By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
December 5, 2012
In the 1980s, the Ayodhya dispute escalated from a local issue to a national one. It fed, and was fed by, other points of tension in Indian politics and society that set Hindus and Muslims on a collision course over the span of the decade.
Each side came to feel that its religion and status in India was under threat – and both sides responded with political pressure and shows of force.
It started in 1981 in Meenakshipuram, an unremarkable village deep in the countryside of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, more than 2,000 kilometres from Ayodhya.
The village hit the national news when its low-caste Hindus – about 400 families, villagers say — converted, en masse, to Islam.
“We became Muslims to become equal,” said 65-year-old N. Hidayathullah, one of the converts, in an interview on the porch of his modest home, as a herd of goats wandered by.
The families had felt ill-treated by local upper-caste Hindus, he said. “Nobody told us to convert; it was our desire to be treated with respect,” he added.
At stake was more than belief: In India, how you worship defines your community, most likely your marriage and whom you vote for, your approach to life, and your identity.
In 1984, Hindu leaders responded to what they viewed as the threat of Islam emanating from the Meenakshipuram conversion.
About 500 Sadhus — Hindu holy men — from across India gathered at Vigyan Bhavan, a government-owned conference centre in New Delhi. They comprised a “dharma Sansad,” or religious parliament.
The meeting was put together by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a conservative Hindu organization founded in the 1960s. The chief organizer was Ashok Singhal, then the VHP’s joint general secretary.
The son of a government official in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, Mr. Singhal graduated with a degree in metallurgical engineering from Banaras Hindu University in 1950. Now 86 years old, he has worked to promote Hindu causes ever since. “Our culture is under siege,” he said in an interview at the VHP’s offices in New Delhi.
The religious parliament began with a song by a group of musicians. “This country’s soil is sacred,” they sang, according to a later account of the event published by the VHP. “Every girl is an image of a goddess, every boy is Ram.”
After a Sadhu blew a conch shell, speeches began. Among the speakers was Karan Singh, a former minister in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. At the time, he was an independent Member of Parliament. Courtly and soft-spoken, he is the son of the last Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
Mr. Singh was the founder of an organization to espouse the values of universal brotherhood and human welfare contained in the Vedas and Upanishads, Hindu sacred texts. He formed it in direct response to the events of Meenakshipuram, he said in an interview in the book-lined study of his Delhi mansion.
The mass conversion to Islam “was, first of all, a clear statement that the way Hinduism was functioning is not acceptable to a large number of people,” Mr. Singh said. At the time, the message was: “People are leaving because we are not following our principles.”
At the religious conference, Mr. Singh spoke about the need to reconnect individual life and politics with the tenets of Hinduism, and to rid society of the dowry system and the stigma of “untouchability” that relegated lower-caste Hindus to an underclass, according to the VHP’s account of the event. He also rued the fact that Hindu holy sites had been neglected.
“We cannot even light a holy lamp” at Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya, he told the Sadhus. “How shameful a matter is it for 80% of this country’s residents who call themselves Hindus?”
The gathering issued a code of conduct for individuals, families and society. Its code for the country’s statesmen included the demand that three important holy sites be “given back to Hindu society.”
The Babri Masjid, the mosque in Ayodhya that many Hindus claimed was Lord Ram’s birthplace – “Ram Janmabhoomi” in Hindi — was top of the list.
Ram appealed to Hindus of all castes: one story recounted in the Ramayan, the text about his life, has him happily eating berries given to him by a lower-caste woman.
A few months after the religious parliament, the VHP followed up with a rally for devotees led by a motorized chariot. Hindu scripture says Ram rode a chariot into battle.
The rally started at Sitamarhi in Bihar in late September 1984. The district is believed by Hindus to be the place where Sita, Ram’s wife, emerged from the earth.
Thousands of the faithful joined the procession, which reached Ayodhya 12 days later. There, they descended to the banks of the Sarayu river, cupped its water in their palms and, according to several participants, took an oath.
The crowd totalled about 50,000 that day, according to Mr. Singhal of the VHP, who was among them. Similar oath-taking ceremonies were held at major rivers around the country.
The Hindus at the Sarayu that day wanted to go further than keeping a tiny statue of Ram inside the Babri Masjid. They wanted to build a house of worship where Ram sat: “We will give up everything to build Lord Ram’s temple at his birthplace,” they swore, according to several people who took part.
The organizers say they were surprised by the number of supporters. “People found that this is an agitation which will be successful,” Mr. Singhal said. “Such a large number of people came from small villages to witness and join the movement.”
A day later, the chariot started rolling again. But its journey was interrupted when, on Oct. 31, 1984, Mrs. Gandhi, the prime minister and Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, was shot dead at her New Delhi home by two Sikh bodyguards.
Soon, Ayodhya would become a defining issue for the country’s new leader: Mrs. Gandhi’s 40-year-old son, Rajiv.
Rajiv Gandhi was a political beginner. Eschewing politics, he worked as a pilot for Indian Airlines and married an Italian, Sonia Maino.
He was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1981, following the death of his younger brother, Sanjay, in a plane crash. Soon after Mr. Gandhi succeeded his mother, he called for national elections. His Congress party won the biggest Parliamentary majority in India’s electoral history.
Mr. Gandhi brought the promise of a new kind of Indian leader. He was young and interested in promoting technology. Within months, however, he was deeply embroiled in the historical tussle between Muslims and Hindus and the sense of victimhood that both sides felt.
The catalyst was a case brought by a Muslim woman called Shah Bano. She had been divorced by her husband several years before and was left destitute. She asked the Supreme Court to force her ex-husband to pay maintenance.
In the spring of 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in her favour, citing the provisions against destitution in Indian criminal law that applied to all Indians.
Prominent members of the Muslim clergy viewed the ruling as a threat to Islamic law, which had long governed their personal matters. It does not require the equivalent of alimony. But the justices had ordered a divorced man to pay maintenance.
At first, Rajiv Gandhi backed the verdict. Arif Mohammed Khan, a Muslim and minister in Mr. Gandhi’s government, made a long speech in Parliament in praise of the ruling.
In an interview, Mr. Khan said he did so at the prime minister’s request. Afterward, he received a note from Mr. Gandhi, he said, which congratulated him on a “wonderful performance” and a “great speech.”
But the Muslim clergy protested, heaping pressure on the prime minister. They demanded he counter the verdict through an act of Parliament. “The Muslim clergy found this as an opportunity to mobilize the Muslims and project themselves,” said Mr. Khan.
Mr. Gandhi succumbed and started preparations for a law that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court ruling.
But he also wanted to find a way to mollify Hindu outrage over the Muslim protests and to counter anticipated Hindu claims that Muslims were being appeased by the government, said Mr. Khan.
The prime minister, he said, found his answer in a court case in Faizabad, the city next to Ayodhya.
The case sought to have the lock removed on the main gate of the Babri Masjid, granting greater public access to the idol that had been sitting in seclusion under the central dome for almost four decades.
Mr. Gandhi’s calculation, Mr. Khan said, was that the Hindu focus on the Shah Bano case “will be redirected to Ayodhya.”
Umesh Chandra Pandey filed the petition to open the lock in late January 1986. He was a 30-year-old lawyer and occasional journalist who then lived in Faizabad.
His interest in the issue had begun three years earlier, when the editor of a local Hindi newspaper asked him to write a feature on the festival commemorating Ram’s birthday, Mr. Pandey and the editor said in interviews.
Mr. Pandey said he also heard leaders from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad claiming that there never had been an official order to lock the Babri Masjid gate.
“I thought, ‘If this is so, then how has this lock been put there?’” he said.
Adding drama and urgency, a prominent Sadhu had threatened to set himself ablaze if the lock was not removed, according to Mr. Pandey and other accounts. Other Sadhus threatened to get themselves arrested by trying to unlock the gate themselves, according to the VHP’s Mr. Singhal.
Mr. Pandey, a short man who speaks in emphatic phrases, said he spent a couple of weeks examining court papers. He came to the conclusion that there had never been a formal order putting the lock in place, he said. (Priests who cared for the idols in the building entered through a side gate.)
Soon after Mr. Pandey filed his petition, he found out that a copy had been sent to the state agency in charge of internal security, he said.
The petition also attracted the interest of Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Nehru, a cousin of Mr. Gandhi’s and a powerful adviser to the prime minister, according to Arif Mohammed Khan, the government minister at the time.
Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Nehru wanted to ensure that the petition succeeded so Hindus would feel assuaged, Mr. Khan said. The prime minister asked Mr. Nehru to coordinate the government’s participation in the case, including dealing with the state government of Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Khan said.
Other officials from the time say Mr. Nehru, the adviser, was the more influential in seizing on the issue and the prime minister acquiesced. Yet others say Mr. Gandhi was unaware of what was happening.
Either way, said Mr. Khan: “The buck stops at the door of the prime minister” as the head of the government.
When asked about the episode in a brief telephone conversation, Mr. Nehru responded: “That’s none of your damn business.”
The government ensured that two senior local officials appeared – unusually — before the judge, rather than submitting affidavits, Mr. Khan said. They testified that law and order could be maintained if the lock was removed, a key consideration in the judge’s deliberations.
Mushtaq Ahmad Siddiqui, one of the lawyers representing Muslims in their legal claims to the Babri Masjid site, said he also asked to be heard before the judge.
“You may, there is no hurry,” he said the judge responded. “The matter is continuing for 36 years – you will be allowed sufficient time.” He was referring to the fact that litigation over the site had begun in 1950.
On the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1986, the judge ruled there had been no official order that placed the lock on the mosque’s gate. He ordered the lock opened “forthwith,” according to witnesses. The judge is now deceased.
Within 30 minutes, a senior police officer in Ayodhya broke the lock. A camera crew from Doordarshan, the government-run television channel, was there. The event was broadcast to the nation.
Mr. Pandey, the man who filed the petition, said he couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he went to the site.
“I was without words,” he said. “But I was thankful to God that I was able to look and to offer my prayer.”
The gate opening was the first that millions of Hindus had heard of Ayodhya and the battle over Ram’s birthplace. It energized them en masse because Ram was a role model. Grandmothers told their grandsons to aspire to be like him: obedient to their parents, faithful to their family, honest in their dealings.
Rajiv Gandhi received the news during a visit to the Maldives, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, his speechwriter at the time.
In the hours before a state banquet, the prime minister was putting the finishing touches on his formal dress and on his speech when he received a telephone call, Mr. Aiyar said in an interview. Mr. Gandhi was told the lock was opened, Mr. Aiyar said.
The lock opening quickly took on a mystical aspect. Mr. Pandey claimed that on the afternoon of the decision, a monkey sat on the roof of the Faizabad court house. A monkey was symbolic because Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, was a loyal friend of Ram.
The animal, unusually for a monkey, sat still for more than 30 minutes, Mr. Pandey said. Then, when the judge issued his order, the monkey walked to the flagpole on the courthouse roof and touched the Indian flag, according to Mr. Pandey. “I don’t think this can happen without the Almighty’s permission,” he added.
The lock opening shocked Muslim elders and lawyers who had been following the Ayodhya dispute because they saw in it a threat to their mosque and to their religion. They gathered the next day in an orphanage in Delhi.
“Today, it appears we have become second-class citizens,” said one elder, close to tears, according to two people who were there.
The leaders worried that the next step would be the Babri Masjid’s destruction.
On Feb. 3, 1986, two days after the lock was opened, a small group of Muslim lawyers petitioned the high court in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, to order that nothing more happen to the site, according to two of the lawyers.
The judge issued a notice that the “status quo” be maintained.
Zafaryab Jilani, one of the lawyers, was then just shy of his 36th birthday. The lock opening would vault him to the forefront of the Muslim movement seeking to retain the Babri Masjid site for Islam.
Born in a town close to Lucknow, Mr. Jilani pursued his legal studies at Aligarh Muslim University.
There, he gained his first experience in organizing protests. He said he was part of a small group that, in 1970, led students in opposing government plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school’s incorporation by an act of Parliament.
The students were angry about previous government measures that stopped Muslims from being the sole administrators of the university. Faced with the protests, the government scrapped the golden jubilee festivities and, ultimately, undid the administrative changes.
After the Babri Masjid lock opening, Mr. Jilani started organizing protests again.
He and a handful of associates called meetings of prominent local Muslims; it included one gathering of about 200 in a hall in Lucknow, Mr. Jilani said in an interview.
They created the Babri Masjid Action Committee to organize public strikes and demonstrations– and to push back against what the leaders viewed as Hindu aggression.
On Feb. 7, 1986, Mr. Jilani said he and about eight others met the then-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Vir Bahadur Singh. The chief minister denied any involvement in the lock opening, Mr. Jilani said.
“I haven’t done it. Whatever has been done, it is at the behest of some other leaders, top leaders,” Mr. Jilani said the chief minister told them. Mr. Singh died a few years later.
A week after that meeting, the new committee held its first event: a “Black Day,” or state-wide public strike, Mr. Jilani said. Later, tens of thousands protested in Lucknow and other cities.
In May 1986, the government used its huge majority in Parliament to push through a law that effectively reversed the Shah Bano ruling and made it clear Muslim personal law would prevail.
Mr. Gandhi’s supporters say the prime minister was only trying to clarify that matters of Muslim personal law would be governed by Islam, as they had been for decades.
The law’s passage cemented the idea among many Hindus that the government was kowtowing to Muslims. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, were angry about the lock opening. The prime minister’s plan to do something to mollify both sides had gone awry.
Arif Mohammed Khan, the minister who had supported the Shah Bano ruling, resigned from the government. He recalled that Mr. Gandhi said to him at the time: “The situation is such that I am feeling very helpless.”
And, as Mr. Gandhi’s grandfather, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had feared in 1950, the new prominence of the Babri Masjid dispute complicated the delicate political equation in the late 1980s in Kashmir, the Himalayan region fought over by India and Pakistan.
Militants who favoured a separate country of Kashmir used the opening of the lock on the mosque to rebuke Indian Muslims who favoured embracing India’s secularism and democracy.
The militants said, according to Mr. Jilani: “Your government is not sincere with you, how do you expect that government to be sincere with us?”
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