In the late 1980s and early 1990s, only a handful of journalists reported on the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Fellow journalists often frowned upon or chided them. “You guys are obsessed with these Hindu communalists, why give them so much space.... Indians are inherently secular and this movement will come to a naught,” we were told. As innovative campaigns from 1986 onwards converted what initially appeared a ludicrous political campaign into an out-and-out mass movement, the contention of one-time fellow comrades, “centrists” or leftish colleagues, after every strategic high on the part of the temple votaries was that the VHP-led campaign had “peaked too soon”, that they would be unable to maintain the tempo and the campaign would eventually peter out.
This did not appear to be the case when we saw the confidence of the people steering the Ayodhya agitation. Gradually, media briefings became elaborate affairs either at the VHP head office in Rama Krishna Puram in New Delhi or at other venues in Lutyen’s Delhi. As the BJP too began making political strides, becoming a coalition partner in Haryana in July 1987, a handful of journalists began making daily rounds of the party office. Yet, until the party embraced the Ayodhya issue in its agenda at its national executive meeting in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, in June 1989, the Ram temple matter was not part of conversations with BJP leaders. The VHP leaders were new to the game and their names were unknown to many people in the fourth estate. The vocabulary used by them was alien and only those on the beat realised their resolve.
Yet, it was important to convey to editors that this lot had serious intent and needed to be given space in newspapers and periodicals. In order to kindle the interest of veterans in the profession, who were used to a certain amount of “sameness” in politics, some of us at times regaled those with whom we occasionally sat down for sundowners with dystopian imaginations of the future. It was primarily a ploy to ensure that we riveted their attention with flights of imagination. We explained what proponents of the Ram temple actually aimed for and how they intended going about their business. While we got audiences, many of us realised deep down that our stories were neither fables nor hallucinations of a handful of paranoid scribes. Many routine events that no longer evoke shock or consternation in contemporary India, especially since 2014, resemble those dystopian nightmares we shared with friends and colleagues.
Despite being certain, as the planned kar seva loomed large in 1992, that the Babri Masjid would be demolished, the recent developments were not anticipated. Few expected the Supreme Court to come up with the verdict it eventually did. The court’s pronouncement is interwoven with legalese but has fulfilled the majoritarian pursuit of mandir waheen banaayenge (we shall build the temple at that exact spot). It did this by placing greater emphasis on matters of religious faith than the rule of law and constitutional jurisprudence. The worrying thought is that if what was imagined three decades ago has already come to a pass, what lies in store for the future?
Whenever reference to faith came up in recent years in relation to the Ayodhya issue, two almost parallel narratives came flooding back into memory. First, the assertion that became the cornerstone of Hindu nationalistic argument over three decades: that Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Ram and that the site where the Babri Masjid stood was the precise spot where he was born is a “matter of faith” and does not require to be proved. This phrase, the copyright of which belongs to the VHP mastermind of that era, Ashok Singhal, was, however, not always the argument in the initial years of the agitation. There was a time when the VHP and Muslim parties locked horns verbally and the VHP displayed its willingness to prove their claim. This, however, changed after the media reported the contents of a hitherto unpublicised archaeological report on excavations conducted in the temple town and other sites mentioned in the Ramayana.
B.B. Lal, who in subsequent years emerged as one of the main archaeological experts referred to and championed by the Hindutva brigade, wrote that the antiquity of these sites did not appear to be beyond the 7th century B.C. “This indeed, is very uncomfortable evidence [ sic ], for no one had expected the beginnings of Ayodhya to be as late as that, particularly when one considers that the Painted Gray Ware associated with Mahabharat sites like Hastinapur, antedated Ayodhya,” Lal wrote in Puratattva , the bulletin of the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), in 1986, but which was lying tucked away in some shelf in the ASI library before we got hold of it.
Although much earth has been excavated in Ayodhya, especially in Ram Kot, the mound on which the Babri Masjid once stood desolately, Lal’s findings and conclusion point to a simple fact: if events described in the Ramayana actually occurred, they did not take place in “this” Ayodhya. Yet, the Supreme Court interpreted “new” evidence differently. It, however, has not provided an iota of proof to point to the existence of Ram and his birth at exactly the spot where the disputed shrine stood. The court has merely claimed to have come across evidence that Hindus believed the site was Ram’s janmasthan (birthplace) even before the Babri Masjid was claimed to have been built in 1528. Existence of history of Hindus having faith or belief in the place being the birthplace is not actual history. It certainly does not make the site the birthplace and Ram a historical character.
The second narrative that resurfaced in memory, too, pertains to faith. This was the belief of those Hindus who did not subscribe to the Hindu nationalistic pitch on the Ram temple and that of non-Hindus. For these two social groups, the continued existence of the Babri Masjid before December 6, 1992, was also a matter of faith, that in secular India large numbers of people would prevent majoritarian destruction of the shrine before the courts pronounced a verdict on its title. After heartbreak on that day, these two groups still retained belief in the rule of law and the fairness of constitutional jurisprudence in India and hoped that the courts would not completely strip them of the title. This faith was bolstered by the not-so-perfect judgment of the Allahabad High Court, which directed a three-way split of the disputed site.
As opinions mount from legal masterminds, including former judges, and from civil society, academia and the media on the majoritarian tilt of the apex court judgment, there is sufficient reason to believe that the faith of this section has been belied. This belief has been eroded because the court provided no restitution of the destruction of the Babri Masjid by an act that the court itself called criminal. Many people are propagating the idea that the Supreme Court verdict ensures closure of the dispute. Closure of what? The majority’s faith in Ayodhya being Ram’s birthplace and the site being the garbh griha (sanctum sanctorum)? There is still the lingering faith of the groups mentioned above: does the judgment ensure that mosques in Varanasi and Mathura will continue to exist and Muslims will continue to offer prayers there? Can anyone guarantee that demands of rolling back history will no longer be permitted by any court of law? Will courts in future use the same argument of “possessory title” to throw out any case filed on behalf of Hindus for any shrine that is under possession of minority communities?
History has had its share of paradoxical coincidences with the campaign for the Ram temple. The movement got off the block in early 1984 when the VHP established the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti to spearhead the agitation for the “liberation of Ram’s birthplace”. Within months, this outfit took out a protest march from Sitamarhi in Bihar to New Delhi, naming this as Ram Janki Rath Yatra. The intention was two-fold: First to take out a long procession through the easy-to-harness States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as this would provide ample opportunities to secure the support of Hindus, already unsettled by escalating militant violence in Punjab.
Second, the yatra was taken out from a Bihar town that has mythological association with the Ram legend and is believed to be the birthplace of Sita and the kingdom of her adoptive father, Janak. This set the template of the agitation, provided mass character to the agitation and developed strong connection with mythology. The strategy was replicated in subsequent years. This yatra enhanced the model created for the Ekatmata Yagna organised in 1983. The cavalcade, with vehicles decorated with traditional motifs and religious symbols, attracted curious bystanders. It provided an opportunity to VHP leaders to hold audiences captive with their provocative speeches, which incorporated mythological tales.
The yatra was choreographed with perfection. It started from Sitamarhi on September 23, 1984, and arrived in Ayodhya, the first time that a national campaign on the Ram temple reached the banks of the Ghaghra river, which takes the name of Sarayu while passing through the temple town. VHP leaders were apprehensive that their programmes in the temple town could be disrupted. To give muscle to their programmes, they set up a militant brigade of youths who were prepared to fight opponents in the way they tried to upset VHP plans. Named Bajrang Dal, after Hanuman, the initiative was motivated by the desire to use the symbol of the monkey who was willing to undertake any risk to help the mythological hero. The VHP website (http://vhp.org/vhp-glance/youth/dim1-bajrang-dal/) says the new affiliate was set up for “awakening the society....There was nothing against other religions but certain anti-Hindu and anti-social elements threatened with dire consequences if VHP organised this Yatra.” In 1986, units of the Bajrang Dal were established in other States and over time it became one of the main mobilising arms of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.
Huge crowds did not throng the places where VHP leaders addressed gatherings during the yatra. But, a beginning had been made when political opposition was in disarray. More importantly, in subsequent decades people repeated a pledge whose key line was: “liberate Ram Janmabhoomi from the clutches of barbaric invaders”. From Ayodhya, the yatra headed to Delhi and wound its way past numerous cities and towns of Uttar Pradesh, drawing big crowds at many places courtesy mythological representations. It was clear that the strategy had been a success but adversaries of the VHP and its associates were oblivious of the emerging threat. Eventually, the yatra reached the outskirts of Delhi one evening and cast anchor. The plan was to flood the Indian capital’s old venue of protests, Boat Club, parallel to Rajpath and barely a few hundred metres away from Parliament House.
However, a promising start to a divisive campaign was abruptly cut short with the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. The VHP campaign was put on the back burner. Many VHP activists joined small bands in the saffron fraternity to safeguard the rashtra, or nation, and mounted, what many still believe despite protestations, a campaign in favour of the Congress in the general election in which the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi was elected with the biggest mandate to date.
The decision of the Faizabad magistrate to unlock the Babri Masjid and allow Hindu devotees to offer prayers on February 1, 1986, was the first victory of the VHP campaign and it came as a rebound to the government’s compromise with Muslim conservatives on the Shah Bano effort.
News that the locks of the disputed shrine had been opened was met with enthusiasm and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was again on its way. It was helped greatly by belligerent response from the side of Muslim organisations, lead for which was taken by the retired Indian Foreign Service officer and Janata Party member, Syed Shahabuddin.
The hallmark of the Ayodhya campaign and the primary reason for it to become such a widespread movement was the coordination between various affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). When the RSS took the lead to celebrate the birth centenary of its founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in 1989, it appeared to be a separate programme. But while the bulk of the events were not of interest to the general public, what made huge impact was the widespread one-line graffiti throughout north and west India: Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain (declare with pride that you are a Hindu). The slogan sent a message to Hindus that the time had come to cease being evasive about one’s religious identity and that it was the opportune moment to join programmes that provided them with the public identity of Hindus. If the initial years ensured the emergence of the public Hindu, political Hindus emerged in subsequent years and became the BJP’s vote bank.
The year 1989 was when the Ayodhya movement evolved from a small-time protest to the biggest mass movement in independent India. This was courtesy two campaigns of the VHP. The first was Ram Shila Yatras. Specially consecrated bricks with the words Shri Ram inscribed were taken out in processions. VHP volunteers organised Shila Pujan of stones and bricks brought from across India. Rituals for the consecration of the bricks were spelled out in a booklet of hymns called Shri Ram Shila Geetavali. These specially consecrated bricks were then taken out in processions through various localities before heading to big centres from where they were carted to Ayodhya in trucks. These vehicles were accompanied by motorcycle-riding Bajrang Dal activists, clad in saffron, with bandanas on their foreheads and anger writ large on their faces as they mouthed expletives against “barbaric” Babur ke aulad (progeny of Babur). The angry Hindu had emerged and was seeking retribution for imagined indignities in history.
The second programme was shilanyas, or foundation-laying ceremony, on November 9, 1989. This entailed the digging of a chosen site and laying some consecrated bricks to symbolically lay the foundation of the proposed temple. The date chosen coincided with Devuththan Ekadashi, the day when several thousand devotees undertake a parikrama (circumambulation) of Ayodhya. This ensured crowds for the VHP function. The site chosen was to mark the main gate of the temple. It created a piquant situation as the spot was within the disputed site, but the Rajiv Gandhi government declared it as being outside the disputed property in order to permit the event. Kameshwar Chopal, a Dalit from Bihar, now a BJP lawmaker, was chosen to place the first brick in the pit. This was done with the objective of forging Hindu solidarity across caste lines as unity was tenuous after the V.P. Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission report.
It is an irony that on the day VHP leaders declared that the foundation stone of Hindu Rashtra had been laid was the day when Germans decided to bury ghosts from their past and break through the Berlin Wall to begin the process of reunification of East and West Germany. History has a strange way with juxtapositions. The Supreme Court judgment was passed on November 9, 30 years after the two contrasting events. The verdict was also pronounced on the day Pakistan opened it borders for Sikh pilgrims to visit the Darbar Sahib Gurudwara in Kartarpur. Pakistan’s gesture and India’s acceptance of it may not have been stamped with the favourite phrase “confidence-building measure” in the times of muscular nationalism. Yet, steps of historic import were taken through the corridor and will certainly have positive results intermittently, if not continuously.
It is early to write an authentic history of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. For writers and journalists who chronicled these years, the political campaign with a religious tool has encapsulated almost their entire professional lives. Much can be written, and about many people. But, this is not the time to make heroes out of divisive politicians and tragic characters out of gods who failed. Suffice it to say that this is not the denouement of the campaign which L.K. Advani described, after his post-demolition release from detention, as being “not for just the Ram temple but to secure support for the BJP’s policy of cultural nationalism”.
Since the idea of Hindu Rashtra is still a distance away, the judgment marks no closure. One cannot but feel that it is time once again to let dystopian nightmares take over the subconscious. But retelling them can await another day.
Nilanjan Mukhopadyay is an author and journalist. His first book, The Demolition: India at the Crossroad, was published in 1994, and his latest book, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right, was published in early 2019.