The tragedy of Ayodhya

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

The initial phases of the Ayodhya campaign helped the Bharatiya Janata Party transform itself into a party of government. But its more durable impact was the institutionalisation and legitimisation of the discourse of majoritarionism in civil so ciety.


ASKED in the course of a media interview whether Ayodhya was being revived as a poll issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ram Prakash Gupta, replied that as of now the issue was not on the agenda of his party. "But who knows what will happen at the time of elections?" he went on to say, giving us pause for thought. Will we witness another saffron surge to prop up the somewhat sagging prospects of the party in the next Assembly elections? Perhaps. For the Ayodhya issue has p roved to be enormously handy for the Sangh Parivar. Each time the parliamentary wing of the Parivar has faced a crisis, the issue has been pulled out of the closet, dusted, given a new coat of paint, and brandished anew for consumption by the body politi c.

That every time the Ayodhya issue has been brought up for public attention the country has witnessed immense bloodshed, communal hatred, scarred geographies, scarred histories, and scarred psyches, does not seem to matter to the leaderships propelled sol ely by raw, unmediated passions to retain power. That every time the Sangh Parivar mentions Ayodhya, the chords that hold the body politic together tighten under stress and anxiety is of no consequence to people parading politics in the garb of religion. The spectacle of violated and burnt corpses, destroyed and arid spaces, wrecks of communities that had learnt to live, laugh and love together, is no cause for concern when it comes to electoral gains. Expectedly, the history of India since the mid-1980 s, when the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was initiated, has been marked by animosity, avarice and cynical abuse of the religious idiom. An entire generation has grown up in an atmosphere where mandirs and masjids have become synonymous with politics. And th e invocation of Ayodhya has led to one tragedy after another.

For instance, in 1989, the Sangh Parivar, intent on subjecting Indian politics to political theatricals, began to collect and consecrate bricks - the Ram Shilas to lay the foundation of the Ram Janamsthan Mandir in Ayodhya. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) an d Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres took several hundred thousand Ram Shilas made of 'local earth' in different places, to scattered villages and towns. The bricks were wrapped in saffron cloth, worshipped for several days, consecrated by pujar is and village elders and carried in processions throughout the country to the radial spot at Ayodhya. Conversely, earth dug up in Ayodhya was redistributed to different parts of India in a heroic effort to unite all Hindus in nationhood. As the VHP was allowed by the Congress(I) government at the Centre to lay the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir, the first stone of the new Hindu Rashtra was laid.

The Shilanyas marked a successful and a decisive breakthrough in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, representing the high point of politics as theatre, replete with symbolism and suffused with ritualism. Almost 200,000 villages sent bricks, 300,000 pujas of the Ram Shilas were performed and altogether about 100 million people attended the various processions that carried the bricks to and from Ayodhya. Even as this was happening, mahayagnas and meetings brimming over with provocative oratory and hate ful propaganda assiduously nurtured a communalised atmosphere. Ritualised symbolism was to leave a trail of riots, bloodshed, mayhem, intensification of tensions and hostility, fractured communities and dismembered unities, all of which traumatised the n ation.

Kota in Rajasthan witnessed its first communal riot after 33 years of harmony on September 14, 1989. Bihar was the worst-hit, with communal clashes in Hazaribagh, Sasaram, Darbhanga, Jharia and Gaya among other places. Reports prepared by civil liberties organisations revealed that Muslims were pulled out of trains and butchered, whole localities were destroyed and entire villages such as Chanderi were burnt down. The personnel of the Bihar Military Police participated actively in the killings, delibera tely targeting Muslims. In Bhagalpur, as the procession carrying consecrated bricks approached Muslim majority areas, more and more people joined the procession and the numbers swelled to almost 10,000. They raised slogans demanding that Muslims go to Pa kistan and stating that Hindustan is for Hindus. This expectedly led to resistance and bloody communal rioting. Hundreds of Muslims lost their lives in this carnage.

The close co-relation among the routes of Ram Shila Puja, the communal violence of September-October, and the electoral gains made by the BJP in the 1989 elections is clear. Analysts estimate that out of the 88 constituencies where the BJP won in the 198 9 elections, 47 were in areas that had seen wide-scale rioting - in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In the State Assembly elections held in March 1990, the BJP won in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh and secured a large number of seats in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

As the news spread of the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992, a new phase of murderous Hindu-Muslim riots accompanied by police firing in six States began. The worst incidents took place in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Banaras and Jaipur. The spill -over of these riots was experienced in Pakistan, Bangladesh, even in the United Kingdom. Mumbai witnessed two spells of rioting from December 6 to 12, 1992, and then from January 7 to 16, 1993. It is estimated that roughly 227 people died in the Decembe r riots and 557 in the January riots, followed by 317 deaths in March 1993 after the Mumbai bomb blasts. The loss to public and personal property was incalculable, with 50,000 people being rendered homeless. Reports show that though in many cases members of the Muslim community instigated the riots, by far the largest number of victims were Muslims. And investigations revealed that the police were active participants when it came to shooting Muslims, a fact accepted by the Police Commissioner of Mumbai, S.K. Bapat.

These two flash points of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement raised, and continue to raise, important questions of and for the future of democracy in India, and for the relationship between its people. At stake is India's claim that it is a tolerant nation, wi th a proud heritage of its people living together in some degree of harmony. For the movement has cast a long shadow over the very idea that people of different persuasions can live together in a geographically bounded area in some degree of amity.


And yet Ayodhya became a site for conflict only in the 19th century. Ayodhya, hold historians, became a major centre of spiritualism for Vaishnavites in the 17th century, when it was first mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in the treatises on tirthas thans, though the tale of Rama became popular in the 15th century through the work of Tulsidas. In the 16th century, the Ramayana became a part of the collective psyche and rural folklore through myth and legend, story-telling and enactment of Tulsid as' Ram Charitra Manas by the Vaishnav Ramanandi sects or the Bairagis. They, it is reported, waged a long struggle with the Shaivites for the control of religious spots in Ayodhya. For pilgrims, Ayodhya was on a par with Banaras and Hardwar, thou gh the latter two were more popular as destinations for people in the twilight of their lives.

In the 19th century, Ayodhya was a part of Avadh, but for administrative and revenue matters it had been transferred to the British resident by the Treaty of 1819. The 'Babri' mosque was known as Jami Masjid or Sita Rasoi Masjid. Historians say that the idea that Babur had built a mosque over the temple was unknown until the 19th century. In mid-century the Bairagis of Hanuman Garhi came to disseminate the view that Rama was born at the site where the mosque stood, he subsequently moved his capital to S aketa and Ayodhya vanished into the mists of time. But the Ram Janamsthan remained, to be discovered by Vikramaditya through a miracle. He subsequently built a glorious temple there, which was later demolished by Mir Baqi, a lieutenant of Babur. Many his torians suggest that the British residents were the ones who first suggested that the mosque had been built over the ruins of a temple. This was in keeping with their penchant for interpreting and chronicling every clash between the two communities as a communal riot. And it is possible that they put forth this idea in order to justify their annexation of Avadh.

The issue of whether Ayodhya was the birthplace of Ram, and whether the mosque was built over the temple, has left many historians preoccupied - some eminent, others trying to build their political fortunes by trying to establish the authenticity of the belief. The evidence has been unsatisfactory in both cases, but then questions of faith can seldom be proved or disproved merely by scientific confirmation. The important point is that large sections of Hindus came to believe that Babur had usurped the b irthplace of Ram.

This had its expected consequences. The first recorded conflict over Ram Janmabhoomi took place in 1853-55. After a major armed struggle between the Mahants who occupied the masjid and Muslims who sought to liberate it, the elders decided that both the c ommunities should be allowed to worship at the same place. The building itself was used as a mosque. Hindus could worship outside the mosque. After the revolt of 1857, the British ruled that the respective places of worship of the two communities should be demarcated. The Mahants were allowed to construct a raised platform in front of the mosque - the chabutra - to commemorate the birthplace of Ram. A grill fence was raised between the space of the mosque and that of the mandir.

Post-1857, the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy acquired a new momentum as both the communities put forth rival claims for the control of the mosque. The rise of Hindu and Muslim nationalism in the 1900s worsened the atmosphere, and a number of c ommunal incidents rocked the area in 1912-13. In 1934, clashes occurred on Id-ul Zuha day, when, following the sacrifice of a cow, the Bairagis of Hanuman Garhi took over the mosque and destroyed two of the domes. The police arrived before any further de struction could take place but tensions were to accelerate rapidly.

In December 1949, the controversy gained further momentum. The Mahants decided to recite the Ramayana in front of the mosque. As large crowds gathered at the spot, visible hostility towards the Muslim community permeated the gathering. On December 23, it was proclaimed that an image of Ramlala had appeared inside the mosque. The Hindu community regarded this as an auspicious omen heralding the recovery of Ram Janamsthan. The Muslim community, as well as the administration, alleged that that the idol had been placed inside the mosque by a group of people who had entered the mosque by breaking the locks. Whereas the State Chief Secretary and the Inspector-General of Police ordered the removal of the idol, the District Magistrate, all-too-conscious of the problems that would follow such an action, locked the mosque and asked the Imam to leave. However, puja was allowed within the mosque and devotees could get a darshan of the Lord from behind the grill partition. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered t hat the idols be removed, but the court restrained the order and allowed the puja to continue. The matter of the restoration of the mosque was left unaddressed and the issue was kept pending in the court at Faizabad. In effect, the mosque was shut down.


Things remained relatively quiet until the 1980s, when the Sangh Parivar burst onto Indian politics with a full-blown agenda. The 1980s, which witnessed separatist movements in major parts of the country and which saw the utilisation of the religious idi om by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, provided a fertile ground for the open communalisation of Indian politics.

The 1980s, in effect, saw the final dissolution of the secular spirit that had been carefully drafted and institutionalised by the first generation of leaders in India, and its replacement by the idioms, the grammar and the symbolism and oratory of relig ious identification. The increased visibility of saffron-clad sadhus in politics, the shrill provocation in the rhetoric of sadhvis including Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambara, and open calls for the establishment of a Hindu state organised around the li beration of the sacred site at Ayodhya, became commonplace.

The "liberation" of Ayodhya formed the dominant metaphor in a cluster of ideological formulations that challenged practically each one of the accepted themes that went under the heading of secularism - minority rights, freedom of religion and equal citiz enship. All these themes were dismissed as 'pampering the minorities', 'pseudo-secularism', 'cultural nationalism', the building of a strong 'Hindu Rashtra', and 'regenerating the Hindu spirit'. Ayodhya was transformed into a metaphor for the impoverishe d spirit of Hindus who could not recover their sacred spaces, for the illegitimacy of minority entitlements, a historical allegory for Muslim invasions, and a spatial one for the construction of the space of a Hindu nation. The power of this metaphor was so great that events moved rapidly from the mid-1980s onwards.

In 1984, the first Dharma Sansad demanded the liberation of Ayodhya. In the same year, the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti, formed under the leadership of Mahant Avaidyanath, launched the tala kholo agitation. The year 1985 saw a series of processions - the Ram Janaki Raths from 25 places in northern India to Ayodhya.

In 1985, the VHP, which had been active since 1982-83 with the Ekmata Yatra in southern India, filed a writ petition demanding a re-opening of the 'disputed structure' for worship by Hindus. The VHP simultaneously restructured and strengthened its organi sation. In 1984, the Bajrang Dal had been formed as the militant youth wing of the VHP, with the stated intention of recruiting young and underemployed men for militant action for the establishment of a Hindu nation, and for the "liberation" of the Ram t emple. By the late 1980s, the Bajrang Dal had a membership of 100,000 people in northern India. By the late 1980s, the VHP also started the Durga Vahini for young women.

Internationally the VHP organised a series of conferences to appeal to the Hindu diaspora. The success of this strategy was all too obvious during the Shilanyas when Hindus abroad sent huge funds and lots of bricks for the Ram Shilas programmes.

The campaign yielded results, for in February 1986, a District and Sessions Judge, K.M Pandey, ordered that the doors of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi be opened. "If the Hindus are offering prayers and worshipping the idols, though in a restricted way ," he stated, " then the heavens are not going to fall if the locks of the gate are removed. The District Magistrate has stated before me today that the members of the Muslim community are not allowed to offer prayers at the disputed site." The Uttar Pra desh government was ordered to allow puja within the mosque. Neither Central government nor the State government reversed the decision.

But this did not satisfy the Hindu nationalists, who wanted to see the destruction of the mosque and the building of the temple. In 1986, a large Sant Sammelan, which was called by the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti, set up a Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, a nd called upon the government to transfer the property rights of the Ayodhya site so that the biggest temple in the world could be built there. In the meantime in 1987, the Babri Masjid Action Committee announced a march to culminate in Ayodhya on Octobe r 14, 1988. The VHP responded by organising a Shri Ram Maha Yagna from October 11. The resultant tension set off riots in Aligarh, Muzzafarnagar and Faizabad and this prompted Union Home Minister Buta Singh to press for a suspension of the march.

But matters had by then gone out of hand. The Ram Janmabhoomi became a symbol of resurgent nationhood, the concrete spatial indication of the new Hindu nation, and the icon of militant Hindu nationalism intent on recovering its patrimony. The year 1990 w as a historic one. Even as the country, the Hindu community in particular, was rent by the politics of Mandalisation, L.K. Advani launched his Rath Yatra from Somnath. Traversing 10,000 km, the Rath Yatra evoked muscular emotions. A group of young men of fered Shri Advani a cup of blood signifying their readiness to achieve martyrdom, youngsters armed with bows and arrows genuflected before him, women performed puja, and sadhus anointed him with tilaks of blood. On October 30, members of the Sangh Pariva r stormed the mosque and planted a flag. Fifty people died in police firing.

The year 1991 saw an intensified campaign even as the BJP drew a large number of members from the VHP as its candidates for the elections. The election campaign was marked by the domination of the Dharma Sansad. The presence of trishul-wielding sadhus at meetings was a common feature. The 1991 election campaign was violent but the BJP became the second largest party in Parliament with 119 seats, expanding its vote share from 11.4 per cent in 1989 to 19.9 per cent in 1991. The rest is history - the demol ition of the mosque and the transformation of the BJP into a party of government leading a coalition at the Centre following the 1998 and 1999 elections.

It is true that after the demolition of the mosque the BJP has not been able to reap the kinds of gains it wants to out of the intense, communally oriented, campaigns that its affiliates have launched for the building of the Ram temple. It is true that u nder the compulsions of coalition politics it has had to set aside the Ram Mandir issue. But it is equally true that the Sangh Parivar has achieved perhaps a more durable victory - that of institutionalising and legitimising the discourse of majoritarian ism in civil society, which carries one message. That message is that the rightful inheritor of the nation is the majority community and that it will recover its patrimony through coercion if necessary. That this has sharply overturned all attempts made by people belonging to diverse persuasions to carve out spaces of belonging is of little concern. For the project of Hindutva is to divide the polity. Temples meant for worship now provide cynical, amoral politics with a repertoire of strategies, which e nable them to pursue their own cause.

The name of Shri Ram: Maryada Purshottom, the epitome of right thinking and right action, relentless warrior in the cause of justice, inspires devotion and piety in the hearts of Hindus. The misfortune is that the invocation of the name by the San gh Parivar equally inspires frenzy on the one hand and fear on the other. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of Ayodhya.

Neera Chandhoke is Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi. She is the author of State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory (Sage, 1995) and Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities (OUP, 1999) .

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment