Babri Masjid: From construction to demolition
The story begins in 1526 when Babar, the founder of the Mogul dynasty, invaded India and his general Mir Baqi took Ayodhya and built the Babri Masjid at the highest point of the town overlooking the Ghaghra River.
This small town, taken by the Muslims in the 10th century, became a center for Islamic learning and Sufism in the course of 3-4 centuries. For many years a place of pilgrimage for the Buddhists and then the Hindus, it has multiple Muslim sites. Today 50 old masjids and mausoleums and acres of graveyards dot the town that has a Muslim face.
Indeed many of the existing temples have been built on land donated by Muslims rulers who were popular among the Hindus. But the British, who had established their rule in India, practiced their divide and rule policy wherever they went. They tried to destabilize the nawabs in the north, especially of Ayodhya, and divided the two communities by propagating the theory that the Babri Masjid, built in the 19th century, was erected after demolishing a pre-existing Ram Mandir.
Long recognized as a Sunni Wakf, on Dec. 22-23, 1949, the masjid was “surreptiously and unlawfully” broken into by a group of Hindu fanatics, who installed idols of Ram and his family on the mambar under the central mehrab. The Muslims who had performed the Isha prayer the previous night, were put out of bounds and a Hindu priest was appointed to service the idols. An agitation in Ayodhya to destroy the masjid and build a mandir (temple) in its place soon followed.
Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel wrote to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant to remove the idols and restore the masjid to the Muslims. But the then District Magistrate K.K. Nair refused to carry out the orders and resigned. Both the Hindus and the Muslims filed civil suits but the situation saw no progress till 1986.
On Feb. 1, 1986, by a unilateral and officially manipulated order the district judge ordered the masjid gate to be “unlocked forthwith,” thus allowing free darshan (access) to all Hindu pilgrims, thus converting the masjid into a de facto mandir.
With time, the Muslims had overcome the depression caused by the partition, but this issue rankled. In Delhi the Muslim lawmakers submitted a memorandum to the government. So did the Muslim lawmakers in the provincial assembly of UP. Both demanded that the pending cases be expeditiously decided by consolidating them before the Allahabad High Court for day-to-day hearing.
In December 1986, Babri Masjid activists from Delhi, UP and the rest of the country held All India Babri Masjid Conference and formed a 10-member Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC), with me as its convener. The conference adopted the Declaration of Delhi and decided to call upon the Muslims not to associate themselves with the official celebration of the Republic Day, 1987, to hold a mass rally on Rajpath in Delhi in March 1987 and, if those two steps failed, to hold a mass Friday prayer in Babri Masjid in October 1987.
This woke up the political parties and the government. There was wide support for the Muslim demand for expeditious judicial settlement but the national press vitiated the atmosphere by accusing the Muslims of “boycotting” the Republic Day and planning a “March to Ayodhya.” The unprecedented rally in Delhi, with nearly half a million people, made history.
Since negotiations were going on with the government, the proposed Friday prayer at Ayodhya was deferred by BMMCC. This divided it and five members, including Imam Abdullah Bukhari, Azam Khan and Zafaryab Jilani resigned to form the All India Babri Masjid Movement Action Committee (AIBMAC) in October 1988. However, the two committees continued to cooperate, particularly on the legal front.
In 1988, the government moved the Allahabad High Court to consolidate the pending suits for hearing by a special bench. It took some time for papers to be collected from different courts in UP before the hearing began. In the meantime the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), to which all the leading figures of the Babri Masjid Movement belonged, said in a supporting statement that if it was once a mosque, it was a mosque forever and could not be sold or exchanged or destroyed.
In 1989, the special bench after hearing both sides formulated nearly 50 points at issue. But before the hearings began in full swing, Hindu organizations led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and supported by RSS, its political arm BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar launched a nationwide agitation.
On the eve of 1986 general election, to secure Hindu support, Premier Rajiv Gandhi launched his campaign in Ayodhya and illegally permitted the VHP to lay the foundation stone — in violation of judicial status quo order — of the projected Ram Janambhoomi Mandir within the disputed area at a distance of about 100 yards to the east of masjid.
The VHP set up a workshop near the masjid to build architectural elements including pillars and cornices. Subsequently, they also constructed the base of the mandir’s structure almost reaching the masjid before the BJP came to power under Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. In 1991, VHP volunteers invaded the masjid but they were deterred by the then Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who ordered the police to act strongly. During the shooting to break up the agitation, 17 persons were killed. The VHP then set up a movement throughout the country to collect Ram-inscribed bricks (Ramshilas) and take them in processions to Ayodhya and stock them near the workshop.
In 1990, BJP leader Advani launched a yatra (trip) from Somnath to Ayodhya to mobilize the masses. The yatra left a trail of blood. Simultaneously, they trained karsevaks (activists) throughout the country for the demolition of the masjid while their leaders gave false assurances to the government, national integration council and the Supreme Court.
The Muslims felt helpless as they repeatedly called upon the government and political parties to protect the masjid as an ancient monument; they did nothing. The then Premier Narasimha Rao was asked by his Cabinet to warn the UP government, intervene by force and even dismiss it if it failed to protect the masjid. But he refused to sign the papers to order the dismissal of the UP government and went away to Africa on tour.
In the meantime, nearly 300, 000 karsewaks from all over the country had assembled in Ayodhya, with a common purpose.
The demolition took place on Dec. 6, 1992, in the presence of top VHP and BJP leaders. Central forces outside the Ayodhya did not enter the town. UP police was ordered by the Chief Minister Kalyan Singh not to open fire on the mob. The Babri Masjid was demolished, dome by dome, over six hours, in broad daylight, thus committing the biggest crime against the constitution and the Muslim community in independent India.
That evening, the UP government was finally dismissed and Muslim leaders were assured by Premier Rao that they would be allowed to rebuild the masjid on its original site, a promise which he repeated in the media, local and international. This promise was never kept. And there were anti-Muslim riots throughout the country.
(This is the first of a two-part column on Babri Masjid demolition. )
- The writer is a senior Indian diplomat-turned-politician.
This article is exclusive to Arab News.
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