(This article was originally published on 4 December 2019. To mark 30 years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, we are republishing this from The Quint's archives.)
The Quint retraces the events that led to the demolition of the disputed structure in this seven-part documentary series.
It was the time when optimism around a young, technocrat Indian Prime Minister had faded. In spite of 75 percent seats in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi was going into the 1989 General Election with his back against the wall.
The relentless unravelling of the Bofors scam by a determined media put Rajiv Gandhi under immense pressure. Mishandling of the situation in Punjab, Kashmir and Sri Lanka led to an escalation of violence. To make matter worse, Union Defence Minister VP Singh quit the Cabinet and subsequently the Congress Party to unite the Janata Dal, the BJP and the Left to form an opposition front – the Jan Morcha.
The Congress needed to reverse the country’s sentiment back in his favour. At the time, the BJP with its two MPs and their resolve to build the Ram Mandir, was not a serious contender. Latching on to the popular Hindu sentiment of the day, should’ve been the politically prudent move at the time.
And so, in October 1989, Rajiv Gandhi launched his election campaign from Faizabad and slipped in an unscripted reference to a ‘Ram Rajya’ in his speech written by Mani Shankar Aiyar.
VHP Rakes in Big Money
Earlier that year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad announced it would conduct the Shilanyas or the foundation laying ceremony for a Ram Mandir on November 10, 1989. As soon as the decision was announced, the VHP’s coffers started filling up with donations from across India, UK and the United States of America. By its own admission, the VHP had collected Rs 8.29 crore for the Shilanyas. The amount was believed to be grossly understated by the Income Tax department that would later launch an investigation into the foreign transactions. The fact that the VHP claimed to be a “charitable organisation” and enjoyed significant tax exemptions, when its primary objective had become to build a Ram Temple, was disputed.
With this money, VHP started organising a nation-wide campaign to collect and consecrate ‘shilas’ or bricks from kilns in more than 2,00,000 villages. These bricks with ‘Sri Ram’ inscribed on them were wrapped in saffron cloth, worshipped and then brought to Ayodhya. Consequently, soil from Ayodhya was taken and distributed to these villages.
100 million people were estimated to be part of these processions.
Blurred Legal & Political Boundaries
On August 14, 1989, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court bunched together the four petitions regarding the dispute over Babri Masjid and ordered that status quo be maintained.
Ashok Singhal was prepared to defy this court order and the VHP continued collecting bricks, holding prayers and processions across the country. The communally charged atmosphere during the campaigning for the General Election necessitated the micro-management by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who deputed Union Home Minister Buta Singh to travel to Ayodhya.
On September 27, Buta Singh, along with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Narayan Dutt Tiwari met VHP Joint Secretary Ashok Singhal. The government agreed to allow the VHP to conduct a procession with the consecrated bricks or the Shila Yatra on the condition that the VHP leaders sign an accord promising to abide by the directions of the Allahabad High Court and to maintain peace.
[...] Abide by the directive of the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court given on 14.8.89 to the effect that the parties to the suit shall...not change the nature of the property in question and ensure that the peace and communal harmony are maintained.
Thousands of kar sevaks carrying shilas poured into Ayodhya. Sensing that the VHP did not care to abide by the signed accord, the government tried to make the VHP conduct the Shilanyas on an adjacent plot of land which it believed did not fall under the disputed property as specified by the high court.
The VHP was thought to have agreed to the government’s proposal, but a week before the scheduled Shilanyas, on November 2, a saffron flag was seen on the same plot that was claimed by the Sunni Waqkf Board.
The government approached the high court and three days before the proposed Shilanyas, on November 7, 1989 the court clarified that the August 14 order to maintain status quo was with regard to the 2.77-acre plot of land on which the foundation laying ceremony was proposed to be held.
Significantly, the judges also observed – “it is doubtful that some of the questions involved in the suit are soluble by judicial process”.
On November 8, 1989 the Uttar Pradesh government declared, on the advice of the State Advocate General SS Bhatnagar, that the site of the Shilanyas was not disputed land. He is believed to have ignored specific pages that listed details of the plots which were under dispute.
The government that was earlier trying to prevent the VHP from aggravating the communal tension, was within a span of two months actively aiding VHP’s plan to conduct the Shilanyas on a disputed piece of land.
The Shilanyas was a milestone in the Ayodhya movement which was replete with political and religious symbolism. The Congress’ desperation to retain power had led them to give their own accreditation to the Ram Mandir.
On November 9, 1989 the Vishwa Hindu Parishad conducted the Shilanyas and laid the Ram Mandir.
On the ground, it was a 7ft x7ft x7ft pit.
Cameraperson: Siddharth Safaya
Video Editor: Hitesh Singh
Producer: Esha Paul