“We felt strange and insecure in a society where religious animosity had reached unmanageable proportions.” Sushil Srivastava, a professor of medieval and modern history at Allahabad University, wrote these words in the preface to his 1990 book, The Disputed Mosque: A Historical Inquiry, an account of the nineteenth-century origins of the communal dispute that would culminate in the destruction by a Hindu mob of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, on 6 December 1992.
When I met Srivastava, shortly before his death earlier this year, he was living those words, feeling strange and insecure in a society governed by those forces of religious animosity. His professional career had been derailed in the years since he wrote the book, and he had been threatened with physical violence. His book itself, and the history it laid out, had largely disappeared from the public consciousness. He had been a public witness in the Allahabad High Court case, but on 9 November, a few months after his death, the Supreme Court ruled on the appeal with a verdict that seemed to rely more on popular belief than on historical fact. “Enough is enough,” he told me. “Even I just want to forget this book.”
Srivastava was inspired to work on the book while studying historical land-revenue records from the erstwhile princely state of Awadh for his doctoral research. “During my research, in the early days of 1986, I began to feel very deeply that communalism in north India had worsened to a large extent, and that this was directly tied to my profession,” he told me. “The Vishva Hindu Parishad had announced, in 1978, that it would capture a number of mosques that it said were built on the sites of demolished temples. I felt that with so many popular, but baseless, myths giving rise to communal hatred, I should work to popularise the truth of these historical distortions.”
Srivastava points out in The Disputed Mosque that Awadh’s Hindus and Muslims lived in relative harmony, with religious differences “either undermined or overlooked,” and the ruling classes celebrating all religious festivals. Although there was sometimes conflict between the Shias and Sunnis, and between Vaishnavite and Shaivite Hindu sects, he writes, “Religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims were generally unknown.”
Before 1853, the mosque was known as either the Jami Masjid or the Sita-Rasoi Masjid. The name “Babri Masjid” came to be used only after communal violence first broke out that year. The violence, Srivastava writes, was the product of British colonial policy, as the East India Company consolidated its hold over northern India. After anti-British riots in Bareilly, in 1816, under the leadership of the Pathans, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, the governor general, was made “alive to the possible effect that an appeal to Muslim religious susceptibilities might have on British authority in the north.”