I was more curious than impressed when I first saw the Babri Masjid from close quarters in Ayodhya. It looked more like a pale version of many of the ancient Muslim burial tombs or ‘gumbat’ in Delhi. Of course, I had seen the pictures of the 16th century brownish-blackish mosque (the VHP insisted on calling it “a structure” to rob it of its religious aura). But seeing amounts to believing! And so it was my first viewing of a historical place, soon to become history.
The Shan-e-Avadh Hotel on the main road in the heart of Faizabad became the hub for the Delhi/Lucknow media, which frequently descended to report on Ayodhya. Ayodhya, home to Saryu river, was dotted with hundreds of small and big temples as well as ‘akhadas’. Looking back, I can safely claim that if anyone profited most from the VHP-led campaign to build a grand Rama temple, it probably was this hotel – and the one which stood close to it!
It’s not that everyone in the town was pro-BJP. Faizabad had been once a Communist hub, like many other places in UP. Much to the chagrin of the BJP-VHP-RSS brigade, Faizabad sent a CPI leader to the Lok Sabha when Ayodhya became a politico-religious battleground.
When the VHP unleashed its drive to build a Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid, most journalists viewed it as a noisy drama that would soon blow over. This was true for almost all journalists although it became tempting later to draw a thick line between the English and Hindi media and blame the former for its secular worldview. No one could really explain how it came to be known that Lord Rama was born precisely at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood. And if that was indeed the case, why did Sant Tulsidas not mention it in his works.
Over time, however, such questions became redundant to the larger story as the VHP aggression slowly captured people’s minds. Whenever we were in the vicinity of the securely guarded Babri Masjid, a familiar sight was Vinay Katiyar, the Bajrang Dal leader who was later elected to the Lok Sabha from battleground zero. He had very strong views: Why do Muslims want to humiliate Hindus? Why can’t they give up this one mosque? If Hindus cannot build a temple in their own country, where do they go? London? The questions began to get asked by ordinary folks too. As if in concert with the nationwide Hindu rightwing consolidation, one started seeing the Hindu-Muslim divide in Ayodhya too.
The urban Muslims were as aggressive as the VHP. “India is the only Hindu majority country, but there are 16 Muslim majority countries in the world,” thundered a middle-aged, middle-class Muslim shopkeeper to me. “If you drive us away, we can go to any of the 16 countries. But if we drive you away, where will you go? Tell me!” Realising that he really wanted an answer from me, I mumbled: “Nepal.”
Beside me then was VN Arora, a professor in a Faizabad college, who also doubled as a journalist and whose house at the edge of Faizabad town was akin to a must-stop railway junction for all visiting journalists. It was partly due to ‘Prof Arora’ that I came to know VHP chief Ashok Singhal well. Singhal was one of the very few in the higher echelons of the Sangh Parivar who was at home with the Hindu scriptures and who could argue on theological points. The more I spoke to Singhal, the more I sensed that he resented LK Advani’s popularity on the strength of a movement which he (Singhal) had built from nowhere. “You are India’s Khomeini,” I told him once, as we sat at his camp office in Ayodhya. “No, no, don’t say that,” he protested. But I could make out that he did not seem to mind. He kept smiling. After all, hadn’t he consolidated the Hindus the way Khomeini had banded the Muslims?
It did not take long for hatred and violence to make their presence felt in Ayodhya. After one bout of communal clash, Arora and I met an aged Muslim man who recounted with tears in his eyes how “some outsiders” repeatedly stabbed his son in front of him and dumped his body in a well. One day, word spread among journalists that a Muslim man had been killed in the town. We rushed to the spot, and found a body sprawled outside a house. No one was ready to say who killed him. But a young woman who came out of the house abused us journalists most vocally. “So, you love this man? Then take him away!”. It would be an understatement to say that we were stunned.
Yet, in the very same Ayodhya, we witnessed a procession of a dozen or so men walking while holding a string cot on their shoulders. “Ram naam satya hai,” the crowd chanted in unison, giving away that this was a march to a cremation spot. But no human lay dead on the cot – it was a monkey. Enquiries revealed that a bus had knocked down the monkey as it darted across the road, and someone decided that the symbol of Lord Hanuman needed a decent send-off.
I was returning from Chennai to Delhi by Tamil Nadu Express in 1990. Our train was halted at Gwalior and we were told that it would proceed no further due to violence in parts of UP. We were then told to board another train (Goa Express?). As the train reached Aligarh, it came under attack from a Hindu mob. Our own 2AC coach was heavily stoned. All of us could see from the windows a badly stabbed young man, his clothes drenched in blood, walking with unsteady legs along a track. Little did we know that the nation was being led, slowly but steadily, to the D-Day.
On December 6, 1992, a Sunday, I was on duty at AFP from 4 pm. I reached the office on Surya Kiran Building much early because I was keen to play some card games on the computer. It was Anil Penna, who was in the morning shift, who broke the news: “MR, the Babri Masjid is gone!”
I couldn’t believe myself. We knew there was to be a “dharam sansad” (religious parliament) that day in Ayodhya but we had assumed the Sangh Parivar gathering would disperse after passing some angry anti-government, anti-Muslim resolutions. It was an era when there was no 24×7 news channel, no Twitter, and no mobile phone. The deed had been done. One after the other, all three tombs and then the walls of the Babri Masjid came crashing down, irrevocably changing India’s history.
I still feel that the razing of the Babri Masjid was the most important event to jolt independent India after the killing of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Few thought that December 6 would eventually play a key role in bringing the BJP to power on its own just over two decades later.
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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