During the making of Ram Ke Naam, we had followed L K Advani’s air-conditioned Toyota truck, dressed up by a Bollywood set designer to resemble Lord Ram’s war chariot. The rath yatra traversed the Indian countryside, whipping up Hindu frenzy to build a Ram temple on the exact location of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In the wake of their anti-Muslim slogans, clashes erupted all along the route and many were killed. Finally, Advani was arrested in Bihar and the rath yatra halted, but kar sevaks continued on to Ayodhya for their day of action on October 30, 1990.
The entrance of the Babri Masjid bore an inscription that it was built by Mir Baqi, commander of the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528. Up to this point in time, the Valmiki Ramayana was known only to scholars and priests who knew Sanskrit and Lord Ram was not a popular deity. Later, in the 16th century, Tulsidas composed his Ramcharitmanas in the Awadhi dialect of Hindi, making his Ramayana accessible to ordinary people for the very first time. For his efforts, Tulsidas, a poor Brahmin orphan, was attacked by the Brahmin orthodoxy and is said to have taken refuge in mosques to write his epic. During the reign of Emperor Akbar, as Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas became popular through recitals and folk performances known as Ram Leelas, Ram temples began to be built.
Our two-person film crew had reached Ayodhya well before the arrival of the kar sevaks in October 1990. We found more than 20 temples there that claimed to be Lord Ram’s birthplace — as this would attract more pilgrims and donations. A point to note is: Tulsidas, who often stayed in Ayodhya, never mentions in his epic or anywhere else, that a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram had just been demolished by Babur. In fact, the temple-mosque controversy would not begin for another 300 years! The Supreme Court states that the earliest record of Hindu-Muslim clashes around the disputed site was marked by the British colonial power in 1856-57, when it erected a six-foot brick wall dividing the site to grant the inner portion of the mosque to Muslims and the outer portion to Hindus. Why does the year 1857 ring a bell? Because it also marks the First War of Independence (named the Great Mutiny by the British), when Hindus and Muslims heroically united and almost defeated the British. In other words, even as Hindus and Muslims joined hands in the battlefield to oust the British, the latter found it convenient to stoke a potential religious conflict in Ayodhya.
The Supreme Court does not seem alerted by the date,1857, or by the conflict-creating role of the British, nor does it go into the reasons why the conflict did not take root. Records show that back in 1856-57, Hindus led by Baba Ram Charan Das and Muslims led by a local Muslim landlord of Ayodhya, Achhan Khan, decided to maintain communal harmony and made a pact to pray within the temple-mosque site in two demarcated portions. This harmony remained unbroken till December 23, 1949. That is when Hindu miscreants broke into the Babri mosque at night and installed Ram idols there. As filmmakers, we recorded the evidence of one of those miscreants who personally installed the idols in the mosque citing a dream in which Lord Ram appeared to him as well as his other accomplices. He was jailed for his act but soon released on bail. Years later, Vishwa Hindu Parishad made, and widely distributed, a video depicting multiple images of a baby boy dressed as Ram “miraculously” appearing inside the mosque. The local district magistrate, K K Nayar, refused to remove the idols citing “law and order” reasons. He later joined the Jana Sangh (the precursor to the BJP) and became a Member of Parliament. The Court barred Muslims from the mosque after 1949 but appointed a series of Hindu priests to conduct prayers in one section. We interviewed the most famous of these priests, Pujari Laldas, who expressed great sorrow after the first attack on the mosque on October 30. He stated that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS elements had never prayed at the Ram temple and the entire campaign was run purely for money and political power, and, also cited many examples of corruption in the name of religion.
On December 6, 1992, with the BJP in power in UP, Hindu militants destroyed the Babri Mosque. Many Muslims in the region were killed including the son of the Imam who had last offered prayers at the Babri Mosque in 1949. A year later, Laldas was found murdered. There is another telling footnote to this story: Achhan Khan and Baba Ram Charan Das, who had forged the unity that allowed Hindus and Muslims to pray in harmony within the Babri compound for almost a hundred years, were charged with sedition by the British after the defeat of the freedom struggle of 1857. Both were hanged. On November 9, 2019, those who had demolished our national monument, effectively causing the deaths of thousands across the Subcontinent, were legally granted the very objective of their crime. Secular democracy was finally laid to rest.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2019 under the title ‘An Ayodhya story, from 1857’. The writer is a documentary filmmaker.
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