When the lines between religion and politics get blurred, history is created. The Ram Janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid dispute has been one of those sentimental epicentres which have time and again redefined Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Whenever Hindu-Muslim relations are studied, this issue is often considered the third most important, after Partition and Kashmir. Nonetheless, history tells us that it’s importance and influence can never be underestimated as it has challenged the very social fabric, law and order of India repeatedly. This, along with the political relevance of the issue, is what makes it is such an integral part of the country’s history, present as well as the future.
The Historical Context
The Babri Masjid was a mosque built in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Babur in the town of Ayodhya in present day Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya also happens to be the claimed birth place of Hindu Lord Ram, who is the protagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Although there is no evidence of the birth, still Hindus have ever since claimed that Ram was born at the exact same place where the mosque stood and also that there had been a pre-existing Ram temple which was destroyed in order to build the mosque. Throughout the 19th century there was a series of clashes among rival groups claiming possession of the land. The Britishers then affected a compromise in which Muslims continued to worship inside the mosque, while Hindus made offerings on a raised platform outside known as Ram Chabutra.
The first major and rather intriguing incident happened in 1949, when at night a group of people secretly placed an idol of child Ram (known as Ram Lalla) inside the mosque under the main dome. The deliberately spread rumours led to a false yet effective narrative that Ram Lalla had appeared miraculously in order to claim right over his birthplace. Fresh tension broke out and a new order allowed worship of the idol on one day of the year, the idol being kept locked the rest of the year. The status quo prevailed for around three decades until in 1980’s when an extremist Hindu organisation called Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) decided to step in. It started campaigning for the ‘liberation of the spot where Ram was born’. They reached out to thousands of monks, organised processions and speeches in and around Ayodhya. They urged Hindus to ‘free their god from the Muslim jail’.
In 1986, a local court ordered the locks to be opened after a local lawyer had filed a suit seeking public worship of the idol. The decision was believed to have come directly from the centre (the PMO). This was evident from the fact that local officials knew about the decision beforehand and it took then just an hour to open the locks after the judgement. The reason behind this was the appeasement policy followed by Rajiv Gandhi and the recently passed Muslim Womens Bill. So, it was now time to pacify Hindus. The lock opening gave an impetus to the VHP and their aim now changed to the demolition of the mosque and its replacement with a grand Ram temple. It now started working closely with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), trying to instigate Hindutva sentiments throughout the country. It also became a close affiliate of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).
The Political Relevance
How many of you know that the party you’re being governed by for the past 5 years was literally born out of this dispute? In 1984 elections, the BJP (successor to Jana Sangh) won a mere 2 seats. This tally jumped to 86 seats in 1989 elections. This blossoming of the lotus was primarily because of the party’s involvement in the campaign to build a temple at Ayodhya. At the centre, the Rajiv Gandhi government had fallen after the Boforce Scandal and for the first time came into power a minority government led by V.P. Singh. The BJP supported V.P. Singh’s National Front. But after his decision to implement the Mandal Commission report (1990), BJP chose to shift the political focus from caste to religion i.e. back to the Mandir-Masjid issue.
In 1990, the BJP organised the (in)famous Rath-yatra from Somnath Temple in Gujarat to the disputed site in Ayodhya. It was led by the party president Lal Krishna Advani. The Yatra commenced on 25th September, spanning over a period of four weeks, covering around 8 states and approximately 10,000 kilometres. Activists of VHP, including both armed supporters as well as saffron-dressed sadhus joined the yatra wherever it halted. There were speeches made to invoke the sentiments of the volunteers, accusing the government of appeasing the Muslims and denying Hindu interests. Building of the temple had now become the symbolic fulfilment of these interests, the non-fulfilment of which would definitely lead to anarchy, riots and ultimately the demolition.
Even though the centre had perceived the consequences in store, it did least to prevent them. This was because of two main reasons. Firstly; taking steps against the yatra would portray the government as anti-Hindu or anti-Ram, and secondly; BJP’s withdrawal of support would have brought down the ruling coalition. Therefore, there were no arrests while the yatra was in Delhi. But as it entered Bihar, CM Lalu Prasad Yadav stopped the yatra and placed Advani into preventive custody. While Advani rested in a guest house in Bihar, the volunteers (now called as karsevaks) made their way into Uttar Pradesh where CM Mulayam Singh Yadav ordered mass arrest of the karsevaks. Police, CRPF and BSF personnel were deployed in Ayodhya. Although 1,50,000 were detained, around 80,000 still managed to reach Ayodhya. On 30th October the karsevaks, amidst tear gas and live bullets, managed to dodge personnel and enter the mosque. They were successful in placing a saffron flag on top of the mosque which now became the emblem of the movement. Damage to the mosque was reported and around 20 karsevaks had died.
In the 1991 elections, BJP won 120 seats. (Un)fortunately, it also won the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Kalyan Singh (an old RSS hand) was sworn in as chief minister. The Ram campaign was paying political dividends. The BJP was growing as a political party and some leaders now expected it to raise more important economic and policy issues. But the VHP and RSS wanted the spotlight to stay on Ayodhya.
In October 1991, the VHP acquired land around the mosque and started levelling it, preparing for temple construction. In July 1992, a team from the centre was sent to study the situation at Ayodhya. They observed that there had been large scale damage to the mosque and that there was a large concrete platform being built, both activities been done against the court orders. Moreover, Kalyan Singh had turned a blind eye towards these developments. Therefore, there was violation of law in Ayodhya.
Meanwhile, the VHP announced that 6th December was chosen as the auspicious day on which the foundation of the temple would be laid and they started encouraging people to reach Ayodhya. In November itself there was an exodus towards Ayodhya. The Home Ministry ordered deployment of paramilitary forces around Ayodhya. This was claimed to be the largest mobilisation of such forces since independence. Advani, before departing from Delhi for Ayodhya, said “I don’t know what will happen on 6th. We will just perform karseva.” On the morning of 6th, there was an influx of people towards the mosque. With axes, iron rods and other hardware in hand, they chanted slogans like ‘Ram Lalla hum ayenge. Mandir yahi banayenge.’ Since the forces had orders not to shoot, they were unable to control the mob. A few volunteers climbed the mosque and started damaging the dome. In a matter of five hours, all the three domes of the mosque collapsed one after the other. Although leaders like Advani regretted the happenings later, there were some VHP leaders feeling proud and claiming that in September itself engineers had been appointed to identify weak spots of the structure so that it could be brought down in minimum time.
History tells us that whenever one community tries to impose its dominance over the other, that too forcefully, peace has evaded. There were 6 deaths reported at the site. Don’t think of it as a small number, think of it as 6 deaths within an area of 2 acres. President’s rule was imposed in the state. Advani and other influential leaders were taken into protective custody. As the riots spread, in various parts of the country there were reports of clashes between mobs. There were 246 deaths reported in Gujarat, 200 in UP, 120 in Madhya Pradesh and the worst hit was the city of Bombay. Muslim dominated localities targeted Hindu residents and vice versa. The extent was such that the Shiv Sena put up a notice of an award of Rs. 50,000 to anyone pointing at a Muslim house. Imagine, that Rs. 50,000 was the cost of the lives of people present in that house. In 1993, Bombay was shaken by a series of terrorist attacks organised by Dubai based Muslim gangsters and they were claimed to be revenge against the atrocities suffered by their Muslim brothers throughout 1992. In 2001, the VHP pledged to build the temple again on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the demolition. What followed were the 2002 Gujarat riots, sparked by the burning of train carrying karsevaks at Godhra railway station. Thus, we see that the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid left a deep scar on the Indian history.
Why is this case so important?
We have seen that since its inception, this dispute has posed a challenge to India’s unity and its social system. India, a country which has long been regarded as a country with ‘unity in diversity’, has found it difficult to unite these two diverse elements of the social fabric (Hindus and Muslims). India’s law and order has been constantly put to test. Many terrorists have cited this dispute as a reason for their terrorist attacks. Moreover, the happening in the last two decades of the 20th century had shaken the ‘secular image’ of India on the international front too. This dispute has shown how strongly popular sentiment can emerge and even compromise minority sentiment. It has perpetually established the fact that it is not possible to fulfil sentimental aspirations of all conflicting communities, specially in a country like India. All this makes this dispute an important part of post-independence history.