One night at the Babri Masjid

Ayodhya the dark night

- Review by : Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

In post-Independence India, the conflicting movements for the “liberation of Ram Janmabhoomi” and the “restoration of the Babri Masjid” have been among the most significant mass movements — both in terms of the time span of the agitations and the long-term impact they have had on Indian politics.

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, when the Ayodhya issue had a stranglehold on political discourse, the narratives related to the temple town had two distinct thrusts. In the course of the agitations led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of the Sangh Parivar – actively backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and the resulting reaction from various Muslims groups, history became a matter of subjective interpretation. The historical narrative that was made available in the public domain by the two warring groups, the media and academia was of two main phases.

First, the history of Ayodhya was traced from ancient times to the dramatic events in December 1949 when the idols of the Lord Rama and his mythological associates were planted by Hindu zealots. Second, the narrative focused on how the temple-mosque emerged on the centre stage of Indian politics, and the manner in which the VHP drummed up a campaign from the mid-1980s and was able to convert a seemingly odd demand into one of the most emotive issues. The narrative also concentrated on establishing the emergence of various Muslim groups, their differences and how their hardnosed postures resulted in a backlash that only strengthened the Sangh Parivar.

The history of Ayodhya before 1949 was important because it was of great relevance to the primary concerns of that time. Was there any historicity in the Ramayana and were the mythological Ayodhya and the contemporary town one and the same? The second question that was relevant in that period was whether there was any historical evidence in a temple to mark out the exact birthplace of Lord Rama and if this had been destroyed by the order of Babur to build the Babri Masjid.

The historical factors were relevant to deciding if the issue of the pre-existence of a temple to revere Lord Rama was a matter of faith or an issue that could be scientifically established. Historically it was also necessary at that time to establish whether there had been recurring clashes between Hindus and Muslims over ownership of the shrine.

The necessity of tracing the emergence of the conflicting movements was important, because by the late 1980s, a head-on collision between the warring forces, on the one hand, and between two groups and the state, on the other, appeared imminent. The question also acquired importance because of the dominating role that religion played in politics in that period and because of the emergence of the BJP from the periphery. In the pursuit of narratives of these two historical phases, one vital element of the Ayodhya story got left out: how did the idols come to be placed – or appear – inside what was till December 1949 a functional mosque?

The book addresses this lacuna in the historical discourse on Ayodhya. Using tools employed by journalists and academics, the book puts together, brick by brick, the entire script of the fateful night of December 22-23, 1949, and the events preceding the installation of idols inside the mosque.

Insofar as the installation of the idols is concerned, the authors substantially add to what was previously known and written about. The detailing and extensive backgrounds of the dramatis personae in the “conspiracy” – the Hindu priests involved in the actual planning and execution, the role of the district officials and their complicity in the act, the game of political subterfuge and the rare voice of protest – are exhaustive.

The authors also attempted to frame the events in Ayodhya not just with the other “disputes” over shrines – in Mathura and Varanasi – but within the larger picture of growing Hindu fundamentalism. References to the reconstruction of the Somnath temple and assassination of Mahatma Gandhi provide the backdrop to the events in Ayodhya. But just as question marks remain on the extent of the political conspiracy in the killing of the Mahatma, the authors fall short of claiming that the idols were installed inside the Babri Masjid as part of a plan of Hindu Mahasabha leaders.

However, sufficient details have been unearthed to establish that the direct conspirators got the idea of “liberating” the Ayodhya mosque in the course of the political discourse within the Mahasabha. Several of those involved in the conspiracy directly were members of the organisations. Many who later played significant roles in ensuring that the idols were not removed and daily worship continued – albeit under the aegis of a courtappointed Receiver – were also members of the Hindu Mahasabha.

The time frame the book explores is limited, but there are long excursions into Ayodhya’s history. Coming after more than two decades of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the authors could have been more adventurous and also probed the years between the installation of the idols and the “rediscovery” of the issue by the Sangh Parivar in 1984. This period was overlooked during the “Ayodhya years” by the media and academia because its significance paled in comparison to what was happening and what “had happened” in the distant past.

Ayodhya the dark night : The Secret History of Rama’s Appearance in Babri Masjid by Krishna Jha and Dhirendra K Jha Published by : Harper Collins; 192 pages; Rs.499

Source: Buisness Standard, Feb. 6 , 2013

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