On 6 December 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindutva mobs, Sadhvi Rithambara was there, sitting on the Ram Chabutra, a platform constructed slightly away from the masjid and the site from where proponents of the Ram Mandir would address the karsewaks.
Three decades later, a church in New Jersey, USA, disallowed permission for a fundraising event featuring the hardline Hindutva leader on Saturday, 10 September.
Authorities at the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, took the decision following protest calls against the event, reported local news website northjersey.com.
Reverend Robert Miller of the church had reportedly stated on Friday that he had revoked approval to use of the church building after hearing from both opponents and event organisers. Miller also said that the church was not aware of the speaker’s background when the reservation was made.
Miller mentioned that the church got a flood of messages opposing Rithambara's appearance, including more than 1,000 emails from across the USA since Thursday and at least 100 phone calls on Friday, a day before the event was scheduled to be held.
Advocacy groups Hindus For Human Rights and Indian American Muslim Council had participated in the protests against the event.
But who is Sadhvi Rithambara, and why did news that she would address an event in a New Jersey church lead to such large protests against the event and its eventual cancellation?
Rithambara: Babri and Beyond
Known as Nisha in her early years, Ritambhara grew up in Doraha in Punjab's Ludhiana.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, she would rise among the Hindutva ranks and go on to play a crucial role in the movement demanding a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya at the site where the Babri Masjid stood at the time.
The Liberhan Commission, which was commissioned by the Government of India to probe the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, compiled a list of 68 people whom they stated were individually culpable for leading the country "to the brink of communal discord".
Sadhvi Rithambara was one of them.
Justice M S Liberhan had submitted his findings to the government in June 2009, after an inquiry spanning nearly 17 years.
However, in the case pertaining to the Babri Masjid demolition, Rithambara would eventually be acquitted by a special CBI court, but more on that in a bit. Let's first look at how Rithambara rose to prominence in the Hindutva ecosystem - and for that, we need to go back to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Ram Janmabhoomi Movement: When Rithambara’s Speeches Roared Through Loudspeakers
Rithambara's role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement cannot be understated. During those heady years of the growth of Hindutva, hardline speeches of Rithambara would be disseminated through pre-recorded audio cassettes which would then be played in public via loudspeakers.
Rithambara, then a member of the Central Margdarshak Mandal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, was considered to be "the most aggressive" and tapes of her speeches were among those which received the most attention, wrote political scientist and author Christophe Jaffrelot in his book 'The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (1925 to the 1990s)'.
In January 1991, India Today had reported that 25-year-old Rithambara had been charged by the Delhi Police for making provocative speeches. The report read, "Audio cassettes with her inflammatory rhetoric on the Ayodhya issue have already been banned by the Delhi Police. A criminal case was registered under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code."
Accused and Acquitted in the Babri Masjid Demolition Case
On 19 April 2017, the Supreme Court ordered day-to-day proceedings in the trial on the Babri Masjid demolition criminal case, and stated that it should be concluded within two years.
The apex court also restored criminal conspiracy charges filed against Rithambara, along with doing the same for LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Vinay Katiyar.
On 30 September 2020, Rithambara and all the other 31 accused in the case were acquitted by a special CBI court in Lucknow.
Rithambara's Anti-Christian Tirade in 1995
In February 1995, Sister Rani Maria, a Catholic nun working in Madhya Pradesh's Udainagar, was dragged out of a bus in broad daylight and stabbed to death. The Christian clergy took to the streets in protest. The police arrested the alleged killer, a local BJP-VHP activist.
Later the same year, Rithambara, then a 30-year-old convener of the Durga Vahini, the VHP's women's wing, visited Udainagar and launched an aggressive tirade against Christian missionaries, specifically Sister Rani Maria.
India Today, in an issue dated 31 May 1995, reported that Rithambara, suggesting that Maria had been attempting to convert people, had thundered, "If a single choti or janeu is cut, Christians will be wiped out from the face of India."
A day after her Udainagar speech, police arrested Ritambhara in Indore and charged her under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between different groups).
The Madhya Pradesh High Court released her after 11 days of incarceration. Following her release, Rithambara swore revenge against the government and said, "I shall make them pay for every single moment of my illegal detention."
‘India Will Soon Become a Hindu Rashtra’
Over the years, Rithambara has continued her propagation of Hindutva just as stridently.
Just in 2022, in a speech in Uttar Pradesh, Rithambara was reported to have urged every Hindu couple to produce four children and dedicate two of them to the nation, and quoted as saying that India will soon become a "Hindu Rashtra".
"Those who are trying to divide Hindu society through political terrorism will be razed to dust," she said.
Comments such as these, over a period spanning more than 30 years, were among the reasons cited by advocacy groups protesting against Rithambara's event in New Jersey.
Yet, even though the event at the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood was called off, Rithambara is addressing other events in New Jersey, images from which are being shared on social media.
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)