By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
December 6, 2012
By the summer of 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in a bind. The euphoria that marked the start of his term had given way to controversy: opposition parties alleged that he benefitted from bribes paid in India’s purchase of howitzer guns from a Swedish company, AB Bofors.
Mr. Gandhi denied wrongdoing. But as the end of his first term approached, he needed an issue that would change the dynamics of the upcoming election.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which had just two seats in Parliament, already had seized on Ayodhya as its chief campaign issue.
The party was formed in 1980 from the remnants of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the Hindu party that both Guru Dutt Singh and K.K. Nayar, the administrators in Faizabad in 1949, joined when they entered politics.
The BJP had close links to the largest conservative Hindu organizations: the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which for years had been calling for the construction of a temple to Lord Ram in Ayodhya; and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hard-line Hindu group that was formed in 1925.
At a meeting in Palampur in the foothills of the Himalayas, in June 1989, the BJP’s national executive endorsed the demand to build a Ram temple, calling it by its Hindu name, “Ram Janmabhoomi.”
The statement declared that the dispute over the Babri Masjid “highlighted the callous unconcern” which Mr. Gandhi’s Congress and other parties “betray towards the sentiments of the overwhelming majority in this country – the Hindus.”
The prime minister’s advisers encouraged him to co-opt the same issue for his own re-election effort. He “had been advised by various intelligence agencies and politicians that ‘You launch your campaign from Ayodhya,’” said R.K. Dhawan, then Mr. Gandhi’s private secretary, in an interview.
The BJP, at the time, was not viewed as the main opposition: Mr. Gandhi faced a greater threat from an alliance of former ministers who had split from Congress: Arif Mohammed Khan, the minister who resigned from Mr. Gandhi’s government in 1986; Arun Nehru, Mr. Gandhi’s cousin and former political adviser; and Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Mr. Gandhi’s former finance minister.
They were hammering on the Bofors allegations. So Mr. Gandhi seized on Ayodhya. He launched his campaign from the neighbouring city of Faizabad in the autumn of 1989.
On a large field, before a crowd of thousands, he gave a speech from notes that had been prepared by Mani Shankar Aiyar, his special assistant and speechwriter. But, said Mr. Aiyar, the prime minister slipped in an unscripted reference to “Ram Rajya.”
The phrase connoted the ideal governance that Lord Ram had practiced when, Hindu scripture says, he ruled Ayodhya thousands of years before. It had been a term used by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s independence struggle. But it also was used by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to promote the movement to construct a Ram temple. When Rajiv Gandhi used the phrase, his opponents accused him of pandering to divisive Hindu sentiment.
Still, Mr. Gandhi further embraced the Ayodhya issue soon after. In early November 1989, just weeks before the general election, the prime minister sent Buta Singh, the home minister, to the town to participate in a “Shilanayas,” or symbolic temple foundation-laying ceremony.
The event was organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which had been collecting bricks from all over India and bringing them to Ayodhya to symbolize the desire to build a Ram temple. As many as 275,000 villages and 60 million people participated, according to a VHP spokesman. Bricks were also sent from the U.S., the U.K. and other foreign locales.
Mr. Gandhi figured no Muslims would object if a Ram temple was built near the Babri Masjid but outside the area that was being disputed by Hindus and Muslims, Mr. Aiyar said.
To ensure the land where the ceremony took place was uncontroversial, a court registrar verified the plot with pencil markings on a map, Buta Singh said in an interview at his New Delhi home.
But afterward, Muslim leaders claimed the site of the ceremony had impinged on a graveyard around the mosque and was part of the property being fought over in court.
They publicly vowed revenge at the ballot box against Mr. Gandhi’s Congress party, said Zafaryab Jilani, convener of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee and the lead lawyer representing Muslims in the court dispute.
Mr. Gandhi’s strategy of using Ayodhya to boost his re-election prospects had backfired. Muslims saw in the performance of the Shilanayas a direct threat to the mosque. Hindus who wanted a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid, which they viewed as Ram’s birthplace, weren’t satisfied with a temple near the mosque.
“We fought on somebody else’s territory and the tactics we used blew back on us,” said Mr. Aiyar. It was a “horrendous decision,” added Mr. Dhawan.
It spelled electoral disaster. No single party won a majority in Parliament and Congress remained the largest party. But it lost so many seats that Mr. Gandhi opted not to try to form a government.
Instead, his opponents did. The new coalition government was headed by Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the former finance minister in Mr. Gandhi’s government, who had switched from Congress to the Janata Dal party.
The BJP saw its seats in Parliament jump to 85 from two, according to election commission results. It used its new power to support the new government and give it a working majority in Parliament. That gave the BJP huge leverage which it would exercise, over Ayodhya, in the following months.
The BJP’s sudden prominence thrust Lal Krishna Advani, one of the party’s senior leaders, to the forefront of New Delhi politics.
Almost a year later, he gained national attention when, on Sept. 25, 1990, he began a cross-country journey in an air-conditioned mini-bus made to look like a chariot and decorated with marigold flowers, according to Mr. Advani’s autobiography. Ram rode a chariot into battle, according to Hindu scriptures.
Mr. Advani began the trip from Somnath, in the western state of Gujarat. Somnath is, like Ayodhya, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. A temple there dedicated to the god Shiva, the destroyer, had been repeatedly razed by Muslim invaders over centuries. But construction of a new temple in Somnath had begun in 1947 with the blessing of the government in New Delhi, making it a symbolic starting point for his journey.
Mr. Advani planned to reach Ayodhya by Oct. 30. That was the day that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu organization, set for “Karseva” — religious work — to begin in Ayodhya. The religious work envisaged was the construction of a Ram temple on the site in dispute between Hindus and Muslims.
Mr. Advani, now 85 years old, declined to be interviewed. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said through an aide.
Slender, with dark-rimmed glasses, a neatly-trimmed moustache and a circle of white hair below his bald pate, Mr. Advani grew up in a devout Hindu household in pre-Partition Karachi, now Pakistan’s largest city. At the age of 14, he joined the RSS, the hard-line Hindu group.
He moved to Rajasthan as an RSS organizer before becoming a journalist and political apparatchik. He was a co-founder of the BJP in 1980.
Along the chariot’s route, Mr. Advani encountered dramatic scenes of devotion: the chariot itself was worshipped as divine, he wrote. In short speeches – he made 20 a day — from a platform on the chariot, he spoke about how the “power of devotion towards Ram can unleash people’s power,” he wrote.
In his autobiography, Mr. Advani claimed the route the chariot took was peaceful. Government officials and published accounts from that time said his journey sparked widespread violence elsewhere between Hindus and Muslims.
As Mr. Advani rode across India and the deadline approached for the start of temple construction on Oct. 30, 1990, the nation was on edge.
State officials in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located, worried about the potential for large-scale violence. In early October that year, false rumours had spread in one area that Muslims had killed hundreds of Hindus, including butchering women and children. Riots erupted, leaving 80 people dead, all but one of them Muslim, according to a later published account.
In mid-October, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the new prime minister, sought a compromise on Ayodhya that would reduce the tension.
He summoned Swaminathan Gurumurthy from Chennai to New Delhi. Mr. Gurumurthy — a wiry, spry man and chartered accountant by training — was an adviser to the powerful then-publisher of the Indian Express newspaper, Ramnath Goenka, and an interlocutor for the RSS. The organization’s approval was viewed as key to Hindu support for a deal.
In a series of meetings at the prime minister’s residence, Mr. Singh, his advisers, and Mr. Gurumurthy discussed the idea of a presidential ordinance, effectively an executive order.
The idea was for the central government to acquire all the land around the Babri Masjid. Most of the land would be handed over to a trust run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu organization, Mr. Gurumurthy said in an interview. But the Babri Masjid and another small parcel would be kept by the government and referred for deliberations to the Supreme Court.
The court would be asked to decide whether there had previously been a Ram temple on that site, said Mr. Gurumurthy. If so, the assumption was that the site would be given to Hindus. BJP leaders, including Mr. Advani, supported the initiative.
Muslim leaders found out that an ordinance was being considered but they had not been consulted, said Zafaryab Jilani, the lawyer and convener of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee.
A delegation of Muslim leaders went to question the prime minister at his residence, Mr. Jilani said. Mr. Singh denied there was any plan for an ordinance: “No, no. When I have, I will discuss with you,” Mr. Jilani said the prime minister told them.
But on the night of Oct. 18, the prime minister agreed to pass the ordinance and it was issued the following day.
When the Muslim leaders heard what had happened, they felt deceived, Mr. Jilani said. And they opposed the ordinance because they felt the site of the mosque was sacred land that could not be owned by the government.
They met again the following day with the prime minister. “You are very much annoyed,” Mr. Singh told them, according to Mr. Jilani. “I cannot afford to have you people annoyed.” It was clear Mr. Singh was having second thoughts.
Mr. Gurumurthy said that the prime minister and his advisers had always appeared “tentative” about the ordinance. Mr. Singh “never looked confident in this entire period,” he added. But once the ordinance had been issued, Mr. Gurumurthy figured the prime minister and his advisers “would stick by it.”
Instead, soon after, the government issued a second ordinance that simply cancelled the first ordinance, leaving the Ayodhya issue unresolved.
Mr. Gurumurthy said he confronted the prime minister. “You have done greatest harm to the country,” he said he told him. The prime minister was silent, he said. They never met again; Mr. Singh is now deceased.
The flip-flop on the ordinance set up a confrontation between the BJP and the government it supported.
Soon after, Mr. Advani was apprehended in the state of Bihar by local authorities and prevented from reaching Ayodhya. He was later released but the chariot drive stopped. The BJP withdrew its support from Mr. Singh’s government, leaving it short of a majority in Parliament.
Heavy security was placed in Ayodhya to deter Hindu activists, known as “Karsevaks,” from arriving for the Oct. 30 start date of construction, or Karseva.
But many slipped in. Some climbed the domes of the Babri Masjid and damaged the building. Police fought the crowd and later opened fire. The death toll was 16, according to an official government account. The BJP claims more than 50 were killed.
Soon after, Mr. Singh’s government faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament. It lost.
A fresh government was installed in November 1990 with a new prime minister, Chandra Shekhar Singh. He was a blunt-spoken socialist. This time, the government was supported by the Congress party, led by Rajiv Gandhi.
The new prime minister tried, again, to find a solution to the Ayodhya dispute.
He asked Subodh Kant Sahai, then minister of state in the home ministry, to lead discussions with Hindu and Muslim representatives, eight from each side. Three chief ministers – of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh – participated to smooth tensions.
Facing each other across a long table, the two sides brought historians and materials to support their claims: photographs; papers and court judgments from British colonial times; and copies of inscriptions dating back to Emperor Babar’s rule in the sixteenth century.
The meetings were “very cordial,” said Mr. Sahai in an interview, noting it was a period of relative calm in the long-running confrontation. “I was sure we will succeed.”
But in March 1991, before the initiative could bear fruit, the Congress party alleged that government agents had been spying on Mr. Gandhi. The accusations were never proven but Congress withdrew its support from the government. Another general election ensued.
Then, on May 21, 1991, on the campaign trail in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Mr. Gandhi, age 46, was killed by a suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil terror group opposed India’s military support for the Sri Lankan government in the nation’s long-running civil war.
Congress won the election, returning to power in June 1991. But its standard bearer, Mr. Gandhi, was gone. The new prime minister was P.V. Narasimha Rao. A lawyer by training, he was reserved and judicious with words — and India’s fourth leader in two years.
At the same election, the Bharatiya Janata Party won its first-ever state poll, coming to power in Uttar Pradesh, the state where Ayodhya is located. That gave it huge influence over what happened in the town. Not long after, the state government acquired 2.77 acres of land in front of the Babri Masjid.
A new call was made for volunteers to amass in Ayodhya in July 1992, again to try to start construction of a temple. Mr. Rao scrambled to defuse the situation. That month, he met a group of Sadhus in New Delhi who agreed to a three-month delay, pushing the start date back to late October.
Mr. Rao declared in Parliament on July 27 that he saw a way forward for “an agreed solution to the problem.” Instead, it only delayed a crisis.
In October, the prime minister asked Subodh Kant Sahai to re-open the negotiations that had showed promise during the previous administration.
Both sides agreed to maintain peace during the talks. But toward the end of October, there were newspaper reports that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu organization, would call for volunteers to amass when the three-month delay agreed by the sadhus expired. The news angered Muslims who claimed the Hindus had been negotiating in bad faith.
“You all have already announced the date for karseva,” or religious work, one of the Muslim representatives said in anger at the next session, according to two people present. “Why is this meeting going on?”
The negotiations fizzled soon after. Another chance at a settlement was lost. The All India Babri Masjid Action Committee said in a statement at the time that the declaration of karseva “challenged the very foundation of our democratic and constitutional system and secular fabric of the country.”
But a new date was set: Dec. 6, 1992, 20 years ago today.
Mr. Rao was concerned that the mass gathering could lead to disaster. In November, he met at his residence with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the two most senior BJP leaders in New Delhi. Kalyan Singh, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, also was there, according to two persons who attended.
The Hindu side, at various times until then, had given different versions of what they wanted the volunteer work to involve.
At one point, representatives suggested that the Babri Masjid should be relocated so a temple could be built. At others, they proposed that a temple could be built without interfering with the mosque. Sometimes, they said karseva would involve only symbolic manual labor, such as sweeping. The mosque’s destruction – though called for by many radicals in slogans and speeches – was not formally proposed.
During the hour-long meeting with Mr. Rao, the BJP leaders assured the prime minister that nothing would happen to the Babri Masjid, said P.V.R.K. Prasad, an adviser to Mr. Rao. Kalyan Singh, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister at the time, confirmed that the meeting took place; the other two BJP leaders declined comment. (Mr. Rao is deceased.)
Meanwhile, a rumor was circulating in New Delhi that the prime minister might try to take control of the situation by pushing for president’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. That allows the central government to commandeer the administration of a state where law and order has broken down. The BJP leaders assured Mr. Rao that it wouldn’t be necessary, Mr. Prasad said.
The prime minister was noncommittal in his response: “Alright, definitely we’ll see,” he said, according to Mr. Prasad. “We’ll examine.”
Mr. Rao decided to dispatch more than 20,000 paramilitary personnel to Ayodhya’s surroundings just in case there was trouble.
He told Kalyan Singh, the chief minister: “As we are expecting a lot of people and all that, whether you want them or not we are sending forces,’” according to Mr. Prasad.
Still, Mr. Rao felt he could not go further and impose president’s rule, said Mr. Prasad, because he had no evidence that the Hindus planned violence and he had received assurances from the BJP leaders that order would be maintained. Also, most of the intelligence reports that Mr. Rao received said nothing was likely to happen, said Mr. Prasad.
In a meeting the same month with members of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee, Mr. Rao was upbeat, according to Mr. Jilani and Mr. Prasad, who both attended.
“What will you do if they damage the mosque?” the group asked the prime minister.
“You are talking with the prime minister of India. India is such a big nation that its forces can reach the neighboring countries in 24 hours,” responded Mr. Rao, according to Mr. Jilani. “Do you think we cannot reach Ayodhya?”
But the prime minister’s confidence soon gave way to anxiety. As Dec. 6 approached, thousands of Hindu activists poured into Ayodhya, raising alarm bells in New Delhi that they would run rampant.
Around 5 a.m. one morning in early December, the phone rang in the home of Mani Shankar Aiyar, Rajiv Gandhi’s former special assistant. A secretary told him Mr. Rao wanted to speak, Mr. Aiyar said in an interview.
The prime minister, he said, came on the line and started talking as if in mid-sentence: “But I did everything for them Mani, I trusted them. And look at the way they are letting me down,” Mr. Aiyar said Mr. Rao told him.
The morning of Dec. 6 was quiet.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad surveyed the scene in Ayodhya from a rooftop as the volunteers amassed.
Mr. Rao, the prime minister, watched on television at his residence in New Delhi. He was “slightly apprehensive because he was getting the impression that not much forces were there,” according to Mr. Prasad, his adviser, who visited him that morning.
Then, around noon, a group of Karsevaks broke through the light security around the Babri Masjid. Some climbed onto the central dome.
Hajari Lal, 55 years old, was among them, he said in an interview. He was a volunteer member of the RSS, the hard-line Hindu organization. He had tried, with others, to destroy the mosque in 1990. But they had failed and, seething with anger, were determined to finish the job, he said.
Mr. Lal said he started chipping away at the domes with a small shovel he carried in his bag. Others used hammers, iron rods and spades.
Mahant Satyendra Das, the chief government-appointed priest at the site, was standing not far away with his assistants, he said in an interview.
The priests raced into the building to rescue the idol of Ram and other statues added since, he said. They took them to the shelter of a nearby tree.
In New Delhi, watching events with increasing concern, Mr. Rao asked senior officials to push the state government to deploy the forces stationed outside of town, said Mr. Prasad. States are responsible for law and order so the federal government couldn’t order the troops to move.
A state official requisitioned 30 paramilitary companies – about 4,000 personnel — at 12:45 p.m. But they were under strict orders not to use force even though the throng totaled at least 75,000 activists.
Just before 2 p.m., one of the domes collapsed, pulled down by ropes inserted in holes high in the mosque’s walls. Later, the other two were demolished. After more than 450 years, the mosque was gone.
The collapse of a building closely associated with the Mughal invasion of India was a stark declaration of Hindu might and electrified the volunteers.
Ashok Singhal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad official who led the temple movement, said in an interview that, from his perspective, the building wasn’t destroyed at all. Rather, he said, what happened that day was part of a “renovation program.” The VHP has long claimed that a Hindu temple was destroyed in the 1500s for the mosque to be built.
The activists rampaged, targeting local Muslims. Houses were set afire.
Mr. Das, the priest at the site, said he was appalled by the events that day. He considered the building a temple since Ram had been cared for and worshipped there for more than four decades.
“I felt like I was witnessing terrorists attacking a village,” he said.
Hashim Ansari, the 92-year-old Muslim tailor who was involved in the court case over the site, said he fled with his family to relatives in Faizabad. More than a dozen Muslims were killed in the violence, according to local Muslims.
“I should have died instead of having to see the destruction of Babri Masjid that day,” Mr. Ansari said in an interview. He and his family returned to Ayodhya but he said many Muslims left for good.
More federal security forces were deployed. But they were pelted with stones and turned back, according to the government’s official version of events.
As late as 5:40 p.m., most of the security forces remained stalled, in part because local officials said they couldn’t provide the magistrates needed to accompany the forces into town.
A makeshift temple was erected on the rubble where the Babri Masjid once stood. Mr. Das, the priest, said he installed the idols there, placing Ram on a wooden throne.
The prime minister summoned his cabinet in the afternoon and decided to impose president’s rule, according to Mr. Prasad. But only by late evening was the process complete.
Federal security forces finally secured the site, without incident, on the night of Dec. 7.
Several Congress leaders have since criticized Mr. Rao for not moving more swiftly or decisively to prevent the mosque’s destruction. Mr. Prasad, his adviser, contended that the prime minister “took all the actions that were available at his disposal.”
As the day unfolded, Mr. Rao’s spirits sank, said Mr. Prasad: “First he was worried, then he was angry, then he said he felt very sad.”
The prime minister felt betrayed by Kalyan Singh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who had given Mr. Rao reassurances that law and order would be maintained, said Mr. Prasad.
In an interview, Kalyan Singh said, “What was said and what wasn’t said to Prime Minister Rao is irrelevant.” Of the Babri Masjid, he said: “It was the symbol of slavery, so it had to go. That’s it.”
Many Hindus were disgusted with what transpired in Ayodhya that day. Subodh Kant Sahai, the leader of two rounds of settlement negotiations, said he was disconsolate. He said his mother, who had supported building a temple, told him: “This is too much. They have crossed the limits.”
The destruction tested Muslims’ faith in India’s governing institutions – the government, courts, and law enforcement.
“First reaction was of disappointment,” said Mr. Jilani, the lawyer. “But soon thereafter we got courage. We said, ‘We have to live here, we will face it.’”
The demolition sparked violence that ricocheted around India over the next several months. By Dec. 9, 16 states saw inter-religious unrest, according to a government report. In December and January 1993, Hindu-Muslim riots racked Mumbai, India’s largest city, leaving about 900, mostly Muslims, dead. In March 1993, a series of bomb blasts across Mumbai killed more than 250.
In 1996, the Congress party government was replaced by a coalition led by the BJP. The new government lasted only 13 days. But the BJP could boast of its first prime minister: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He returned to the office in 1998, where he remained until 2004.
Ayodhya, meanwhile, continued to polarize the country and inspire bloodshed. In 2002, almost 60 Karsevaks, returning from Ayodhya, were burned to death in a train carriage in Godhra in the western state of Gujarat. More than 1,000 people died in the riots that ensued. Most were Muslim.
Six years later, in November 2008, Pakistani terrorists attacked south Mumbai. On the 20th floor of the Trident hotel, facing a group of guests at gunpoint, one attacker shouted “Remember Babri Masjid?” according to a witness. Then he started firing.
URL of Chapter One of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-one/d/9534
URL of Chapter Two of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-two/d/9553
URL of Chapter Three of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-three/d/9567