BJP and RSS who it said ‘entered into a Joint Common Enterprise for the demolition of the disputed structure and the construction of the temple in its place’. The Central government led by Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao unconscionably watched passively not just the razing of the mosque, but the construction of a makeshift temple at the site over 36 hours. This was consistent with their policy of appeasing extremist Hindu supremacists rather than defending the constitution and law of the land. The country broke out in its worst frenzy of communal violence after Partition, which continued sporadically until the carnage in Gujarat in 2002.
The BJP reaped a rich political harvest from its campaign of hate and division through the temple movement, and formed the government at the Centre for the first time in the late 1990s, in alliance with a number of opportunistic ‘secular’ parties. Every institution of Indian democracy let down the Indian people in these critical and dangerous years. The local newspapers glorified the rioters as Ram Bhakts or devotees of Ram, and the national media abetted in the re-invention of leaders like Advani as moderates, white-washing their central role in fomenting communal violence and planning and leading a campaign that defied India’s secular democracy. Courts have not punished any of those guilty for the crimes of 1992 or the riots that followed in their wake. The Liberhan Judicial Commission confirmed the criminal role of leaders of the BJP and RSS, but recommended no criminal action against them. The Central government, led by the Congress, lost no time accepting these recommendations. This was in keeping with traditions of impunity that surround political hate crimes in this country. The Supreme Court to date prevaricates and refuses to pass rulings about the legal claims to the disputed land, and to restore the primacy of the law in resolving differences.
On December 6, 2017, India’s Press Club in Delhi commemorated the day 25 years earlier with the testimonies of journalists who were present that day in Ayodhya. Their accounts were chilling, for the brazen ways in which senior leaders of the BJP flouted the constitution, courts and law, and systematically planned the razing, even as the police stood by and watched. Speakers recognised this as a decisive moment in the movement of hate that continues into the present day. The acceptable violence against the mosque has become normalised as acceptable violence against India’s Muslims. They also spoke of how the crowds thrashed, groped and locked up journalists who gathered to tell the story to the world. Someone said wryly, ‘Those days, journalists were beaten to force them into silence, and still they fought to speak the truth. Today they are willingly silenced, and no hand is raised against them.’
The dust raised by the demolition heralded for over a decade the triumph of politics founded on hate and difference, over ancient traditions of tolerance and pluralism. It marked the victory of frenzied mob violence over the restraints imposed by modern systems of law and the secular democratic constitution which the people of India gave themselves after India became free. It denoted the betrayal of the pledge that the people of India made to each other that this would be a land in which it would not matter which god you chose to worship, or if you chose to worship none; it would not count if you were of this caste or that, if you were a man or a woman, if you were wealthy or destitute. You would be a fully equal human being and citizen, assured of equal protection by the law of the land.
Under the rubble of the fallen mosque lay the idea of India itself.
It is the impoverished people of India who have to pick up the pieces of the idea of India from under the rubble of the medieval mosque razed by frenzied mobs in 1992. It is they who have must reclaim again the inclusive pluralist traditions of this ancient teeming, diverse land, with courage, with conviction, and with resolute solidarity and love.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.