By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
A photograph of the Babri Masjid from the early 1900 (Copyright: The British Library Board)
Our story begins in 1949; two years after India became an independent nation following centuries of rule by Mughal emperors and then the British.
What happened back then in the dead of night in a mosque in a northern Indian town came to define the new nation, and continues to shape the world’s largest democracy today.
The legal and political drama that ensued, spanning six decades, has loomed large in the terms of five prime ministers. It has made and broken political careers, exposed the limits of the law in grappling with matters of faith, and led to violence that killed thousands. And, 20 years ago this week, Ayodhya was the scene of one of the worst incidents of inter-religious brutality in India’s history.
On a spiritual level, it is a tale of efforts to define the divine in human terms.
Ultimately, it poses for every Indian a question that still lingers as the country aspires to a new role as an international economic power: Are we a Hindu nation, or a nation of many equal religions?
The Saryu river winds its way from the Nepalese border across the plains of north India. Not long before its churning gray waters meet the mighty Ganga, it flows past the town of Ayodhya.
In 1949, as it is today, Ayodhya was a quiet town of temples, narrow byways, wandering cows and the ancient, mossy walls of ashrams and shrines.
The town’s residents included both Muslims and Hindus. But most noticeable were the Hindu holy men known as Sadhus, with painted foreheads, long beards and loose robes. They flocked there, as they do today.
Hindu scriptures say Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Ram, making it one of the religion’s holiest places. (Ayodhya means “unconquerable” in Sanskrit.)
Among the Sadhus, back then, was Abhiram Das, a muscular priest with a strong voice, a severe visage and a quick temper, according to two of his surviving disciples. In his mid-40s, he had arrived in the town 15 years before from the countryside of Bihar, to the east, they say.
He revered Ram. And, his disciples say, he made it his mission to restore Ram to the exact place he believed the god had been born: a site then occupied by a mosque called the Babri Masjid.
The mosque was named after the Mughal ruler, Babar, whose troops had built it more than 400 years before. Inside, the mosque had space for about 90 people to pray, according to two elderly Muslims in Ayodhya. Verses of the Koran were written on the walls inside. On the Menber, or pulpit, under the central dome was inscribed in Persian: “Place for the angels to descend.”
The complex had two courtyards, ringed by a perimeter wall and separated by a wall with a railing. In the outer courtyard was a small wooden platform with an idol of Ram where Hindus worshipped.
A map of India showing Ayodhya
Abhiram Das wanted to establish Ram inside the building itself. He was not alone in his quest: a movement of sadhus dedicated to that goal was gathering momentum.
They claimed the mosque had been built from the ruins of an ancient temple to the Hindu god, which Muslims disputed. The site had been an occasional flashpoint for violence between the two communities in the past.
Abhiram Das told his disciples that he had a recurring dream that Ram made an appearance under the building’s central dome, the two disciples said.
One day in mid-1949, the Sadhu repeated his vision to the city magistrate in neighbouring Faizabad, the city which oversees the administration of Ayodhya.
His words immediately struck a chord with the magistrate, Guru Dutt Singh, according to an account given by Mr. Singh’s son, Guru Basant Singh. Mr. Singh’s reply, his son said: “Brother, this is my old dream. You are having it now; I am having it for a long time.”
The two men started to talk about how a statue of a young Ram might be surreptitiously put in a Muslim place of worship, Mr. Singh’s son said.
The use of idols marks one of the great differences between Hinduism and Islam. Islam strictly prohibits idol worship because God, to its followers, is an invisible and indivisible entity. Hinduism holds that God can exist in many forms and devotees worship idols as mediums to God. So a statue of Ram itself would be a deity.
There are various versions of what transpired a few weeks later. Many Hindus have come to believe that it was a miracle. Mr. Singh’s son, speaking in detail for the first time about those events, said it was, rather, a carefully-planned plot to return Ram, in the view of his father and Abhiram Das, to the deity’s place of birth.
At the time, India as a country was only two years old, its promise as a fledgling democracy challenged by the fact that it was rent in two – geographically, demographically, socially, and emotionally— by the Partition that created the Muslim nation of Pakistan in the territory’s northwest and northeast.
The migration of many Muslims to Pakistan consolidated the Hindu majority in the new India. Muslims comprised 24.4% of India’s population in 1941; they were down to 10% of post-Partition India a decade later, according to census data.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was striving to stabilize the new country. He was determined to establish India as a secular nation that respected the religious beliefs, or lack of them, of all its citizens.
“All of us, to whatever religion we may belong are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations,” he said in a message to the nation when India became independent on Aug. 15, 1947.
Still, many Hindus felt aggrieved about Pakistan’s creation and the choice given to Muslims to move or stay. They used a term that would be repeated countless times over the following decades: Muslim “appeasement.”
Even within Nehru’s Indian National Congress party, there were many who supported the drive to make India a Hindu-dominated country. Some in Congress were actively involved in the formation of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, a conservative Hindu political party, several years before.
The party opposed the creation of Pakistan and blamed Congress for it. The man who killed Mahatma Gandhi in early 1948, Nathuram Godse, was an activist of the Hindu Mahasabha. He was hanged in November 1949.
Partition had little effect in Ayodhya, though. Many Muslims stayed, maintaining a cultural mix that had existed for hundreds of years.
Muslim artisans made many of the idols that Hindu devotees worshipped in the temples. Hindu priests bought clothes and flowers for temple statues from Muslim vendors. One temple in Ayodhya even had a Muslim manager.
“Why would we leave our country?” said Mohammad Hashim Ansari, a local tailor, who was then in his late 20s. “We belong to this land.”
Guru Dutt Singh, the Faizabad city magistrate, was tall and obstinate, with a neatly-trimmed moustache. He graduated from Allahabad University in what was then the United Provinces; today, it is in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
He joined the Provincial Civil Services but, his son said, refused to kowtow to his colonial masters. He insisted on wearing a self-fashioned turban in contrast to the hats favoured by the British.
During a posting to Bareilly, when he first met one of his superiors, Michael Nethersole, the British man asked him: “Why don’t you wear a hat?”
“Why don’t you wear Indian headgear?” Mr. Singh retorted, according to his son.
Yet Mr. Singh also demanded respect for rank: He scolded his son for cheekily referring to Mr. Nethersole, as “Leather Sole” because “He is, after all, a district magistrate,” his son recalled being told. Mr. Nethersole’s descendants couldn’t be traced.
In his duties, which included preventing riots, Mr. Singh sought to be even-handed about religion, his son said. At times, he told Hindus that he would lock them up if they created trouble.
At other times, he called Muslims for consultation and said, “I consider you as my younger brothers; I’m your elder brother and we both belong to Mother India,” his son said.
What Mr. Singh considered his neutrality at work, however, fuelled his resentment at what he saw as “the appeasement of minorities” – Muslims, in other words — his son said.
His father was not in favour of the creation of Pakistan. But once it existed, he believed, “If a country has been made for you, you should all go there,” his son said.
Mr. Singh was a devout Hindu, eschewing alcohol and maintaining a vegetarian diet. He visited Ayodhya at least annually, staying in a guest house at a temple. Since college days, Ram had been his religious focal point.
Ram is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, who is part of Hinduism’s holy trinity: Vishnu is the protector; Brahma is the creator; Shiva is the destroyer.
According to Hindu scriptures, Ram was born in Ayodhya tens of thousands of years ago. He was the eldest son of the Hindu King Dasharath of the Solar Dynasty, so-called because the monarchs were believed to be descendants of the sun. Ram is revered as “Maryada Purushottam,” an excellent man of honour.
It was to Ayodhya that Ram returned from exile after rescuing his wife, Sita, from the demon god Ravan in Sri Lanka, according to an ancient Sanskrit version of the Ramayan, the Hindu text about Ram’s life.
Benevolently, Ram ruled over his kingdom from Ayodhya, becoming the epitome of good governance, the Ramayan says. And, in the twilight of his life, he was said to walk through a door in Ayodhya directly to heaven.
As Mr. Singh aged, his conviction grew that he wanted to put Ram back where he believed he belonged, his son said. He thought Muslims should yield the Babri Masjid.
“He used to have this tussle in him that ‘While I so much respect their religion, why don’t they reciprocate?’” his son said.
In the mid-1940s, Mr. Singh met K.K. Nayar, an administrator in the national Indian Civil Service, Mr. Singh’s son said. The service was a precursor to today’s Indian Administrative Service and the two men were stationed in the same city.
Mr. Nayar was from Kerala in the south. He was erudite and more soft-spoken than Mr. Singh. The two men found common cause in their reverence of Ram and their desire to take action, Mr. Singh’s son said. Both men were also sympathetic to the Hindu Mahasabha, the conservative Hindu political party, but refrained from actively supporting it because of their government jobs, he said.
Together, the men asked the official in charge of appointments in the United Provinces to post them at the same time to Faizabad, which administered Ayodhya, according to Mr. Singh’s son.
Mr. Singh moved there in 1948 as city magistrate. Around the same time, Mr. Nayar moved there as district magistrate, the most senior administrative post in the district. Both men are now deceased. Mr. Nayar’s son declined to be interviewed.
The Singhs moved into Lorpur House, a yellow, British-era mansion. Starting in mid-1949, Mr. Singh, Mr. Nayar, Abhiram Das and other local officials met there to plan how to install Ram in the Babri Masjid, according to Mr. Singh’s son.
As the family’s only child, Guru Basant Singh was then about 15 years old. He said he was in charge of serving tea and water at the meetings and at times hid behind the door to listen in on the planning.
The meetings were held in secret after sunset, he said. A Hindu servant was posted at the door with instructions to tell any visitors that his father was resting.
His version of events is confirmed by Mahant Satyendra Das, one of Abhiram Das’s surviving disciples, who are now the government-appointed head priest at the site of the mosque.
He joined Abhiram Das in 1958. That year, the Sadhu gave him a detailed account of events, said Mr. Das, who recalled their discussion in an interview. (The two men share a surname but were not related.)
“Top district officials” including K.K. Nayar and Guru Dutt Singh, worked with Abhiram Das on how the idol might be put in the Babri Masjid, which was locked and guarded, Mr. Das said the Sadhu told him.
One guard, a Hindu, took the afternoon and evening shift. Another guard, a Muslim, took night watch, Mr. Das said he was told.
The Hindu guard agreed to let Abhiram Das and a small group of Sadhus sneak into the mosque with an idol of Ram during his watch, Abhiram Das told his disciple, adding: “We took the Hindu guard into confidence by telling him about the virtues he will earn by being part of this extremely holy work.”
The Hindu guard would then hand over the keys to the Muslim guard at midnight, as usual; Mr. Das said the Sadhu told him.
On the other hand, the Muslim guard was “briefed” by Guru Dutt Singh and K.K. Nayar “what he had to do,” according to Guru Dutt Singh’s son. He was threatened with his life if he did not cooperate, Mr. Singh’s son said. The guards and their descendants couldn’t be traced.
The statue of Ram would be about seven inches tall, made of eight metals, and would depict an infant – a “Ram Lalla” – befitting the place of his birth.
Both Mr. Singh, the city magistrate, and Mr. Nayar, the district magistrate, knew how furious Nehru and the government in New Delhi would be if the mosque was infringed upon, said Mr. Singh’s son. They both decided that they would resign rather than obey any order to remove the statue, he said.
Other details fell into place and the meetings ended around October 1949, according to Mr. Singh’s son. Now, the planners had to await their moment.
In late November 1949, religious friction in Ayodhya was on the rise. Sadhus and devotees of Ram lit sacred fires outside the mosque and read from the Ramayan as they listened to speeches about how Ram should be returned to his birthplace. Members of the crowd scuffled with local Muslims.
The planners, said Mr. Singh’s son, set their date for soon after: The night of Dec. 22, 1949, a Thursday.
“We decided that since the country has now got political liberation, we should also liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram,” Abhiram Das told Mr. Das, the latter said.
In the chill of the north Indian winter, the Hindu guard ended his shift that night. But before he left, as planned, Abhiram Das and two other Sadhus gained access, Abhiram Das told his disciple.
When the Muslim guard came for his round of duty, the Hindu guard handed over the keys. Around 3 a.m., an auspicious time in Hinduism, Abhiram Das and the other sadhus started ringing small bells inside the mosque. They lit a lamp and sang to the tiny idol that was placed on the pulpit under the central dome: “God appeared, compassionate and benevolent,” the sadhu told his disciple.
The Muslim guard made a statement to local authorities soon after that at around 3 a.m. he saw the area under the central dome bathed in a golden light, according to Mr. Singh’s son and others. He said the light illuminated a tiny figure of Ram that seemed to have appeared by itself.
The Muslim guard’s “revelation” and the statement had been planned in advance to appear to bear witness to a religious miracle, said Mr. Singh’s son.
Bindeshwari Prasad, a sadhu living in Ayodhya, was there that night, the youngest of a group of sadhus camped outside, he said in an interview at the red-brick ashram where he now lives. He described the events in mystical terms.
“I and other people sleeping there that night saw Ram Lalla in our dreams; we all woke up at 3 in the morning,” Mr. Prasad said, his voice a whisper and his skin stretched like bark on his aged body. He claimed they could see the idol on the floor through the railings.
Abhiram Das was there, he recalled. The lock to the mosque was broken and the group of sadhus entered. “We went near the Lord and sang religious hymns and worshipped him,” said Mr. Prasad.
Armed constables, alerted to what was happening, shot a few rounds in the air, Mr. Prasad said. A bullet grazed his abdomen, he said, pointing to the spot. He said another sadhu took a bullet in the toe.
Mr. Singh’s son said the police had instructions only to fire in the air, as part of the planning his father and the others had done.
Back at Lorpur House, Guru Dutt Singh was kept informed of what was happening by two messengers who worked in a bicycle relay from Ayodhya to Faizabad to convey the latest news, his son said.
Mr. Singh, in turn, entrusted a Hindu employee in the household to take hand-written messages to K.K. Nayar with a special order to give the missives only to him. “That was how they communicated,” said Mr. Singh’s son.
When the officials realized the statue had been successfully installed, and the mosque was filled with sadhus, Mr. Singh and Mr. Nayar took a car to the site, according to Mr. Singh’s son and Mr. Prasad.
Later that morning, Mr. Singh offered prayers, or puja, in Lorpur House, his son said: “I don’t know what he said but it is my understanding that he was telling God, ‘Let happen what has been happening.’”
Then Mr. Singh imposed an order that prohibited the gathering of large groups of people in Ayodhya. But he made it clear to police that they were not to obstruct Hindus, his son said.
After, Mr. Singh left his Faizabad home for nearby government accommodation where visiting officials stayed. He gave instructions that if anyone inquired about his whereabouts, they were to be told he was “out of station,” his son said.
Word spread quickly to neighboring communities. Thousands of Hindu devotees came to see the idol in the mosque.
Abhiram Das helped whip up enthusiasm. That day, Dec. 23, he visited a local school. Rajendra Singh, the son of a local officer of the Hindu Mahasabha, the conservative Hindu party, was a pupil then.
“Lord Ram has appeared! Lord Ram has appeared!” he recalled Abhiram Das saying.
There was a dissident voice among the local sadhus. Akshaya Brahmachari was about 35 years old at the time and a devotee of Ram.
He also was a local Congress party officer who defended the rights of Muslims to remain in India “as equal citizens” rather than move to Pakistan, according to a disciple, Meera Behen, who was then a high school student.
There was rising friction in town that day as loudspeakers announced “the appearance of God, exhorting all Hindus to come for audience,” Mr. Brahmachari wrote in a memorandum a few months later. But local officials, including K.K. Nayar, showed no interest in removing the idol or defusing the situation, he wrote.
He added: “Communal poison was spread in an organized manner and the attitude of the officials gave the idea to the people that either the Government wanted all that to happen, or they had completely given in to the communalists.”