On 6 December 1992, thousands of karsevaks—volunteers—climbed and demolished the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The karsevaks—who were led by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—believed the sixteenth-century mosque to be the birthplace of the god Rama: the Rama janmabhoomi. The days that ensued witnessed wide-scale violence, particularly against the Muslim community, and comprised a period of heightened communal tension in India.
Today marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. In the following excerpt from "The Road Back to Ayodhya" a story that was published in the February 2010 issue of The Caravan, Basharat Peer reports on the public sentiment in a post-demolition Ayodhya.
IN THE AFTERNOON of 6 December 1992, Tariq Masood, a ninth-grade student in Gorakhpur, western Uttar Pradesh, saw the television go black in the middle of a Doordarshan news bulletin. The electricity in the town was cut off for the rest of the day and the batteries in their radio were dead. A few hundreds kilometres away, thousands of karsevaks led by various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers had converged on the disputed site of Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi. Gorakhpur was under curfew. A phone call broke the news that the karsevaks had destroyed the Babri Mosque. Tariq sat quietly by his lawyer father, numb, watching him repeat the same words, “There must be a mistake. They must be lying.” In the days following 6 December, India was torn apart by a series of riots, which killed around 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. “For many years the destruction of the Babri Masjid shaped my life,” Tariq, now a 32-year-old IT consultant, told me when we met recently in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar area. “We went into a huddle. My father’s Hindu friends stopped inviting us home and we stopped inviting them to our ceremonies. I had no Hindu friends for years.”
After 17 years, 400 meetings, and 80 million rupees, the Liberhan Commission came out with its 1,029 page report in December, blaming the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for organising the demolition of the mosque and naming 60 BJP, RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Riotous scenes followed in the parliament for a few days, but the commission’s disclosures were hardly a revelation. Videos of Atal Bihari Vajpayee inciting a crowd of karsevaks at a Lucknow rally on 4 December, two days before the masjid’s demolition, have become staples on YouTube. Soon after the Liberhan report was made public, VHP leader Vinay Katiyar bragged to a television channel that 6 December 1992 was the “proudest day of my life.” Katiyar’s voice seemed to have an edge of desperation, a world away from the confidence of the 1990s, when he was a man journalists wanted to interview, when the Ram Temple movement had its last burst of fervour. He reminded me of March 2002, when a few weeks after the Gujarat pogrom, Ramchandra Paramhans, who headed the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas Trust, was leading thousands of karsevaks from across India in an attempt to defy a Supreme Court ban on construction at the disputed site by laying a foundation stone for the Ram Temple.
I had travelled to Ayodhya, along with hundreds of other journalists. The city was barricaded and flooded with policemen, but hordes of karsevaks were sneaking in and converging there. The atmosphere was frenetic with slogans of “Jai Shree Ram” and “Ram Lalla Jaynege, Mandir Wahin Banayenge.” Ramchandra Paramhans, a robust man with long matted hair and an ageing prize fighter’s body, held regular press conferences in the Karsevakpuram compound, a couple of kilometres away from the disputed site. Paramhans headed the militant Digambhar Akhara and was instrumental in installing a statue of Ram under the dome of the Babri mosque in 1949 and initiated in 1950 the legal battle to reclaim the Babri Masjid for the Hindus. “Even if Bhagwan Rama comes and says he was not born in Ayodhya, I will not believe him,” Paramhans was famously quoted as saying. Paramhans was a confident yet mercurial man, giving assurances of peaceful conduct one moment, telling jokes the other, and soon after threatening to drink poison and kill himself if he was not allowed to carry the foundation stones to the disputed site.
Scores of craftsmen worked full time, chiselling floral designs and figurines of Ram on the pink sandstone slabs that would come together to form the Ram Temple. Vajpayee was the prime minister, the worldwide condemnation of the Gujarat pogrom a fortnight earlier and the complexities of being in power had tamed the BJP. After a long series of negotiations, Paramhans’ boys were allowed a token ceremony, wherein a crowd of sadhus and four ten year-old boys from a Hindu gurukul led the procession carrying a sandstone slab from the temple workshop to a place near the disputed site, where they were made to hand over the stones to district authorities. “All we need is 24 hours and a few machines can put the temple together,” one heard often those days.
Seven years later, on a foggy December morning in 2009, I drove from Lucknow to Ayodhya to see what remained of that old fervour for the Ram temple. The repeated defeats of the BJP in the elections seemed to suggest the end of a phase of Hindu nationalism, anti-Muslim rhetoric and riots – from the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 to the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Over the last few years, there has been much talk about India’s great power status and the surge in its economy. Thousands of Indian professionals based in the United States have returned home to cash in on the boom. India is pushing aggressively on the world stage, trying to make its presence felt through investments in Africa and buying influence in Afghanistan by providing trillions of rupees in aid and helping build infrastructure, sending sophisticated scientific expeditions to Antarctica and producing even more expensive movies. I wondered: how do India’s Muslims relate to the New India? Were they finding a way to a share in the growing economy? Had they made peace with the ghosts of Babri? Did they see an end to the rampant suspicion and arrests in the name of anti-terrorism measures? I decided to travel to a few cities and towns in Uttar Pradesh, where 31 million of India’s 154 million Muslims live to gauge how much the recent past mattered, how they saw the present and hear their hopes for a future.
Ayodhya was a quiet, medieval city of spires and domes mixing ancient Hindu temple architecture with a dash of Mughal style. When I visited in December 2009, the Sarayu River, which flanks the city, was hidden in mist and the small, jute and bamboo shacks of pundits on its banks were almost empty, waiting for pilgrims. A calf clothed in a jute sack stood by each shack. I walked around the well-washed streets and the bazaars of the city. Vendors sold brassware for the pilgrims and advertised the glory of the sweets—besan laddoos, pedas, jalebis—made in Ayodhya, almost untouched by the homogenising flood of globalisation. In the market leading to the much barricaded and guarded site of Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi, young boys sang devotional songs on television sets and the shopkeepers sold orange Hanumans made of plastic.
A few miles away, at the Ram Temple workshop near the Digambar Akhara, young pundits went about dusting mats, an activist sold DVDs of “the Ramayan” and karseva from a tiny wooden shack at the gate, and a few policemen stood guard with assault rifles. An old woman sold maps of Ayodhya. The compound was empty, quiet. Monkeys jumped around. The sandstone blocks and the pillars meant for the Ram Temple were piled up in large stacks, their pink darkened by thick layers of dust and moss. A framed picture of Paramhans hung beside a miniature model of the proposed temple. “Paramhans-ji is dead. The artisans have left,” one of the caretakers of the compound, a man in his late 50s told me. He seemed tired, resigned. I mentioned my earlier visit in 2002 when Paramhans was leading the push for foundationary rituals for the Ram Temple. “It is quiet now. There is no movement for the temple here now. Those days are over.”
In a nearby bazaar, I got into a conversation with a shopkeeper, Vinod Gupta. A plump man in his 30s, Gupta moaned that the barricades and the checkpoints on the road to the disputed site, where pilgrims make regular visits to a makeshift temple, hurt business. “Imagine how many people would visit if the temple had been made?” Gupta said wistfully. I asked if he saw any chances of that happening. “What chances? The BJP did nothing despite eight years in power. The only chance I see of a temple being built here is when Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister.” I was perplexed by his expectations of the young Gandhi. “Think about it.” he said solemnly, “The locks were opened when the Congress was in power; the idols were installed when the Congress was in power; the Babri Masjid was demolished when the Congress was in power. Maybe we will have the temple when the Congress is in power.”