On the cold morning of December 23, 1949, police constable Mata Prasad arrived on the premises of the Babri Masjid at 8 am. He was informed by the officer on duty that a gang of 50-60 people had broken into the gated compound of the Babri mosque the night before, entered its premises, and underneath the central dome of the mosque, placed two idols: Lord Rama and his consort, goddess Sita.
Mata Prasad’s account was lodged as an FIR at the Ayodhya police station (and translated by sub-inspector Ram Dube). It read: “[The group] have (sic) already entered the mosque before the available PAC (Provincial Armed Corps) guards could be commanded. Officials of the district administration came at the site and involved themselves in necessary arrangements. Afterwards, a crowd of 5-6 thousand persons gathered around and while chanting bhajans and raising religious slogans tried to enter the mosque, but were deterred and nothing untoward happened thereon because of proper arrangements. Ram Das, Ram Shakti Das and 50-60 unidentified others entered the mosque surreptitiously and spoiled its sanctity.”
At 10:30 am, Chief Minister of United Provinces Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant was intimated of the news by the district magistrate K K Nayar. It was a message sent over the radio: “A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when the Masjid was deserted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and force at spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night, but did not apparently act”.
Three days later, an alarmed Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru sent a telegram to Pant. Nehru had foreseen the dire implications of this incident. “I am disturbed at developments at Ayodhya,” he wrote. “[I] earnestly hope you will personally interest yourself in this matter. Dangerous example being set there, which will have bad consequences.” Pant was instructed to amend the situation immediately.
The following events are described in detail in Anatomy of a Confrontation: Ayodhya and the Rise of Communal Politics in India (edited by eminent historian Sarvepalli Gopal). It seems that KK Nayar was thus instructed to do away with the idols. That order, however, did not sit well with Nayar. He feared that the removal of the idols will lead to bloodshed. On December 27, 1949, he penned down a detailed letter addressed to Chief Secretary Bhagwan Sahay that read: “I would, if the Government decided to remove the idols at any cost, request that I be relieved and replaced by an officer who may be able to see in the solution a merit which I cannot discern. For my part, I cannot in my discretion, which is the only legal sanction behind my action in this matter.” He further wrote that the idea of removing the idols which was offered as a ‘solution’ would cause nothing more than “widespread suffering, which will entail to (sic) many innocent lives.”
In the months to come, chaos ensued; there was palpable communal tension in the air. The government decided to call the masjid premises a disputed property and thereby locked its gates. The idols, however, remained inside, intact.
Nearly forty years later, RSS mouthpiece Organiser would go on to narrate that the ‘appearance’ of the Hindu gods idols was an incident orchestrated by the gods themselves. An article published on March 29, 1987, read: “On the historic morning of December 23, 1949, the idols of Sri Ramachandra and Sita Devi miraculously appeared in the Janmasthan. As the Hindu devotees rejoiced over the miracle and thronged in their thousands.”
Principle of Co-existence
Prior to 1949, it seems that within the Babri Masjid compound there existed a mosque, as well as a shrine; a railing functioned as a barricade between the two prayer spaces. Historian and former Supreme Court advocate A.G. Noorani has noted in The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi Question, “The Muslims prayed in the mosque, the Hindus worshipped at a chabutra within the compound which they believed to be the Janmasthan of Shri Ramachandraji. The chabutra is a raised platform 17 ft x 21 ft about a 100 paces away from the mosque proper.” (Economic and Political Weekly, November 4, 1989).
This compromise was apparently made in mid-1850s, “whereby Hindus were to offer prayers at the chabootra (platform) outside the mosque,” writes political scientist, Christophe Jaffrelot (Director at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris) in The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990. “Hindu priests and devotees came to render homage to Ram on this site, which was regarded as his birthplace.” Dutch anthropologist, Peter van der Veer confirms this and explains how the chabootra came into being, in God Must Be Liberated!’ A Hindu Liberation Movement in Ayodhya: “When the British annexed Awadh in February 1856, they decided to put up a railing around the Babar mosque, so that the Muslims could continue to worship within the mosque, while the Hindus were forced to make their offerings on a platform, which they raised outside the fence.”
Interestingly, the first demand for a Ram temple to be built in place of the Masjid was in 1883 by a Hindu priest. At that time, the British authorities refused to bow to the priest’s request.
After the communal tensions heightened in 1949, the Babri masjid was locked and out of bounds for the public, a priest would do puja-paat there, worshiping the idols once a year.
Unlocking the gates: The Muslim Card versus the Hindu Card
In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi under pressure from Muslim bodies overturned the court’s decision which had stated that Shah Bano had a right to alimony from her ex-husband. In essence, fearing a strong Muslim backlash, Gandhi ordered the alimony provision to be discarded, which was in compliance with the Muslim Personal Law.
The Hindu hardliners felt Gandhi sheepishly surrendered to the whims of a minority and wanted something of their own. Vishwa Hindu Parishad vociferously demanded the unlocking of the gates of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid which had been locked for decades. Gandhi complied.
In the 1989 piece, Noorani quotes Congress leader Arun Nehru: “Nehru said, ‘In early 1986, the Muslim Women’s Bill [Shah Bano] was passed to play the Muslim card; and then came the decision on Ayodhya, to play the Hindu card. It was supposed to be a package deal. I knew it was a dangerous thing to do and I did not agree… When I asked Mr. Rajiv Gandhi who is showing the worship in the disputed shrine at Ayodhya on Doordarshan two days after it was unlocked, he did not reply; he merely smiled and observed it was tit for tat for the Muslim Women’s Bill.’”
BJP leader L. K. Advani (who once led the Ram Yath Yatra in 1990, and is in 2017 being charged for inciting communal intolerance during the 1992 riots) had defended the Hindus’ right to reclaim the site of the Masjid. In 1986, he commented, “If there is an attempt to work up communal passions, anti-Muslim feeling and all that, I would think that is wrong. But if in a normal way things are being corrected anywhere as for example at Ram Janmabhoomi, I do not think we should be apologetic about it.” The debate whether Ram mandir actually existed before the Babri Masjid was built, has been a contentious issue for decades and there isn’t enough historical data to support it.
Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst had observed that if had Gandhi not bowed to VHP’s demands, perhaps the demolition of the Masjid and the ensuring communal riots could have been avoided. According to him, if Gandhi had refused to unlock the gates, “the VHP would have been forced to continue pushing the rather petty demand for removing the locks, rather than move on to the more ambitious and mobilising the next step of planning the construction of a new temple” (What if Rajiv Hadn’t Unlocked Babri Masjid?; Outlook magazine, August 2004).
It wasn’t as though the government did not have alternative solutions in place either. In 1989, before the destruction of the masjid, before the riots and the bloodshed, there were many who foresaw the government’s acquiescence alarming. A non-Muslim committee called the Call by Concerned Citizens released a list of possible suggestions for the government that could solve the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid problem.
In EPW’s Letter to the Editor section (dated February 25, 1989), the committee wrote, “Our government, much to its shame, sits idly while the situation worsens. Leaders of the Muslim community have suggested some alternative solutions. First, let the title suit pending before the sub-divisional judge, Faizabad, for nearly forty years, be decided swiftly by a special bench of three high court judges and let not the government procrastinate over it any longer. The community is willing to abide by the decision of the judicial process. Alternatively, some Muslim leaders have suggested…that the mosque itself should be cleared of idols and declared a national monument. Another alternative proposed is that the railing separating the mosque from the Ram Chabutra be converted into a high wall and a temple be erected to Shri Ram chandra on the other side of the mosque.”
However, the tension between Hindus and Muslims continued, which eventually led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Babri Masjid was first attacked in 1934
According to Noorani, an Indian Express article, titled The Ayodhya Controversy: One Hundred Years of Litigation, published on March 30, 1986, read, “Nothing significant is reported to have occurred between 1886 and 1934. The Babri Masjid suffered damage during communal riots in 1934, which were triggered off by the slaughter of a cow in the village of Shahjahanpur near Ayodhya on March 27 that year. According to the available documents, Hindus demolished the domes, one of which had a large hole.” At that time, it was the central government that had taken the onus of rebuilding the mosque by hiring a Muslim contractor.