Faith and Fiction

A historian’s quest for the facts about the Babri Masjid dispute

Sushil Srivastava's professional career was derailed in the years since he wrote the book, and he was threatened with physical violence. COURTESY ROUGH CUT PRODUCTIONS
05 December, 2019

“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.”

In order to prevent an anti-British alliance by driving a wedge between the Shia nawabs of Awadh and the Sunni Mughal rulers, Hastings encouraged Awadh to secede from the Mughal Empire, in 1819. (At the coronation ceremony, the nawab was serenaded by “God Save the King.”) Through a treaty concluded that year, Ayodhya was transferred to a British resident, who would have control over administrative and revenue matters. “It is clear that the general intent of British policy in Avadh was to keep the population divided,” Srivastava writes. “This was achieved largely by encouraging the Hindu reaction against Muslims.” A key plank to this strategy was to encourage the growth of Hindu revivalism and fundamentalism.

“I am convinced that before the second half of the nineteenth century the idea that the Mughal emperors had desecrated Hindu holy places was quite unknown,” Srivastava writes. This idea, which he says cannot be substantiated through historical evidence, was first perpetuated by British writers in the 1830s, based on little other than local legends and speculation.

It was against this background that the communal violence of 1853–55 took place, with Hindu monks claiming that the Babri Masjid used to be a temple, and Muslim clerics claiming that the nearby Hanuman Garhi temple used to be a mosque. Amid the violence, the Hindus took over the government land adjacent to the mosque, calling it the Ram Chabutra. The British refused to intervene in the violence and exploited these divisions to annex Awadh in 1856.

In return for their loyalty during the 1857 mutiny, the British showered the Hindu zamindars and akharas—monastic orders—of Ayodhya with gifts, Srivastava writes. After hastily demarcating a boundary between the Ram Chabutra and the mosque, in 1859, the colonial authorities turned a blind eye to the Hindu land grab and the akharas’ activities. In 1934, the colonial government allowed the Hindus to demolish the dome of the mosque, although it later fined the community and used the funds to reconstruct the dome.

Using Buddhist and Jain texts as well as accounts by travellers, Srivastava pieces together a history of Ayodhya, as a city that had a number of shrines of all major Indian religions. He notes that the first archaeological survey of the city, by Alexander Cunningham in 1862–63, found ruins of Buddhist structures—also seen by the Chinese travellers Faxian and Xuanzang—but no evidence of a demolished temple. Hindu pilgrimages to Ayodhya as the birthplace of Ram, he writes, were a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in the seventeenth century. The first English traveller to the city, the merchant William Finch, who visited during the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, does not mention a Ram Janmabhoomi temple in his memoirs either.

Combing through Babur’s memoirs, Srivastava finds mention of the emperor stopping at the confluence of two rivers north of Ayodhya on 28 March 1528. There is no accounting of Babur’s whereabouts between 2 April and 8 September that year. “This is because the pages giving an account of Babur’s activities on these days are missing,” he writes. “The myth has developed because of this absence of information.” It was a number of “British scholars and administrators” writing in the nineteenth century—such as John Leyden, William Erskine, HM Elliot, Patrick Carnegie and WC Benet—who chose to fill in the gaps and perpetuate the myth that Babur visited Ayodhya on 28 March 1528 and demolished the Ram temple on the advice of local fakirs.

“My experience of collecting data on Babri Masjid–Ramjanambhoomi was an unforgettable one,” Srivastava writes in the preface. “While my students were interested in what I had to say, my academic friends and teachers, with only a few exceptions, were unsympathetic.”

In 1998, he was teaching modern history at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. At the time, Anandiben Patel, the future chief minister of Gujarat, was the state’s education minister. Srivastava told me that she sent him a message, through the Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Madhu Srivastav, that he should leave Gujarat. Once Anil Kane took over as the vice-chancellor at MSU that year, he called Srivastava to his office. “He asked me, ‘Why did you write such a book? Leave, or your legs will be broken.’” Srivastava soon took up a job at Allahabad University.

I first met Srivastava in September 2018, when he was living in the university’s faculty residence. He did not have a copy of The Disputed Mosque and asked me to get him one from Delhi. However, procuring a copy proved immensely difficult. I checked the libraries at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Indian Council of Historical Research, Allahabad University and Aligarh Muslim University, as well as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, but while all of them had once had the book, they could not find a copy. Not only had the book disappeared, there seemed to be an attempt to confuse potential readers. In the references to his book Ayodhyã Revisited, the retired police officer and VHP sympathiser Kunal Kishore incorrectly refers to Srivastava’s book as The Disputed Shrine.

After a week of searching, Saleha Rasheed, another professor at Allahabad University, found a photocopy of the Hindi translation. (A 1991 English edition can be borrowed from the Internet Archive website.) When I presented the photocopy to Srivastava, though, he did not seem pleased. Over two decades of living in fear had taken their toll.

Srivastava told me that he had decided to move out of the faculty residence, to a Dalit neighbourhood fifteen kilometres outside the city, where he could talk more freely. I met him at his new house two months later. He was still afraid for his life, but nonetheless carrying on with his fearless academic work. He was writing a new book, which he could not finish before his death, on how the British constructed a colonial identity for India and imposed it on Indian culture and religion, and how that colonial identity has brought contemporary India to a point where religious minorities cannot see a future for themselves in the largest democracy in the world.