The 16th century Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was demolished by kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, an event that polarised India and led to communal riots in many parts of the country.
Many Hindus consider Ayodhya to be the holy city where Lord Ram was born. In 1528 one of Mughal emperor Babur’s generals erected a mosque that came to be known as the Babri Masjid. Hindu groups believe that a temple of Ram (which was the Ramjanmabhoomi, marking the site where Ram was born) was razed to build the mosque.
Intriguingly, the Baburnama, the first Mughal emperor’s fascinating memoirs, is silent on the phase when the mosque was built. In his introduction to the Baburnama (Wheeler Thackston’s version), the novelist Salman Rushdie writes: “The autobiography [Baburnama]…is inconveniently silent — or, in the opinion of his [Babur’s] more strident critics, conveniently so — on the time Babur spent in and around the Ayodhya region. In all surviving manuscripts there’s a five-month gap between April and September 1528, the period during which Babur was in Oudh, and during which the Babri Masjid was built.”
In 1853, conflicting claims over the site led to violence, the first such recorded communal clash of this nature. The British administration fenced the site in 1859, denominating separate worship areas for Hindus and Muslims. For nearly 90 years, it would remain this way. Then, a couple of years after independence idols were put inside the mosque and various religious groups filed civil suits, claiming possession of the site. The government in response locked the gates, said the matter was sub-judice and declared the area to be ‘disputed’.
In 1984, the movement to build a Ram temple at the site gathered steam, with Hindu groups forming a committee for the purpose. Two years later a district judge ordered the gates of the Babri Masjid to be opened and allowed Hindus to worship inside the disputed structure. In response the Babri Mosque Action Committee was set up, with Muslims protesting the move to allow Hindu prayers at the site.
n the late eighties, the political graph of the BJP was on the rise and the Ram temple issue began to occupy a centrestage in national politics. Organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also started an aggressive campaign in favour of building the temple. In 1989, the foundations of a temple were laid on land near the disputed structure.
In 1990 BJP president L.K. Advani started a country-wide rath yatra to mobilise support for the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. Attempts to negotiate talks by the then prime minister Chandra Shekhar did not make much headway. The BJP, riding high on the success of the rath yatra, became the country’s main opposition party in 1991 and formed the government in Uttar Pradesh.
Political commentator Vidya Subrahmaniam believes that the Sangh Parivar and the Jan Sangh “were by themselves too weak” to carry the temple movement forward. “As has been proved repeatedly, movements and conflicts die down without political support,” she wrote in The Hindu in October 2010. “So too it was in Ayodhya where a deafening quiet prevailed until the mid-late 1980s, when the VHP and then a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party seized the issue, realising its enormous political and electoral potential.”
Kar sevaks started to gather in the thousands at Ayodhya in 1992.
India Today magazine described the mood of the kar sevaks on the days leading to the demolition: [T]he inaction of the past few days as they waited for D-Day, December 6, had made them restive. By December 5, the mood had started to change, the indecision of the [Sangh] leadership on whether to allow construction, had stirred the hornets’ hive. Harcharan Singh, 32, a strapping kar sevak from Haryana echoed an increasingly held view when he flatly stated: ‘After all this if the leaders do not allow kar seva, they will face our ‘maar seva’ (beating).’”
The afternoon of December 5 was the “turning point” as it was finally announced that there would be a symbolic kar seva the following day. By early morning on December 6 a “steady stream of kar sevaks and journalists” started arriving at the site. “Straddling the security wall were PAC constables armed with batons and RSS volunteers with armbands. Overnight, additional barricades encircling the 2.77-acre plot had been erected,” the report said.
At around 11 a.m., the first of the kar sevaks broke through the security cordon.
The journalist Mark Tully who was witnessing the unfolding events later wrote: “A vast crowd, perhaps 150,000 strong, had gathered and was listening to speeches given by BJP and…VHP leaders. Trouble first broke out in the space below us when young men wearing bright yellow headbands managed to break through the barriers.”
According to India Today, at 11.40 a.m., “[a] teenager scales the protective steel railing like a circus acrobat and, despite the steep angle, reaches the top of one of the three domes. The brickbatting becomes heavier and the police abandon their posts around the disputed structure. This provides the signal for hundreds of kar sevaks to break the outer cordon and charge towards the structure waving pickaxes, hammers, shovels and iron rods.”
By 5 p.m. the Babri Masjid was completely demolished.
Several commentators described the events of December 6 as “shameful” and a “blow to secularism”. It was a traumatic time for many Indian Muslims. On the other hand some right-wing intellectuals likened it to a “Hindu awakening”.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid continues to be remembered differently. The writer and activist Harsh Mander wrote in The Hindu in August 2010: “The dust raised by the demolition heralded for over a decade the triumph of politics founded on hate and difference, over ancient traditions of tolerance and pluralism. It marked the victory of frenzied mob violence over the restraints imposed by modern systems of law and the secular democratic Constitution which the people of India gave themselves after India became free.”
Offering a contrarian view, the columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote in Outlook magazine in 2012: “The Ayodhya movement…was nurtured and gained popular acceptance (particularly among the middle classes) in the backdrop of the Khalistani movement, the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley that led to the ethnic cleansing of the Hindus, and Rajiv Gandhi’s reversal of the Shah Bano judgment. Add to this V.P. Singh’s cynical Mandalisation of society and a picture of an India where the Hindus were being taken for granted. Ayodhya threw up a Hindu counter-challenge to divisive politics.”