‘Why Didn’t CBI Examine Our CNN Footage of Babri Demolition?’

Over years, many have asked if Narasimha Rao’s central administration could have limited or prevented the outrage.

Updated12 Nov 2019, 12:48 PM IST
Opinion
8 min read

In early 1992, CNN opened its South Asia news gathering bureau in Delhi. No sooner this happened, a torrent of seismic stories overtook the region. From the overthrow of the Najibullah government in Afghanistan to unrest in Thailand, not to mention simmering issues in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, my colleagues and I were kept intensely and uninterruptedly preoccupied.

Then, from the autumn of the same year, the danger of damage to and desecration of the Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s temple town of Ayodhya had begun to escalate. This was generated by the fact that UP had for the first time a Hindutva-inclined Bharatiya Janata Party government; and the agitation and demand for a Ram temple on the premises of the mosque was a Hindu fundamentalist demand with which its leaders were very much associated.

As the threat increased, the Supreme Court of India sought an assurance from the state regime that the monument will under any circumstances be protected. On 27 November, this guarantee of safeguarding the shrine was duly tendered. This notwithstanding, fears of an untoward incident persisted and tension remained at virtually fever pitch.

The Piece on Advani’s Aggressive Address in Faizabad

Therefore, in early December, the CNN crew and I went on assignment to UP to soak in the situation at first hand. We scoured the scene in Ayodhya, which I had visited in 1989 when a foundation stone was laid for a Ram temple on the outer compound of the Babri mosque. There was visibly enhanced security and a palpable atmosphere of anxiety. We then retraced our steps to Faizabad to evaluate a pro-temple rally.

“At this size-able gathering, Lal Krishna Advani, then a stalwart of the BJP and a shrill campaigner for a Ram temple, delivered a distinctly aggressive address, which could be interpreted as inciting violence against the mosque.” 

He was not the only one raving and ranting from the rostrum. Murli Manohar Joshi, another frontline BJP leader, was present or certainly in the vicinity.

CNN filmed the volatile speeches. The following day we produced a package, which, reflecting the mood, contained a strong segment of Advani’s utterances. In my concluding piece-to-camera, I expressed – in line with the anticipation of Indian intelligence agencies – apprehensions of an unwelcome episode being in the anvil.

The piece was released on 5 December. As was typical, it was repeated ad nauseam over a 24-hour period on both CNN International and CNN Domestic. All hell broke loose in the ranks of the Overseas Friends of BJP in the United States! CNN’s international desk in Atlanta was flooded with faxes condemning the report, accusing me of being anti-Hindu and giving Hinduism a bad name.

The Black Day

Back in India, on the morning of 6 December my crew and I checked out of our hotel in Faizabad to proceed to Ayodhya, where a confrontation between protectors and violators was predicted. Our car could not enter Ayodhya as roads leading to it were barricaded at all access points. We thus walked longer than usual to the disputed site. Our cameraman Sanjiv Talreja calculatedly stationed himself at a window of a building facing the mosque. So did Percy Talreja of Worldwide Television News (WTN) from another angle. CNN subscribed to as well as enjoyed a strategic relationship with WTN. It was our insurance cover in case anything went wrong. Indeed, it was too big a story not to take precaution.

Winding through houses and hutments, an uphill lane led to the area near the mosque. Countless people took this route without being stopped.

UP’s armed constabulary in khaki sat unperturbed on benches and chairs facing the mosque and overlooking the pathway. They witnessed a procession of people armed with hammers, iron rods and pick axes walk past them. No one was questioned; no action was taken.

One immediately sensed, though, that the frame of mind among the activists was one of unbridled hostility towards journalists. Several newspersons who were conspicuously taking notes or photos or had placed video cameras on tripods to undertake coverage were either chased away or roughed up. Clearly, those party or privy to what was to unfold were wary of it being observed, let alone being photographed or video-graphed.

Taking no chances, I concealed my diary and pen in my pockets and pretended to be a bemused bystander. I had positioned myself in a vacant space separating the mosque and some buildings. I could see a number of foreign and Indian scribes looking on from one of the terraces. But I chose to remain at surface level, a mere 20-30 yards from the domes of the disused mosque.

Around 11 o’clock or shortly thereafter, several men were seen atop the mosque and hatefully hitting the domes with heavy iron to split open the brick and mortar.

The UP police continued to be blissfully unconcerned. They were transparently under orders not to thwart an assault on the mosque. Having watched this and the frenzied feelings among the extremists for about an hour and a half – by which stage it was patently obvious the worst was inevitable – I quietly made my way to a telephone booth, which I had noticed on my way to ground zero, to establish contact with Atlanta.

I dialled a local operator and requested a lightning reverse charge call. I surmised international wire services would have at least put out flashes by now. Whether they had or hadn’t, a half asleep colleague – for it was the middle of the night US Eastern Time – seemed to be unaware of it. I, of course, convinced him it was a mammoth enough story to merit interrupting the bulletin being broadcast. So, he patched me through live to the anchor; and I broke the story with an eye-witness account – since the mayhem was visible to me from where I spoke, albeit from a distance.

In the television business, what is topmost priority is pictures. I may have been “first-with-the-news” (CNN’s motto), but there were only file pictures of an intact mosque to illustrate my effort. My phoner padded with incoming text from wires could air for a few hours; but we needed video to graphically depict the description.

In other words, as I trudged back to cauldron point, my prime objective was to locate either Sanjiv or Percy. I had no idea where they had camouflaged themselves. Fortunately, I found Sanjiv, asked him for a tape of whatever he had shot, advised him, Percy, Chand Joshi, our soundman, and Nandini Sud, our producer, to stay put, while I hid the videocassette inside my jacket, zipped it up and as unobtrusively as possible – amid suspicious stares from the saffron, red-tilaked crowd – slipped away, heading for the hired car which was parked miles away to dash to Lucknow airport.

“Somehow I secured a seat on a flight leaving for Delhi imminently. Once back in the Indian capital, I rushed to Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited near Gol Market to uplink the footage I had carried via satellite to Atlanta. Within minutes, it was on air. It was a world exclusive! The first glimpse of the destruction of the Babri mosque. In fact, by the time the pictures were broadcast – with my voiceover from the CNN bureau in Chanakyapuri – the edifice had been razed to the ground.”
Ashis Ray

BBC did not have a staff cameraman on the job. It was relying on Reuters TV or Visnews to supply the pictures. The latter’s cameraman was unfortunately beaten up and his equipment smashed, so, BBC was tragically stranded without any video. Normally, the competition between the two networks would have impeded co-operation in a matter of an exclusive. But the extenuating circumstances, the fact that BBC had every intention of covering the story, compelled CNN to share the footage after it had aired on its network.

What Went on After the News Break

A couple of days later, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, encouraged by the then Indian ambassador in Washington, Siddhartha Ray, extended to CNN a lengthy first television interview on the event. I asked him, why hadn’t he imposed President’s Rule in UP.

“He cited, since the state government had given an assurance to the Supreme Court that it would protect the mosque, had he pre-emptively dismissed the BJP dispensation, the very people who were accusing him of inaction would have condemned him for being undemocratic. I persisted by putting to him: why did he not intervene when he learned of the attack. He replied, by the time he came to know about it, it was too late.”
Ashis Ray

He admittedly sacked the BJP government of chief minister Kalyan Singh the same evening. But by this juncture, riots had spread to various parts of India, eventually costing an estimated 2,000 lives.

A week or so after the black day, CNN’s Delhi bureau was visited by officers (presumably of the Central Bureau of Investigation or CBI) probing the crime who asked for the material we had shot in Ayodhya and Faizabad. I referred the matter to our lawyers in Atlanta, who advised there was no problem in parting with what had been broadcast and was therefore already in the public domain. But if the investigators demanded more, we should seek legal opinion from our Indian lawyer.

So, we handed over copies of the report on Advani’s rally in Faizabad and of whatever we had transmitted on the day of the decimation, fully expecting the detectives to be dissatisfied. Much to my surprise, though, they never returned for more. All they did was to invite Nandini over to Samrat Hotel, which was known to be a security hub, to ask her a few trivial questions.

The footage they took away was of course evidence by itself. But the hours of un-broadcast video would probably have amounted to overwhelming proof. It would have provided close-ups of the men who perpetrated the misdeed and what more Advani and others said at the fomenting Faizabad rally.

Prima facie, the inquirers were unserious about prosecuting anyone. Thus, no one who instigated or committed the offence has, even after 27 years, been brought to book.

Footage Could Have Unearthed Many Things

What the footage might have unearthed is whether any of today’s familiar faces in the Hindutva movement featured in the occurrences at Faizabad and Ayodhya.

As is well known, in 1990 Advani engaged in an extended ratha yatra demanding construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Prominent beside him, indeed reportedly the organiser-in-chief of this stir, was none other than Narendra Modi. Without insinuating anything, one can legitimately ask: where was he on 6 December 1992?

It is now likely to be too late. While digital recordings of what was broadcast on 6 December and the days preceding it could exist in CNN’s archives, it’s doubtful if the unused pictures have been preserved.

The recent landmark verdict from the apex of the Indian judiciary is arguably contradictory. On the one hand it rewards the destroyers of the mosque by gifting them the land on which it stood. On the other it calls the destruction an unlawful act. 

It is akin to the International Court of Justice upholding Pakistan’s forcible and illegal occupation of a vast swathe of Jammu and Kashmir.

Consequently, Advani, whom I have known since the time he was minister of information and broadcasting in the Janata party government of Morarjee Desai, feels “vindicated and blessed” by the judgement. Yet, the order effectively issues a direction to the court trying him and others in connection with the incident to deem the so involved as guilty.

Were Demolition, Riots Avoidable?

Over the years, many have asked me if Narasimha Rao’s central administration could have limited or prevented the outrage. There was certainly persuasive information for several days to warrant a state of preparedness, a moving in of the army and the air force to within striking distance of the mosque. Had such readiness been achieved, the nefarious design could possibly have been nipped in the bud before too much injury was inflicted.

But there was a risk. As I saw it, circumvention could only have been executed by dropping paratroopers from helicopters on to the site. Such forces could have sprayed the arena with teargas and thereby dispersed the marauders. But what if the UP constabulary had opened fire? And the commandos of the centre fired back? It could have been an unspeakable bloodbath.

(The author of the article is a broadcaster with BBC, Sky Sport and author of the book Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge. He has also worked as a consulting editor with CNN. He can be reached at @ashiscray.)

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Published: 12 Nov 2019, 10:04 AM IST
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