As a ritual for the past 30 years, as close to midnight as energy and my morning schedule allows, I sit alone to gather my thoughts every 6 December. This year, it was with a keyboard in hand.
The annual exercise this year takes me back years, when, in my mid-20s, I visited Ayodhya for the first time. It was a year after the temple town became ‘national news’ after the Babri Masjid was unlocked and thrown open to Hindu devotees to pay obeisance to the idol of Ram Lalla, a decision that began triggering communal riots in a few towns and cities, at least one of which, in Meerut in 1987, I reported on.
How Indians Awoke to a New Nation
6 December 1992 wasn’t like the usually calm Sundays – it was an ill-omened day. The newspaper I worked for at that time, the country’s leading business paper, with a strong political section, of which I was a part, ‘went to bed’ earlier than the general newspaper from the same stable.
But because it was an atypical day, the editors and I had jointly decided for me to stay back in Delhi instead of reporting from Ayodhya and leave that task to other colleagues. Such a decision was taken because of certainty about the fate of the Babri Masjid and the need thereafter for a person with a fair understanding of Ayodhya and related issues to work with colleagues on the news desk and produce a good edition.
Having reported on the emergence of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation from its onset and also when it emerged as one of the core issues in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, almost foreseeing the formation of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to Assembly polls held simultaneously, I remained in office till the end of operations.
When the small band of us stepped out after the day’s end, we were mindful of the transformative nature of the day that we encapsulated between the pink sheets.
Little conversation flowed, as each one was immersed in personal thoughts, still ‘processing’ the events of the day.
The capital appeared eerier late at night as I drove on my two-wheeler past the Prime Minister’s residence, not fortressed like now. Sleep did not come easily that night and the next morning, when I made my way back to the office, there was no doubt that Indians had woken up to a new nation.
On a personal front, a decision was already made. Shortly after reports of the third dome crashing down came in, I crossed over to the cubicle of the paper’s art’s editor with a request: “Get me in touch with your friend who’s an editor with HarperCollins. I want to write a book on Ayodhya.”
A Generation Has Grown Up on Hate & Prejudice
Fourteen months later, in January 1994, on the occasion of its release, the BJP general secretary of the time, KN Govindcharya, likened the demolition to the fall of Bastille. His argument was contested by others on the panel, including PR Kumaramangalam, a Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government till December 1993 and who quit because of the Prime Minister’s failure to protect secular values.
In 1998, when ‘Ranga’, as he was popularly known, became a Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, it was another indicator that India indeed had changed.
The year 2021 marks the 35th year since the Babri Masjid was thrown open to Hindu devotees. Next year, it will be 30 years since the demolition. Almost 65 per cent of today’s Indians were born after the then seemingly fortuitous day in February when a local Faizabad court ordered the lock to be opened.
During these years, the India that was envisioned at the dawn of Independence has inexorably changed. More and more people have begun asking why India did not become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’, another nation formed on the basis of religion, or why should Muslims demand equal rights when Hindus do not have such guarantees across the border.
As many as 65 per cent of today’s Indians have grown up with no living or ‘distilled’ memory of the events of this day in 1992, but on a diet of hate, anger, prejudice and half-truths.
In one social-media interaction on 6 December, a young Muslim woman said she was barely past being a toddler and remembered images of that day on television as her parents watched in horror. “I thought it was another film, like the ones we saw on VCR, and that the bad guys would eventually be defeated. As I grew up, I realised I had not watched films those days,” the young Muslim woman stated.
The Never-Ending Project of Ram Rajya
She added that on Ayodhya, and the entire gamut of issues that the Ram Janmabhoomi catapulted into mainstream political discourse, there was little ‘objective’ truth readily available – there were only ‘versions’ available, of the ‘victorious’ or of the ‘defeated’. The young woman turns to platforms like this website and the one I was interacting on, in hope of reaching anywhere near the truth and not being forced to bond with others solely on the basis of religious identity. “I feel so happy to learn that constitutional values and common concerns can also bind us”, she said.
‘Shaurya Divas’ (Bravery Day) was at the top of the trending list on Twitter for much of 6 December this year too. “Today ,I celebrate Shaurya Diwas, a day of awakening of Hindu Civilization,” said one tweet. “Correct the wrongs done by the regime of supremacists Islamic terrorists and give back our temples,” said another. The one who wrote the latter described himself as a “proud Hindu” and someone who “works in Indian Politics and Yuva Morcha in BJP”. Further, the demolition of the Babri Masjid was described by many of its supporters as the day when the souls of Hindus tormented over centuries found deliverance. It is believed by their supporters, as a Twitter warrior stated, “after completion of Ram Mandir, Bharat will move towards Ram Rajya”.
No one asked how far back did they wish to turn the clock, or that was not the Places of Worship Act enacted in 1991 to ensure that barring the disputed Ayodhya shrine, the status of every shrine should remain as it were on 15 August 1947.
There is little doubt that the path to the notional Ram Rajya, evoked routinely by all from BJP premieres to local party workers, can only be paved through Mathura and Kashi (Varanasi). This was evident even before the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in the Ayodhya case in November 2019.
The All India Akhara Parishad, the “apex body” of priests who are politically oriented, declared in October 2019 that it would soon launch an agitation to demolish the mosques in Mathura and Varanasi.
A Long List of Structures to be 'Liberated'
Plans were made in early 2020 and a new body was also constituted in Varanasi, with Subramanian Swamy as its president. Tentative steps were also taken on Mathura, but COVID-19 delayed plans. But the moment the situation eased, campaigns and court cases were revived, even as the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust expedited steps and held a groundbreaking ceremony performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, an act that removed the last barriers between religion and the state.
This year, the events in Mathura, with a right-wing Hindu organisation threatening to install idols inside the Shahi Idgah, prompt a sense of déjà vu for those like me who watched from the ringside the events in Ayodhya unfold. The sequence of episodes in Mathura is almost the same as in Ayodhya. One only hopes for the sake of social harmony that future developments do not follow the same course.
The Shahi Idgah in Mathura and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi are not the only two Islamic shrines under threat from right-wing Hindu organisations affiliated with the Sangh Parivar.
In the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – undoubtedly the most impactful agitation since the freedom struggle (but where ‘liberation’ for one has meant regression for the other) – leaders of the Sangh Parivar at various times listed hundreds, even thousands, of temples that needed to be “liberated”.
Already, court cases are ongoing over the Qutub Minar and the Tile Waali Masjid in Lucknow. The cases are being pursued with arguments that match those made previously over the Babri Masjid – first try to ‘prove’ their argument, and if that fails, then claim that it is a ‘matter of faith’ that cannot be subject to judicial scrutiny.
'Mandir' Calls Get Stronger Around Elections
The former Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, mischievously admitted a petition against the PoW Act just days before the end of his tenure. It was filed by a BJP-linked lawyer.
As recent statements in Mathura show, the stated objective may be building new temples, but the actual goal is to demolish existing mosques. After three decades, the Ram temple still has the ghost of the Babri Masjid, living in the imagination of people, as proof of ‘victory’.
Peculiarly, demands and actions on other shrines gather pace during crucial elections and the success or failure in achieving those determine the progress of the Hindutva cavalcade.
Whether the agitation for a Ram temple has ‘restored the dignity’ of Hindus or ‘taken revenge for the humiliation heaped’ on them in history remains a matter of subjective assessment.
But this agitation has propelled the BJP to become the dominant political force in the country. Second, and more distressingly, it has alienated our own people.
Significantly, this vilification campaign and targeting are not just on the basis of religious identity. As the previously mentioned young Muslim woman asserted, even those who do not see eye to eye with the rulers are under fire.
It is this new generation of Muslims who offer hope for realising that this is not an agitation targeting their community alone – although they are the most vilified – but all those groups and people who are opposed to a majoritarian view of India and work for a more inclusive nation.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)