‘This was no ordinary assembly; they looked angry and purposeful’

‘This was no ordinary assembly; they looked angry and purposeful’

This story first appeared in Bangalore Mirror

Senior journalist and SAWM member Radhika Ramaseshan traced back her stay at Lucknou and some of the darkest days in Indian history, the demolition of Babri Masjid and the agressive Hindutva politics of the RSS-BJP. Read this article to the days in past.

For the six years that I lived in Lucknow, Ayodhya became a second home. Not a week passed when I was not haring between Lucknow and this pilgrim town of rundown temples and scruffy mahants and sadhus to cover an event, set up by the VHP and the Hindu clergy, little foreseeing that topographically and politically, Ayodhya stood on the cusp of foretelling a fundamental change in India.

My Uttar Pradesh stint was bookmarked by two milestones: the “shilanyas” on November 9, 1989, that laid the foundation stone for a temple on the site of the Babri mosque, reclaimed by faith, might and right as Rama’s birthplace; and the mosque’s demolition on December 6, 1992. The intervening years were about watching Hinduism re-invented unrecognisably by the VHP and its votaries, internalising the jargon that interspersed the cacophony from Ayodhya, discovering political Hindutva and its rapid seepage in the national polity, and seeing a fade-out of UP’s celebrated Ganga-Jamuni “tehzeeb”.

There was communal violence, the BJP’s first government in Lucknow was sworn in 1991 and within little time, the manifestations of its agenda were visible: rewrite history texts, ban animal slaughter and close abattoirs, and rename cities with Islamic names. But nothing prepared me for the final assault on the mosque that winter, over a quarter of a century ago.

A week before the disaster, Kalyan Singh, then chief minister, gave me an interview in which he reiterated an “undertaking” he had given to the Supreme Court about leaving the 2.77-acre disputed area untouched and maintaining the status quo. Wistfully, Singh said he had completed a little over a year in office and had ambitious plans to revamp the administration and industrialise UP. Five years was too short a time to realise his aspirations, he said. I thought aloud whether he had an inkling that some disaster was about to happen on December 6, the date that was assigned for a “symbolic” kar seva in Ayodhya, that might take his job away. He laughed nervously and repeated the “promise” made to the court.

Ground zero held out ominous portents. Every inch of unoccupied land in Ayodhya was taken up by kar sevaks from all over the country, whose numbers swelled by the day. A colleague presciently remarked that this was no ordinary assemblage because the men and women looked angry and purposeful. A senior minister in the NDA government recalled years later that as a kar sevak, who slept in the open near the mosque, his “blood boiled” when he watched the silhouetted domes by moonlight. “When will they fall, I asked myself,” he said. Bands of VHP activists cleared the Muslim hamlets around the mosque of their residents and had the Muslim-owned shops closed. A few brave souls stayed on to guard their properties.

The tension that hung heavy warranted large-scale police deployment but unlike October-November 1990 – when Mulayam Singh Yadav had barricaded the town, fearing an attack on the mosque that he could not foil – in 1992, the BJP government mobilised only a couple of hundred state police and paramilitary personnel and a contingent of the newly formed Rapid Action Force that was posted on Ayodhya’s periphery.

On December 6, we journalists arrived early to see VHP patriarch Ashok Singhal and Faizabad MP Vinay Katiyar supervising the site of the “token” yagya, just outside the mosque. Singhal told us that the kar sevaks would come to the yagya spot in “jathas” (groups) from one side and leave from the other, without entering the disputed place.

We were directed to take our places on the terrace of the Manas Bhawan, a temple overlooking the mosque, but without our pens, notebooks and cameras. Remember this was the pre-digital era. It was another sign that something was about to happen. Our Muslim colleagues had foresight enough to identify themselves with Hindu names. What if we were asked to show our press cards, I wondered, and worried for the Muslim journalists. We weren’t, but that was no mercy because minutes later a couple of kar sevaks, saffron bandanas emblazoned with “Jai Shri Ram”, came up to me and asked where SP Singh, the legendary Hindi journalist, was. SP, obviously targeted for being “anti-BJP”, stood right next to me but I gathered my nerves and said I didn’t know who he was.

As the clock ticked away, chants of “Jai Shri Ram” filled the place and with that, Kalyan Singh’s “promise” and Singhal’s claim of a regimented show were tossed out. The kar sevaks went for the photographers and then the Faizabad journalists they had marked out as adversaries. One petite but doughty woman was tossed into a pit. The cops mutely watched the kar sevaks break through a wooden barricading protecting the mosque, barge into the disputed area and go to work on the structure with shovels, iron rods, pickaxes, and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Singhal made a gesture to rein them in but it was obvious from the faces of the top RSS and BJP leaders – LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati and KN Govindacharya included – who watched the spectacle from a specially built watchtower, that they savoured those moments. It took three hours for the three domes, perched on a hilltop, to come down.

Delirious with joy, the kar sevaks danced, chanting “Ram Lalla hum aayen hain, mandir yaheen banayenge”. Uma Bharati egged them on with, “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri masjid ko thod do”. Five hours of pummelling and battering was what it took for the 16th century mosque to be reduced to rubble. The hundred-odd Muslim men, women and children who remained in the town were packed into a small room at a police outpost, too frightened to say anything.

Joshi beamed with Uma perched on his shoulders. Advani cried. Were they tears of joy or regret? The latter, I think, because with the mosque gone, Ayodhya as a political programme never regained its old traction for the “parivar”.

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About Radhika Ramaseshan