By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
December 4, 2012
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister, was greatly perturbed by an idol of Lord Ram being placed in a mosque.
Polished, intellectual and sceptical of religion, Nehru was trying to propel the nation into an era of modern socialism and scientific thinking. But the events in Ayodhya forced him to grapple anew with the centuries-long friction between Hindus and Muslims – and to try to counter the spreading belief that a deity had materialized in the dead of night.
“I am disturbed at developments at Ayodhya,” Nehru said in a telegram on Dec. 26, 1949, to Govind Ballabh Pant, chief minister of United Provinces, which roughly included what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh. “Earnestly hope you will personally interest yourself in this matter. Dangerous example being set there which will have bad consequences.”
The provincial government wanted the statue removed. K.K. Nayar, the district magistrate in Faizabad, who also oversaw Ayodhya, refused. He wrote to a provincial official that removing the idol was “fraught with the gravest danger to public peace” and would lead to a “conflagration of horror,” according a copy of his correspondence.
Around that time, Guru Dutt Singh, the city magistrate, resigned. His son, Guru Basant Singh, said his father quit because “his work was done” and the idol’s installation, which Mr. Singh helped plan, had succeeded.
Local Hindus added religious items to the mosque: more idols; six black ammonite stones; a small silver throne; brass utensils for worship; and clothes for the deity, according to an official list compiled later.
Muslims weren’t welcome. Mohammad Hashim Ansari, a local tailor, headed to the Babri Masjid with a few others the morning after the idol of Ram was installed, said Mr. Ansari and another local Muslim who was there. The police stopped them at the gate. The Muslims returned home, they said.
Nehru kept pushing. In early January, he wrote again to Mr. Pant. The chief minister called him soon after.
Mr. Pant “intended taking action, but he wanted to get some well-known Hindus to explain the situation to people in Ayodhya first,” Nehru wrote in a separate letter to the governor-general of India dated Jan. 7, 1950.
Weeks passed. The idol stayed
The discord in Ayodhya threatened Nehru’s desire for India to be a democracy in which all beliefs were equally respected. He also feared that it would have repercussions “on all-India affairs and more especially Kashmir,” the disputed territory between India and the newly-created Pakistan, he wrote to Mr. Pant on Feb. 5, 1950.
Nehru added that he would be willing to make the 600-kilometer trip from Delhi to Ayodhya himself. But, he also noted, “I am terribly busy.”
Nehru didn’t make the trip. By March, he was sounding defeated as local officials continued to balk at removing the idol.
“This event occurred two or three months ago and I have been very gravely perturbed over it,” he wrote in a letter to K.G. Mashruwala, an associate of Mahatma Gandhi.
Nehru lamented that many in his Congress party had become “communal” toward Pakistan and India’s Muslims. “I just do not know what we can do to create a better atmosphere in the country,” he wrote.
In 1952, Nehru visited Uttar Pradesh to campaign for Mr. Pant in an election, according to a person who heard him speak. He told the crowd, in Hindi, “The Ayodhya event has put me to shame,” this person said.
In January 1950, a decades-long legal battle began between Ajodhya’s Hindus and Muslims over the site of the Babri Masjid. The first case was filed by a Hindu , Gopal Singh Visharad, in the Victorian Gothic district court building in neighbouring Faizabad.
Mr. Singh Visharad – “Visharad” denotes expertise in Hindu scripture — was a lawyer who had moved to Ayodhya because he wanted to live in a Hindu holy place, according to his son, Rajendra. Rajendra was the schoolboy who witnessed Abhiram Das, the Sadhu, spreading the word on the morning of Dec. 23, 1949, that Ram had appeared in the mosque.
A stern-looking man with a broad nose and a thick moustache, Mr. Singh Visharad, then 42 years old, was the Ayodhya secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, a conservative Hindu political party that opposed Nehru’s Congress. He was close to Mr. Nayar, the district magistrate, and Guru Dutt Singh, the city magistrate, according to Rajendra Singh.
Mr. Singh Visharad had celebrated the appearance of the Ram Lalla idol and worshipped at the site for a few days, his son said. But when he went there on Jan.14, 1950, the police stopped him at the gate.
By then, another local magistrate had already issued an order seizing the building. A receiver was named and the place was locked for devotees. As an interim arrangement, the receiver appointed a small team of priests to attend daily to the statue of Ram Lalla at the site because it was, after all, a deity that needed feeding, bathing, and clothing, according to Hindu ritual.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Singh claimed the right to worship the deity in the building “without any obstruction whatever” and asked for a “temporary injunction” to prevent government officials from removing the idols.
The judge granted the injunction but didn’t rule on the question of his right to worship.
The next day, Anisur Rahman, a Muslim about 30 years old, filed a court petition of his own — the first Muslim legal volley in the dispute. Mr. Rahman made tin boxes that he sold from a shop in the local market in Ayodhya. He lived with his family close to the Babri Masjid.
Weeks before the idol was installed, he had sent messages to district officials that he saw “imminent danger” to the mosque from the Sadhus gathered around it, according to the official records of Mr. Nayar, the district magistrate.
Mr. Nayar had dismissed Mr. Rahman as an “exception” among Muslims in Ayodhya whom, he wrote, “are far from agitated,” according to the records.
Petitioning the High Court in Allahabad, a major city in the state, Mr. Rahman sought to have any cases claiming title to the site of the Babri Masjid heard by a court outside Ayodhya and Faizabad.
He claimed that “in view of the highly strained relations between the two communities and also district authorities not being free from communal bias,” there was no prospect of a fair hearing around Ayodhya.
He also noted in an affidavit that district authorities had done nothing to help Muslims take back their mosque after the idol was installed. Instead, they had seized the building.
Mr. Rahman’s effort was countered by about 20 Muslims from Ayodhya, who signed identical affidavits in a local courtroom.
They said they had no objection if the Hindus continued to possess the Babri Masjid. “Babri Masjid has been built by demolishing Ram birthplace temple,” they said. “It’s against the Islamic law to pray there,” the affidavits said.
Mr. Rahman’s petition was dismissed. Muslim lawyers today doubt the authenticity of the Muslims’ affidavits.
Mr. Rahman sold his shop. Sometime in the early 1950s, he migrated with his family to Pakistan, according to several local Muslims. His descendants could not be traced.
A Muslim shopkeeper in Ayodhya recalled Mr. Rahman telling him, before leaving: “We don’t get any justice here. Nobody helps us.”
In late 1950, a mercurial Sadhu filed a similar court case to Gopal Singh Visharad’s. He was a member of Ajodhya’s famous Digambar Akhara, a group of Hindu holy men devoted to Ram.
Both Hindu suits named five local Muslim men as defendants, alleging they had put pressure on local government officials to remove the idols by making “baseless and dishonest assertions.”
The most prominent among the defendants was Haji Phenku, one of Ayodhya’s biggest property owners at the time.
At court, Mr. Phenku, then 65 years old, and the other Muslims refuted the allegations, according to legal papers. They also claimed that the Babri Masjid had been used by the Muslims as a mosque ever since it was built in 1528. They said no Hindu temple existed at the site before the construction of the mosque.
Mr. Phenku boarded a horse cart at his residence at least once a month to travel from Ayodhya to the courthouse, about 10 kilometres away, said his son, Haji Mahboob Ahmad, in an interview.
When Mr. Phenku returned home, he recounted his experience, often with frustration. “The judge again adjourned the hearing and asked us to appear on the next date,” Mr. Phenku said repeatedly, according to his son.
Gopal Singh Visharad, the lead Hindu petitioner, regularly cycled to court. He was resigned to the fact that it would be a prolonged dispute because he believed the government didn’t want to deal with the implications of a verdict, according to his son.
The hearings dragged on, with little progress, for nine years. Then, in 1959, another suit was filed by a sect of sadhus known as the Nirmohi Akhara.
The name means “Group Without Attachment,” a reference to the fact that the 12,000 Sadhus it claims as members have abandoned the material world for the company of their deity, Ram. The sect had tried, in the late 19th century, to build a temple near the mosque but had been prevented by the court.
Bhaskar Das is the head of the sect. Now in his mid-80s, he is a thin man and an imposing sight. His wrinkled head is shaved close with a longer outcropping of hair knotted in a tail at the back. A Y-shaped pattern of white paint, accentuated with vermillion stripes, starts at the bridge of his nose and runs in two lines up his forehead.
Mr. Das came to Ayodhya in 1946 to learn Sanskrit at the age of 18. Soon after, he visited an idol of Ram located on the wooden platform where Hindus worshipped in the outer courtyard of the Babri Masjid. The Nirmohi Akhara maintained the platform.
“I felt belongingness with Lord Ram” and decided to lead the life of a sadhu, Mr. Das said in an interview at the sect’s ashram in Faizabad, a collection of four-story white buildings off a street clogged with traffic.
In its 1959 petition, the group claimed that Ram’s birthplace “has been existing before the living memory of man.”
It also claimed that the Babri Masjid building had never been a mosque but had been a temple since ancient times and was rightfully the possession of the Nirmohi Akhara. The suit was added to the others.
Two years later, in December 1961, representatives of the local Muslim community responded.
Leading the case was the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Waqfs, a body created by Indian law to be responsible for the protection and preservation of “waqfs,” or Muslim religious and cultural sites.
It listed Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the tailor, and other Ayodhya Muslims as co-petitioners.
The board, based in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, claimed that the Babri Masjid was registered with it as a public mosque and is “vested in the Almighty.”
In 1964, the court consolidated all four suits – of Gopal Singh Visharad; the sadhu from the Digambar Akhara; the Nirmohi Akhara, and the waqf board.
The litigants became used to the delays that plague India’s court system today. It took 17 years to settle on the appointment of a new receiver at the Babri Masjid site after the death of the first receiver.
In court, the judge would listen for about 15 minutes, set a date for the next hearing, and adjourn, according to two people involved in the case.
“Many judges came and went but the case was not decided,” said Haji Mahboob Ahmad, 74 years old. He replaced his father, Haji Phenku, as the defendant in one of the Hindu suits after his father died in 1960.
Guru Dutt Singh and K.K. Nayar – the administrators who were instrumental in the idol’s placement — turned to politics. They played no further direct role in the Ayodhya dispute.
Mr. Singh joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a Hindu nationalist party, within six months of resigning his administrative post. The party was founded by a former president of the Hindu Mahasabha, the first conservative Hindu party in India.
In the 1951 national election, the Jana Sangh won three seats in Parliament, compared with 364 seats won by Nehru’s Congress party. Mr. Singh became the Jana Sangh’s district chief in Faizabad, said his son.
A photo from the late 1960s in the reception room of the family’s Faizabad residence shows Guru Dutt Singh with a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then national president of the Jana Sangh and later prime minister of India.
Mr. Nayar was transferred to another post in early 1950. He took voluntary retirement in 1952. He settled in Faizabad and joined the Jana Sangh with his wife. In 1967, he was elected to the national Parliament from a constituency near Ayodhya.
Among the Sadhus of Ayodhya, the idol’s installation was overwhelmingly supported.
Akshaya Brahmachari, the young Sadhu who had opposed the move, argued with others that “all Ayodhya is Ram’s birthplace,” according to his disciple, Meera Behen, and others who knew him. He asked: “Why do you diminish His glory by putting him in a mosque?”
He was assaulted and banished from the Sadhus’ fraternity. He went to Lucknow and sat on a series of fasts from Jan. 30, 1950, in a bid to press the government to remove the idol. But a state government minister responded that, “Ajodhya’s situation is better now and the case is pending in a court of law at the moment. The final decision can be taken only after a judgment from the court.”
Abhiram Das, the Sadhu who championed installing Ram in the mosque, organized festivals to commemorate the event.
One pamphlet printed by him in December 1953 exhorted Ayodhya’s residents to participate in a reading of the Ramayan, the Hindu holy text, at the site. Another pamphlet mentions him as the “saviour” of Ram’s birthplace.
Hindu control of the site and the lack of action by the courts frustrated Ayodhya’s Muslims. Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the tailor, said that in 1954 he and about 100 local Muslim men sought permission to offer prayers at the site. It was denied.
When they tried to force themselves into the mosque, they were arrested and spent two months in jail, Mr. Ansari later testified in court.
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