Ayodhya Can Still Be a Beacon of Hope
A view of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in October 1990.
A view of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in October 1990.(Photo: PTI)

Ayodhya Can Still Be a Beacon of Hope

Twenty-five years ago, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a dozen friends met at my house to express how most Indians, including devout Hindus, felt about overcoming aberrations.

Healing a wounded psyche – more than retribution, fuelled and determined the contours of an outreach effort demonstrating that Indians can share dreams refusing to regress many centuries.

We devised a public forum reaching out to a silent majority for site specific solutions on the contentious 2.77 acres in Ayodhya.

A major media group was approached involving many of its language editions to help position a collaborative campaign illustrating creative ideas that may offer fresh perspectives.

A few days later, the photographer – Raghu Rai, and Manjit Bawa – the painter, travelled with me to Ayodhya still smouldering with tension.

Also Read: Did You Know? Ayodhya Had Embraced Saffron Long Before BJP’s Rule

Arriving in a curfew-bound Faizabad on the night of 24 December, we had to stay confined in a hotel room with a pixelated TV.  I was restless through the night not being able to attend Midnight Mass and being stuck watching the ritual at the Vatican on the tube. One could move out only at dawn when I went looking for a church in a fog-ridden town.

Amidst zero visibility, one followed the recorded sounds of ‘Jingle-Bells’ coming from a distant barrack close to an old colonial chapel. The prayer hall was deserted with a few festive balloons floating on the floor. “Father,”  I said, hoping for some response.

“Father?”

Another voice echoed from the other end. It was a CRPF jawan… Theodore Tigga – an Oraon tribal on leave from his battalion responsible for guarding the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi.’

Searching the Lord on his ‘Bada din’ – the day Christ was born, Theodore was part of the security that stood frozen, witnessing the wanton destruction of a place of worship.

Together, my traumatised companion and me were seeking emotional and spiritual balance in a live church with morning service.

Also Read: Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid Dispute: The Complete Ayodhya Story

During a ‘White Christmas’

Out on the road, we were greeted by a Swedish nun on a rickshaw ploughing through dense fog. “It’s a white Christmas,” she hailed cheerfully, letting us hop on to her ride.

I had carefully carried from Delhi a note written with the help of my friend, Ramu Gandhi (Bapu’s grandson). The priest, who was going to conduct the service, looked at it and declared in good Jharkhandi, “Bahut best.”

Beaming at having found the right resonance from the Bible on the morning of Christmas, he began his service that day. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from all evil… Oh father, forgive them for they know not what they do…”

The small audience deep in prayer showed no visible response, but we could feel that hearts were meeting.

Later, one stood quietly around the most beautiful nativity ever created. A clay Christ in an improvised crib reusing a cardboard carton, was placed nestled under a hibiscus lit with warm peach coloured fairy lights shaped like lush lychees, we stood savouring the warm glow and divine silence. Theodore and I wept openly as our Swedish humsafar bought in some hot chocolate.

Also Read: Recapping the 12 Hours Before the Babri Masjid Was Demolished

‘Yeh Bhumi – the Silent Majority on How to Save Ayodhya’

Strangers parting as friends become open to long lost cultural connections, nurturing diverse people for millennia. Occasionally, we forget who we are as an ancient civilisation, not knowing why we trespass the innate decency of ‘common’ folk. Yet, one remains resilient in our desire to seek… from here… where?

We went to Ground Zero on the banks of Sarayu, guarded like a battleground. A makeshift temple had appeared over-night as an illegal installation not even consecrated.

In fact, it was whispered that several ‘karsevaks’ may have got trapped and buried underneath the rubble of the demolished archaeological monument.

On our return to Delhi,Yeh Bhumi – the Silent Majority on How to Save Ayodhya’, took form as a special booklet and countrywide outreach by our NGO, Sarthi, friends of artists in need, seeking to create a national identity through art.

It was not just a compilation of ‘idealistic’ suggestions or ‘practical’ ideas collected from ‘like-minded’ people from anywhere belonging to the idea of India. It was more an act of mere healing at a time when most felt bruised and marginalised.

Also Read: Babri’s First Litigants: The Dispute Outlived Them All

What Sort of Nation Do We Want to Be?

Moreover, most shocked citizens who watched the crumbling of protected domes required to reconcile themselves with a past-present beckoning the future. The ‘Yeh Bhumi’ platform articulated alternative narratives that departed from issue escalating more violence.

The objective was also to tap into the creative well-springs of the world, contributing solutions to the immediate problem of communal polarisation… what sort of nation do we want to be?

India Today’s publications across the country coordinated responses from readers every week, developing it as major participation of media, NGOs, artistes, and educational institutions.

Some of the eminent respondents who came up with specific concepts included the late Nani Palkhivala, MF Hussain, Chandralekha, Manjit Bawa, Nekchand, Bhisham Sahni, Rama Krishna Hegde, Shahid Hussain, Pupul Jayakar.

And others still alive include Alyque Padamsee, Haku Shah, Paramjit Singh, Arpita Singh, Amitava Das, Laxma Gaud, Paritosh Sen, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jatin Das, Ved Nayar, Sudarshan Shetty, Madhvi Parekh, KT Ravindran, Romi Khosla, Gautam Bhatia, Anuradha Benegal, Girish Karnad, Gulzar, Bakhtawar Lentin, and MN Buch, with thousands of professionals, craftspeople, students, housewives, farmers, factory workers, and ‘ordinary’ citizens.

Time Has Altered a Sense of History

The spontaneous outpouring of this labour of love remained anonymous claiming no credit or holding any copyright. A river doesn’t drink of its water and the act of giving required no excess baggage. The reproduction of content and its transmission in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retrieval system could be availed without permission. Excerpts of ‘Yeh Bhumi’ in fact, appeared in rival journals.

Today, the issues are somewhat different. Those who participated may have moved on, changed their perception about the location of the temple or are simply fearful about expressing their views. Time has altered a sense of history and the imperatives are felt differently.

Nevertheless, it is essential to put on record how many felt during those dark days… if for nothing else but to perceive where we may be heading from here.

Ayodhya Can Be a Beacon of Hope

The Allahabad High Court has suggested partitioning the critical 2.77 acres between the contending parties. Not being able to concede to a common ground between Hindus and Muslims, the matter has come up to the Supreme Court for hearing.

While most people speak in favour of building some consensus or moving on with more pressing issues, limited number of copies of ‘Yeh Bhumi’ have been reprinted and circulated for the esteemed decision makers.

In the aftermath of 6 December, Ayodhya can continue to fester and there are latent palpable tensions.

Ayodhya can also be beacon of hope. Surrounding the eye of the storm where Ram Lalla still stands, there are 60 empty acres linked to the contentious site. The entire area remains resonant with possibilities for syncretic and creative solutions as it did then.

The compilation of the entire campaign has now been updated and is available for the first time on this historic day at www.asianheritagefoundation.org. Downloading the ideas presented may still enable people to share their own concerns with their families and friends building consensus and making a broader forum a useful aide memoir.

(The writer is an activist, designer, scenographer and art curator. He can be reached @rajeevsethi_)

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