Inspired by Anand Patwardhan’s award-winning documentary (read our review of the documentary), in this article, we examine the context in which the Babri Masjid demolition took place in 1992. We try to look at surrounding issues that led to the event, based on news reports and analyses of the issue.
The 1980s were a period of great turmoil in India, with the economy in “aakali rajyam” gear and the failure of the Nehruvian economic system imminent. There was a lot of unemployment, and genuine anger that arose at a system that was close to the brink of collapse. That anger was tapped and manipulated by politicians of both sides (BJP and Congress). That the person in the documentary who comes across with the most balanced view in Ram Ke Naam was brutally murdered is a metaphor of the times.
The Shah Bano Case
In 1978, Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim woman who was divorced by her husband, filed a law-suit demanding alimony. In 1985, after a sequence of court rulings, petitions and escalation to higher courts, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favour of Shah Bano, while Mohd. Ahmed Khan, her ex-husband, appealed in the Supreme Court on the grounds that he had no obligation to pay alimony as per Muslim Personal Laws.
By the time the Supreme Court’s ruling came about, the case became highly politicized. Muslim religious heads objected against this judgement, saying that it goes against Muslim Personal Law. Elections were round the corner, orthodox Muslim bodies threatened to escalate agitations.
A government with even an iota of commitment towards the progressive democratic values enshrined in the constitution would have upheld the court’s decision, but in 1986, Rajiv Gandhi’s government caved into the idiosyncrasies of the orthodox faction and short-term political calculations, and passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, which effectively nullified the court’s decision. The Act basically stated that a divorced Muslim woman is eligible for alimony only during the 90-day period of iddat.
This U-turn by the Congress sparked fire in Hindu groups. They were not pleased with this because the move was perceived as minority appeasement by the Congress.
Most likely not coincidentally, in the same year, a district judge ordered that the gates of the Babri Masjid be opened.
“…Rajiv restored the balance by giving the Hindus something as well: he ordered the locks on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya removed. Until then, a priest had been permitted to perform puja once a year for the idols installed there in 1949.“
This was seen as appeasement to the Hindu vote bank. Within an hour or so, the Babri Masjid gates were opened, and apparently, this event was even televised on DD. This caused resentment amongst Muslims.
There were communal riots in 1986 over the Babri Masjid, in which over 2,500 were killed. Many more riots followed. Lots of lives were lost in riots in the wake of Advani’s 1990 rath yatra itself.
The BJP cashed in on the resentment and disillusionment of the times tasted their first major electoral foothold with them getting 88 (or 86?) seats in the parliament (up from 2 seats the previous election).
Then there was this whole backlash when V P Singh tried to implement reservations for disadvantaged communities based on the Mandal Commission’s report. There are allegations that the BJP’s Hindutva propaganda consisted of many people from the forward castes who did not want these reservations.
Behind the scenes
Well before the December 1992 rally, many high-level talks were held amongst various sides – between the VHP and Babri Masjid Action Committee, and among Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, Kalyan Singh (UP’s then CM), the P V Narasimha Rao cabinet and so on.But nothing much came out of all these talks.
In fact, Madhav Godbole, the then Union Home Secretary, blames the Congress and P V Narasimha Rao for the Babri Masjid fiasco not taking preventive action (by deploying paramilitary forces, for instance). There were delays in action by P V Narasimha Rao himself
The Ram Janmabhoomi Campaign
In December 1992, Sangh Parivar bodies organised a rally in Ayodhya. The aim of the rally was to build a Ram temple at the Babri site. Half a million villages were mobilized for this mission.
The plan on the day of the demolition was to do a puja of Ram Lalla and then symbolic Kar seva (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQaV2cWL1D4).
You can see what kind of emotion this campaign incited in ordinary, non-militant minds, going by the numbers. Advani, Uma Bharti and many others were implicated by the Justice Liberhan Commission when it set out to investigate the Babri Masjid demolition. Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have apologized for the demolition, saying that the mob had gotten out of control, but the first 2 minutes of this video which shows him instigating karsevaks.
In fact, both Ram Ke Naam and the above video (an episode of the TV series Pradhan Mantri) show that Vajpayee and Advani (and surely everyone else) openly defied the Supreme Court’s What’s interesting is the BJP leaders openly saying that they don’t care about what the Supreme Court says – absolutely open defiance of the judiciary in the name of “God” and religion. If this is how leaders speak, naturally, the general citizenry (I am not limiting this to “illiterates” and “masses”) will think it is okay to defy the courts in matters of religion.
While the demolition was going on, P V was kept updated about the happenings, but didn’t do anything. In any case, even Godbole said that once the commotion started it would have been wrong to fire at 2 lakh people, and that it would have been too late.
The ground realities of religious identity politics
Baba Lal Das, the court-appointed priest of the Ram temple at the disputed Masjid site, says in this interview (which was given months before he was brutally murdered) that for the VHP, the Ram temple wasn’t even a question of faith. If this priest is to be believed, the VHP had absolutely no moral legitimacy over this topic, but were only after money and popularity. Very broadly speaking, the general citizenry were fed alarmist theories of pampered Muslims.
The guardians of Hinduism contend that Lord Rama, the maryada purushottama, was not a mere mythical figure; that Hindu’s belief in Him was older than many other religions; that Mughal invaders like Babar had political and religious motives to destroying Hindu temples that included the Ram Janmabhoomi temple; that those acts of destruction must be “rectified”. Now we won’t set out to dispute the faith that Hindus have for Lord Rama, or their desire to have a “holy city” on par with Mecca and Jerusalem. But the problem arises when you set out to “avenge” historical wrongs committed by the predecessors of a community.
There is a section of people in every religion that believes people who follow other faiths don’t deserve to exist. Among the Hindu population in particular, there is deep – and not unjustified – resentment against Muslim invader kings who destroyed Hindu temples. This was a major subject in religious propaganda used to instigate kar sevaks (as Ram Ke Naam shows us, many slogans targeted Babar and his “sons”, that is, all Muslims). Even in our current times, there is news every day of destructive acts by Islamic fundamentalists who are intolerant of other faiths. This is the same thinking that drove the Taliban to blow up the Bamiyan Buddha statues and ISIS to destroy Babylonian sites in Syria. But the question is – is this the gold standard that you want to uphold for your own religion or culture?
Big politicians manipulating facts, blind supporters with emotions ablaze – this is a fatal combination that we are all familiar with, especially when elections are around the corner. With the BJP, this is what was happening. The newly formed party had only 2 Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 election. It used the VHP’s Ayodhya propaganda to gain 86 seats in 1989, giving support to V P Singh’s National Front. In 1990 L K Advani undertook a highly provocative, highly aggressive rath yatra on an air-conditioner chariot, that sought to create in people’s minds the imagery of Lord Rama and incite related religious passions. The BJP withdrew support to the V P Singh government in 1990. All that militant Hindutva acrimony worked for the BJP, which won 120 seats in 1990.
(Read Balagopal’s (slightly biased) take on why Dec 6 happened http://balagopal.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/COMMENTARY_-Why-Did-December-61992-Happen.pdf)
We think it is time for the silent majority — those who lead normal lives, those who find comfort, identity, self-belief, inspiration, childhood memories, excuses to buy new clothes, travel opportunities and delicious prasadams — to be more vocal and prevent the extreme bhakts and Adarsh liberals from controlling the narrative of what we are as a nation.
Maybe we should go back to the words of Kabir, Vemana and others and bring some common sense to today’s communal issues.