Book Excerpt: Saeed Naqvi’s ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’
By Saeed Naqvi
The following excerpt is from the chapter entitled, ‘The Breaking of the Babri Masjid’
The Breaking of the Babri Masjid
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, PLACES of worship have been destroyed or constructed as a statement of assertion by the victorious. As has been said, times without number, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was allegedly built circa 1528 by a nobleman, Mir Baqi, from the court of the first Mughal, Babur, as an act of conquest. That Babur never came this far is a separate story. There is evidence of it having been an explosive issue for a long time. As early as 1859, two years after the great uprising of 1857, the British colonial administration built a railing to separate the outer courtyard from the mosque. The status quo remained in place until 1949, when idols of Lord Ram were secretly placed in the mosque premises, allegedly by volunteers of the Hindu Mahasabha. This set in motion events that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 by a mob more than 100,000 strong, comprising mostly Hindu kar sevaks or volunteers, who literally swarmed up the structure with hammers, axes and grappling hooks, and brought down the dome of the mosque in a few hours. Police security, which had been set up in anticipation of religious violence, was vastly outnumbered by the crowds. The police could neither do very much nor did it make any effort.
The Babri Masjid demolition served as a shocking eyeopener for Indian Muslims. It estroyed whatever confidence the community had in the Indian political class and the political party which had governed the country for the greater part of the post-Independence era, namely the Congress. After the Babri Masjid was brought down, Muslims began to reflect deeply on all
the injustices that had been done to the community, beginning with Partition in 1947. They discussed promises that had been made and broken.
It all started as a brazen political project. In September 1990, in a bid to consolidate the Hindus, L. K. Advani embarked on a Rath Yatra from Somnath Temple in Gujarat to Ayodhya, demanding a Ram Mandir on the very spot where the Babri Masjid stood. The BJP claimed Lord Ram was born at the spot where the Babri Masjid was—a claim that was unsupported by verifiable historical fact. Those who believed that the Babri Masjid stood on the site of Ram’s birth cited mythology to buttress their claims. All across the country, north of the Vindhyas, sectarian groups clashed. Saffron began to spread across the nation on a scale not seen before.
Unravelling the Ayodhya dispute was, for me, a personal pursuit. I realized there was much more history to it than sketchy newspaper reports conveyed. It was in 1855, during Wajid Ali Shah’s rule, that a dispute arose in Ayodhya over Hanumangarhi— one of the most popular temples to Lord Hanuman in north India. Hindus believed that the ruins of a mosque was the site of an ancient Hanuman temple and started doing puja there. Aamir Ali, a nobleman of Bareilly, turned up in Ayodhya with a posse of soldiers to declare jihad on the Hindus. Aamir Ali’s forces were overwhelmed by the larger Hindu congregation. The graves of Muslims who died in the clash still remain in the vicinity of the Babri Masjid. The Nawab’s durbar in Lucknow remained strictly neutral in the dispute. This went down well with both Hindus and Muslims accustomed, during the reign of the Awadh nawabs, to peaceful co-existence. Nothing in the circumstances favoured self-appointed jihadis.
During this period, there was no live dispute at the Babri Masjid (Ram Janmabhoomi). But after the annexation of Awadh in 1856, and the exile of Wajid Ali Shah to Matia Burj that year, the new British administration placed a grill separating the built-up domes of the mosque and the forecourt or the chabutra where Lord Ram was supposed to have been born. Instead of conclusively settling a dispute, as the last king of Awadh had done in the case of Hanumangarhi, the British institutionalized the Mandir–Masjid issue by dividing the 1,500 square yard property almost exactly into half. It served the British purpose of ‘divide and rule’. Remember Disraeli’s speech in the British Parliament? Whenever riots were required to divide communities and consolidate British control that had been shaken after the joint Hindu–Muslim Revolt of 1857, they would revive the Mandir–Masjid dispute.
The Babri Masjid was neither an important enough mosque for the Muslim community nor even a remarkable architectural wonder to warrant the controversy surrounding it. When I first visited Ayodhya to cover the agitation, I was surprised that the mosque was there at all. The lanes of Ayodhya, lined with temples of all sizes, manned by saffron-robed sadhus, looked so patently Hindu. In that location a mosque—Babri Masjid—looked out of place. This was in contrast to Ayodhya’s twin city, Faizabad, whose mosque was situated in what seemed to me a more appropriate context. This is nothing more than a personal observation and should be taken as such.
The communal picture changed after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The insecurity of the Muslim grew with every passing year. The mosque was demolished on 6 December 1992, but the planning for the event had gone on for three years. It was a brilliant marketing strategy by Hindutva craftsmen who had outlined the project of casting bricks, some in silver and gold, to be consecrated in numerous temples of India, big and small, and eventually taken to Ayodhya in a procession for the construction of the Ram Temple. The project whipped up a furious awakening on the Ayodhya issue. The temple would have 108 pillars across two storeys sprawled over 270 feet, which would be its length, quite in harmony with its height of 125 feet…
For Indian Muslims, their place in Indian society changed radically after the Babri Masjid demolition. Imagine the pain Kaifi Azmi, the well-known poet, must have felt as he groped his way up the unlit staircase leading to the apartment of his mentor and friend, Ali Sardar Jafri, during the 1993 Bombay masscares. Jafri’s Kemp’s Corner apartment block was threatened by arsonists. Or take my friend Jawed Laiq’s story. His father, Professor Nayyer Laiq Ahmad, had been principal of Bombay’s Elphinstone College in the fifties, a historian with a catholic vision. His mother was a Congress MLA and among the earliest delegates to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. During the Bombay riots, Jawed found himself in the entrance hall of his Churchgate apartment building, candle in one hand, a screwdriver in another, diligently pulling out the nameplate ‘Prof N. L. Ahmad’ so that arsonists and murderers would not find their way to his mother on the floor upstairs.
After the demolition and subsequent riots, covert dislike of Muslims in this country has become a lot more open and frequent. My daughter, Farah, returned after eight years of education in the US, with a much prized immigrant visa, the stepping stone to a green card, which she surrendered upon her return to India, saying that she was ‘now home’. She would have a US visa stamped on her Indian passport if she needed to travel to the US. US Ambassador Frank Wisher had never seen anything like this—an Indian surrendering her right for permanent residence in the US. Many ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ enthusiasts have their wards parked in the US. The ironic twist to the story came later. Farah began to work for Nirantar, an NGO dedicated to working among rural women. Returning from Banda in UP by train in the summer of 1993 she had her first encounter with the altered reality in the country. At one railway station, everyone around her in the train unanimously resisted the entry of a family which was quite obviously Muslim. Farah thought they had not been allowed to enter because the compartment was full until an anti-Muslim tirade picked up as soon as the train left the station. A kindly looking elderly man, noticing Farah’s silence, offered her an apple which she gently refused. ‘Lay lo bitiya, hum bhi to tumhare tarah Hindu hain, koi Mussalman to nahin hain (Take the apple, daughter. After all I am also a Hindu like you, not a Muslim.)’
On 9 November 1989, one of the wisest Congressmen I have known, Saiyid Nasir Hussain, sat in his office in the Faizabad mosque, contiguous with Ayodhya, holding his head in his hands and weeping: ‘They have cheated the Muslims.’ He then blurted out: ‘The deal with the VHP was struck at the very top.’ He knew what he was talking about. ‘In UP the Congress is finished,’ he declared. His words would prove prophetic.
In a move to pre-empt Hindu mobilization to liberate Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had ordered the locks of the Babri Masjid to be opened in 1986. This would allow Hindus to have ‘darshan’ or be able to see the Ram idols which were placed under the central dome of the mosque. Rajiv Gandhi was advised that by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid, he would kill two birds with one stone—he would defuse Hindutva mobilization and, at the same time, silence mounting criticism that he was appeasing Muslims on the Shah Bano issue.
The Shah Bano case was a landmark judgement in April 1985, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Muslim Personal Law could not stand in the way of Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which applied uniformly to all Indians, including Muslims. The issue was the case of Shah Bano, a sixty-two-year old divorcee claiming maintenance, which Muslim Personal Law denied her. Conservative Muslim opinion was incensed at the court interfering in their Personal Law. Rajiv Gandhi decided to placate the Muslim vote bank. He put into force the Muslim Women’s Act of 1986. In defiance of the Supreme Court verdict, the new act restored the supremacy of Muslim Personal Law. There was uproar among Hindu and Muslim liberal groups.
With this retrogressive act, Rajiv ended up achieving exactly the opposite of what he had intended. He opened himself to the charge of appeasing Muslims. It was not just a charge but a fact: he was appeasing the clerics without having done the community a jot of good. Yes, the Muslim clerics could claim credit for confining Muslim women to their Personal Law. For this Rajiv Gandhi earned some brownie points among the mullahs, but liberal Muslims like Congressman Arif Mohammad Khan were isolated. To make matters worse, Rajiv tried to build bridges with Hindu hardliners on the Ram Temple issue…
The excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Aleph Book Co.
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