A blow-by-blow account of how they demolished Babri Masjid

[Book extract] As the last dome tumbled on to the ground at forty-nine minutes past four, all hell broke loose.

 |   Long-form |   15-02-2018
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8.30am: Ramlila Ground, Ayodhya

When we reached the banks of the Sarayu, we were surprised to see a crowd of not more than ten thousand, most of whom were filling polythene bags with hands full of sand from the riverbank. Where were the two hundred thousand karsevaks that we were expecting? We smelt a rat. Was the press meeting hogwash then? Did the leaders have other plans up their sleeves? Upon reflection, I have felt that the Babri Masjid would have stayed intact if the plans were not changed at the eleventh hour. While the mosque was being destroyed and was falling like the wall of Jericho, we heard that it was Vinay Katiyar who pressurised the leaders of the movement against a symbolic karseva. He argued that repeated tokenism in the name of karseva would not go down well with the devotees who had been clamouring for action for a long time. Katiyar was the chief of Bajrang Dal. He had won the Faizabad Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket in the 1991 general elections. He is a belligerent man, who does not mince words. When during the karseva in October 1991, a few young men scaled the dome of the Masjid, Katiyar had to face the wrath of the karsevaks in trying to dissuade them. This time round, he wanted a more concrete action plan that would satisfy his supporters. The karsevaks were in no mood to leave the Masjid premises and go to the banks of the Sarayu. When we reached the karseva venue, BP Toshniwal endorsed the changed plan. “It has been decided at the last moment that the karsevaks would congregate at the Rama Katha Kunj ground, from where they would be sent in small batches to the venue,” he said. In other words, they would be spared the long walk. The decision seemed justified and never did we anticipate that the assembling two hundred thousand karsevaks near the venue could be part of a bigger agenda, until around an hour later, when the first signs of lawlessness became visible.

While we were talking to Toshniwal, the Rama Katha Kunj and its approach road were overflowing with karsevaks. RSS volunteers were manning the Rama Deewar with great alacrity. Ram Shankar Agnihotri, the loudmouth spokesman of the VHP, had informed us that a special arrangement for journalists had been made on the roof of Manas Bhavan, adjacent to the venue on its eastern side. But who would care for a seat in the stands when one could get a decidedly better view from the sidelines? I proudly displayed the pink press card given by the VHP and was promptly allowed by RSS volunteers inside the mosque premises.

When I had come to cover the karseva in July, I noticed that the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh led by Kalyan Singh had changed the very look of the mosque premises. It had acquired 2.77 acres of land next to the mosque and levelled it. There was no sign of the spot which was the centre of dispute owing to the laying of the foundation stone of the temple in 1989. Instead, the July karseva aimed at laying the foundation of the main entrance of the temple designed by Sompura. The gate would be 166 feet long and 80 feet wide. Throwing the court order to the wind, the July karseva ended after the foundation was laid. The December karseva was meant to “cleanse” this foundation.

10am: Karseva Site

A crowd of hardly 500 volunteers and sadhus greeted us at the site. A copper pot adorned with a vermilion swastika was shining in the morning sun, right in the middle of the site. All arrangements for an elaborate puja were complete, with the whole area decked up with mango leaves, garlands and flower petals. Acharya Bamdev was supposed to preside over the official karseva at quarter past twelve. That would mean that the sadhus would start the puja and cleansing of the platform while the karsevaks, in small batches, would fill the cavities with sand. Tej Shankar, the royally treated Supreme Court observer, seemed happy with the proceedings. The evening before, he had faxed the apex court that all was well and in keeping with the court’s directives. That is, no construction work was happening in the acquired land.

One of the first to arrive at the venue was Acharya Haricharan Das of the Vaishnava sect of Chitrakoot and with him a teenaged sadhu who was a sight to behold. Wearing a turmeric-coloured dhoti tied like a lungi, Raghunandan had covered his upper torso with a namavali printed with “Hare Krishna Hare Rama” (a namavali is a shawl with names of gods printed on it). Every part of his body, the shaven head downwards was covered with the red of the tilak. The first thing he did after taking his seat was to bring out two shovels from his bag. Dharamdas, the six-and-a-half-foot tall sadhu, who was nearby, promptly held him by his neck and threw him out of the premises. It seemed that Dharamdas, the pehalwan who shadowed Katiyar wherever he went, was there to ensure that the court directive was complied with in letter and spirit. Certainly a teenaged sadhu had no business to defy court orders under his nose.

Even as Raghunandan was trying to gather himself from the sudden assault, about 200 karsevaks were trying to elbow their way in. All of them were wielding trishuls. Many of the jawans of Provincial Arms Constabulary (PAC) had vermilion tilaks on their foreheads and even the RSS knew that they were hardly dependable. The RSS volunteers themselves formed the second line of defence behind these PAC jawans. One of them assured the police, “Don’t you worry. We’ll handle this”. The PAC jawans were only too happy to have this assurance. The PAC, a paramilitary outfit, formed during the regime of chief minister Narayan Dutt Tiwari, had never remained neutral during communal riots in the state. Every time a karseva took place in Ayodhya, the PAC stood behind the karsevaks openly. It would have been impossible for the karsevaks to break the security cordon and reach Ayodhya during the karseva of 1990, if the PAC had firmly stood its ground. The karsevaks’ happiness with the PAC was in equal measure of their unhappiness with the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force).

The moment the PAC distanced itself from the scene, a scuffle ensued between the RSS volunteers and the karsevaks. A deluge of karsevaks kept lashing at the gate. Moments later, they were hounded away by the volunteers. The resistance lasted for not more than fifteen minutes. About 150 young men with trishuls and iron rods barged in at the site. The karsevaks went into a tizzy, gyrating with chants of “Jai Shri Ram”. This “Rama dance” which was a mixture of tandava, breakdance and disco, was also a by-product of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Maniram from Rajasthan was one of the revellers. His wafer-thin torso bore obvious signs of poverty, but that did not take away his zeal. He accosted me, looked into my eyes and my press card, and with a frightening frown yelled, “Jai Shri Ram”. I repeated the chant with him, something that I had learnt to do with experience. And then I asked, almost apologetically, “What about the court orders?” Moments later, I was surrounded by ten other karsevaks, spitting venom at the court and telling me in no uncertain terms that a media person would be better off by staying away from the scene. An RSS volunteer came to my rescue and with folded hands asked me to move away. Arguing would be foolhardy, I thought and moved to a nearby hillock that till the previous year housed the police control room. I saw Shrish Chandra Dikshit, former DIG of UP police-turned-BJP MP from Varanasi and vice president of the VHP, in a saffron cap, sitting on a brick. Giving him company were Uma Shankar Bajpai, DIG of Faizabad division, along with the leader of the almost non-existent Panther Party of Kahsmir, Bhim Singh, with his journalist wife, Sheela.

date_021518071613.jpgMy Date with History; by Suman Chattopadhyay; Rupa Publications; Rs 395

10.30am: Leaders arrive

Amid the din and bustle, Ashok Singhal entered the site from the Hanumangarh Road, accompanying Shiv Sena MP Moreshwar Save. A huge cheer of “Har Har Mahadev, Har Bhavani” greeted them. Singhal showed him around, as though Save was a VVIP. In about ten minutes came LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, both with grim faces. Joshi exchanged greetings with us and almost like a soliloquy said, “Let’s see what happens”. And then both the BJP leaders left, taking the approach road off Hanumangarh, to the roof of the VHP office in Rama Katha Kunj that was turned into a makeshift dais for the leaders after the crowd was shifted from the banks of the Sarayu.

All the while, the number of karsevaks at the Sankat Mochan gate was increasing like floodwater. The RSS volunteers were now clearly being outnumbered and many of them were injured during the scuffle. Next to the gate were three metal detectors leading into three narrow lanes. This was the official route for the devotees to enter the structure housing the “Ramlala”. A few karsevaks chose to climb atop the metal detectors and were dangling their feet from above. Dharamdas was trying in vain to dissuade them. I suddenly found three journalist friends, Manimoy Dasgupta and Ashok Malik of The Telegraph and SNM Abdi of The Illustrated Weekly of India, beside me. “We have just surveyed the back of the mosque. A few hundred karsevaks with spades and shovels have assembled there. I have a fear that they will demolish the mosque today,” said a visibly frightened Abdi. “Do not read much into those preparations. Even if someone scales the tombs of the mosque, they will raise a saffron flag there and nothing more. Similar things happened last year on 31 October, CRPF jawans pulled them down,” I assured Abdi.

Abdi’s worst fears came true, but at least, at that point in time, I had confidence on the political will and the discipline of the RSS leaders. I was proved wrong.

11am: The first breech

I was smoking, a few too many cigarettes than I normally would. Shankar, a karsevak from Baramati in Maharashtra, the home turf of Sharad Pawar, came up and asked for a smoke. “It’s futile to lecture us on the court orders. Every time, we are being made pawns of a stupid political game. It’s now or never,” he warned. Even as we spoke, I saw a group of young men in yellow headbands rushing through the approach road gate. They were members of RSS’s Rapid Action Force. They pounced on the euphoric karsevaks and beat them out of the territory. A photo journalist, a foreigner, was trying to take snaps. “No photo, no photo,” screamed a few members of the RSS’s force. Some of them chased him. The poor man lost his balance and fell on some loose bricks. The RSS volunteers seemed teeming with confidence, having won this pitched battle. The battles went on for an hour. And the RSS volunteers were up against a formidable enemy, egged on by local leader Mahesh Narayan Singh. “Those who are combating us are not disciples of Rama. And neither are they karsevaks. They are plants of VP Singh, Mulayam Singh and Narasimha Rao. Do not fall into their traps,” he kept thundering.

Dharamdas was at his job. He snatched a cane rod from a PAC jawan and started beating up the karsevaks mercilessly. Moments later, I saw him lying on the ground, with a few karsevaks sitting on him and beating him black and blue. Dharamdas was a wise man. He clearly saw this as a lost battle, somehow regained his foothold and ran away for dear life, clutching at his saffron dhoti. That was the final frontier that the karsevaks had to cross. With his exit, the floodgates were thrown open. Hundreds of karsevaks romped through the various entry points and, like a herd of wild bison, ran towards the mosque. I looked around and found no trace of Dixit or Bhim Singh or his wife. Geetha Siddharthan of the Sunday Mail was the only person other than me on the hillock. To my utter disbelief, I saw that two youths had scaled the middle tomb and were dancing away to glory.

Even a moment before this, the leaders of the Sangh Parivar had no inkling of the madness that was happening at the karseva site. Sitting pretty on the roof of the VHP office, they mistook the battle sounds for some street brawl. The top leaders of the Sangh Parivar, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Ashok Singhal, HV Seshadri, KS Sudarshan, Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara were enjoying the December sun and cracking jokes among themselves. It was a picnic alright. Seshadri and Sudarshan, two very influential leaders of the RSS, had been camping in Ayodhya for a week now. They had visited every camp of the karsevaks and explained to them in great detail the court orders and how important it was to maintain discipline. These leaders were confident that no one from the Sangh Parivar would dare defy them. And they were there in person to ensure that everything went smoothly.

Although Advani reached the pinnacle of political success riding on the wave of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the BJP had done precious little for the cause before the summer of 1989. It was Ashok Singhal, the all-powerful general secretary of the VHP, who led the movement from the front. He got together sadhus from across the country and united them. Singhal nursed a grief within, as he was not so much in the limelight as an Advani or a Joshi was, but he was politically astute enough not to bring it out in the open. However, his attitude reflected his confidence and arrogance. He hated the so-called “pseudo-secular press” with all the contempt at his command.

The two undisputed queen bees of the movement were Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara. Both were powerful orators and rabble-rousers who could address a captive audience for hours. In terms of popularity among the karsevaks, they were way ahead of Advani or Joshi. Uma reached Ayodhya a few days before December 6. Rithambara was seen on the spot only on that morning. Advani and Joshi came to Ayodhya from Lucknow where they addressed a rally along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee, as was always his wont, did not participate in the karseva and went back to Delhi.

It was anyway a big day for journalists, just to have all the top leaders of the Sangh Parivar on the same dais in an open arena. Vinay Katiyar was the man in charge. Clad in an impeccably creased white dhoti–kurta, he started off the proceedings at the stroke of eleven. Yugpurush Paramanand, the guru of Rithambara, explained how the karseva would be conducted. Ashok Singhal warned the crowd not to fall prey to the provocative stories that the media was writing about the karseva and not to breach discipline. As it happened, the crowd did not give two hoots about Singhal’s diktat on discipline but they certainly did take a cue from him on how to handle the press.

Murli Manohar Joshi, the then BJP president whose journey to Ayodhya from Delhi proved disastrous, was visibly moved to see an ocean of humanity in front of him. In a trembling voice, he delivered a speech, the high point of which was a comparison of Arjun Singh, the Union human resource development minister with a eunuch. Rajmata Scindia was worse off. She could not hold back her tears of joy and could only say a small prayer that the temple be built. The Queen Mother of Gwalior, who had disowned her son Madhav Rao, had been a venerable figure in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In 1990, she tried to organise a large number of karsevaks to march to Ayodhya. Again in July 1992, when the sadhus were at a loss on how to react to the Supreme Court verdict against karseva, the Rajmata came to Ayodhya on behalf of the Sangh Parivar to appease them. Although she did manage to keep her daughter, Vasundhara Raje, in the BJP fold, the latter was not half as serious as her mother about the Ram temple. She was happy vacationing in Jaipur while the mother camped in Ayodhya.

12pm: The first assault

Even as the Rajmata was speaking, the war cry from the karseva site broke the quiet of the Ram Katha Kunj. All those who were cordoned off by RSS volunteers and were listening to the leaders stood up. Not that much could be seen from there. A number of them started bolting towards the Ram Deewar and a scuffle with the volunteers followed. Uma Bharti was immediately called upon to try and assuage the crowd, which was on the verge of a rampage. Even her razor-sharp voice got drowned in the din. Dumbfounded, she stood still, her half-finished lecture having cut no ice with the karsevaks. Seshadri, the second in command of the Sangh Parivar, whispered something into the ears of Singhal, who hastened down from the roof and, escorted by a dozen volunteers, walked out to the karseva site.

It was too late by then. Singhal tried to brave the deluge of karsevaks by standing on the platform with arms spread out but that did not deter even one among the advancing mob. On top of that, a stream of invective was hurled at him: “Down with politics and hypocrisy”. The arrogant and undisputed leader stood helpless with a blank stare, with his dhoti almost coming off.

I ran with the karsevaks past the PAC and CRPF jawans and stood in a corner, after having entered the structure. At least a couple of hundred karsevaks were already atop the dome. A few thousands more were storming in like an army of ants. All of them were armed with sticks, rods or trishuls. At least a hundred were carrying sledgehammers and shovels. Both the dome and the outer walls were under attack. In about ten minutes, half of the outer wall was reduced to a gaping hole. “Charge tear gas,” shouted DB Ray, the SP of Faizabad, and saw with a surprised look the PAC jawans, carrying tear gas shells, ambling away from the structure with an air of quiet resignation. The CRPF followed suit.

12.30pm,  Attack on the Media

One of the CRPF jawans whispered a friendly advice, “Out of this place. Quick, if you value your life”. Within moments, brickbats started raining from atop the dome. A CRPF jawan tried to protect us with his cane shield, but even then, a flying brickbat whistled past me and hit one of my fingers. My notebook flew from my hand. I somehow managed to retrieve it and never brought it out again on that fateful day. Sensing more trouble, I put the press card too in the pocket and took out the “Jai Shri Ram” hairband gifted by Swapan the previous night. I tied it around my neck like a bow tie, but soon realised that it was not going to serve as any talisman for me in this hour of crisis. To my horror, I saw a karsevak with a long bamboo pole chasing me. Thankfully, I knew the place well enough to bolt my way into the Sita Rasoi Bhavan. I was not alone there. The house was full of journalists and photographers, some of whom had lost their cameras or film rolls or video cassettes. Ajay Singh, Pioneer’s photographer from the Lucknow bureau, was sitting with a sling around his right hand. He had for company our beloved Thapa from Navbharat Times, who was also injured. I went up to the roof. Debasis Bhattacharya of Aajkaal and Avijit Lahiri of Bartaman were already there and so was Mohan Sahay of The Statesman. All three were unscathed, even though a portly lady of the Durga Vahini was targeting Mohan with brickbats in both her hands. What did Mohan do to be singled out as her target could not be readily ascertained. Fortunately, all of us escaped the wrath of the lady unhurt, including Mohan.

1pm: Futile appeals

A short distance from Sita Rasoi Bhavan, Ram Katha Kunj wore a deserted look, as the meeting was already over. LK Advani was sauntering on the roof with his head down and buried in his chest. Deepak Chopra, his personal secretary, and Pramod Mahajan, were standing with their hands on their heads, clearly displaying a sense of resignation. As Swapan approached Mahajan, he wailed, “This is a disaster. If this madness can’t be stopped right now, we are doomed.” In the meanwhile, all hell had broken loose inside the mosque. Spades, shovels and sledgehammers were raining on the dome. The blackish-green outer layer of the wall gave way to an earthen hue. Clouds of dust were billowing up and amidst the dust we saw many karsevaks, tumbling down the dome to the ground, like mangoes from the tree during a nor’wester.

As Singhal returned from the war ground, the leaders of the Sangh Parivar got into a huddle in one corner of the roof, cordoned by carbine-toting securitymen from the National Security Guard (NSG) in their unmistakable sky-blue uniform. They would not let anyone reach anywhere close to the leaders. I heard Singhal giving up. “I have failed. Now you guys go and appeal,” he said. Hearing this, Seshadri, ran up to the stage and snatched the microphone from Acharya Dharmendra and started pleading with the masses. Advani and Mahajan went downstairs to listen to the 1pm news bulletin of “Akashvani”, expecting to hear the news of the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government of Uttar Pradesh.

A series of pleas began. “We do not have the Mulayam Singh government but our own government in UP. We must cooperate with them and the police. Those who have entered the structure do come out immediately and take part in a peaceful karseva,” appealed Seshadri. All the other leaders, like Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharti, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, more or less repeated the plea in the same vein which went like this: “You have accomplished what you wanted to do. Now, please listen to us and climb down the dome and ensure that no one, especially women, children and the old get hurt.” Only Vinay Katiyar was more aggressive. “You have to listen to us and the sadhus. You have to climb down,” he thundered.

As we anticipated, every plea fell on deaf ears. A large section of the crowd that was listening to the leaders at Ram Katha Kunj now got up and marched towards the mosque. The RSS volunteers, too, who were manning the walls from dawn, gave up their vigil. It was more important for them now to carry the injured karsevaks who fell from the tomb, to the first-aid room near the office. I suddenly found Prabhas Jain, chief photographer of The Pioneer, writhing in pain in a corner of the roof. He was among the many reporters and photographers who dared to be close to the mosque. We brought this up with the Sangh leaders, but no one was in a mood to even listen.

Even as scores of the injured were being brought in for treatment, the leaders again went into a huddle in front of the attic. Mahant Avaidyanath, the formidable MP from Gorakhpur, and a leading light of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was also there. “All India Radio, in its 1pm bulletin, has said that the karseva is going on peacefully,” announced Pramod Mahajan. The news here was that the troublemakers were from Maharashtra and South India, and therefore could not make head or tail of the appeals made in chaste Hindi by the leaders. A volunteer came gasping and said, “Nothing can be heard there. Please go there and use the microphones,” he said.

Promptly began a second phase of appeals. The leaders took their turn. Seshadri spoke in all four South Indian languages while Advani raised his voice to rebuke the karsevaks. Ashok Singhal, having regained his poise, thundered, “Can you hear me? This is Ashok Singhal.” The voices echoed on all the walls, but to no avail. After Singhal spoke, to my surprise, I saw a sadhu ranting his appeal in Bengali, my native tongue. “You mean, even Bengalis are there?” I asked him. “Of course, there are. You had doubts?” the sadhu said with pride. So, I told myself, all this worry about the security of the mosque was a hogwash. These people were eminently proud at what the karsevaks were doing.

The leaders were speculating the identities of the karsevaks. “The first man atop the dome was from the prime minister’s constituency, Nandial,” said one. “None of them are our men. They have been packed to Ayodhya from Mumbai by Bal Thackeray,” said another. “Thackeray will take all the credit for today’s incident; just check tomorrow’s newspapers,” remarked Mahajan. The Rajmata clearly lost her patience. Grabbing the microphone, she shouted, “Get these people by their necks and pull them down.” Advani, with a binocular, was trying to figure out what exactly was wrong. As he removed those, I asked, “What did you see?” “Nothing except that hundreds are getting hurt,” he said. Till now, the injured were being carried by hand. Now, there were a few ambulances in place, running to and fro with the injured.

babri_021518070911.jpg

2.45pm: The reality sinks in

All of a sudden, we saw that the two tombs that could be seen from the rooftop of Ram Katha Kunj had nobody atop them. Seshadri, who thought that the continuous appeals for three hours have had effect, suggested Advani that he should now congratulate the karsevaks. As Advani was coming down from the dais after his short vote of thanks, he confronted the horrible reality of the day.

A frail sadhu had climbed up to the roof with the small Ramlala idol wrapped in his dusty shawl. He was almost in a fit of convulsion, shuddering frenziedly, his body having scratch marks all over. He removed the drape and showed Advani the idol. “Sir, one dome is being destroyed now. We could somehow save the Ramlala,” he gasped. The seasoned politician that Advani was, immediately realised that not only was the situation out of hand, but he was at his wits’ end as to how to reclaim normalcy. Silent and defeated, he climbed down the stairs. We asked for his reaction. “I have no information on the dismissal of the state government, but it seems a matter of time now. The central forces could be here any moment now,” he signed off.

A while earlier, we were speculating the same. If in fact the state government did get dismissed and central forces took charge of the mosque to rein in the unruly mob, they could resort to any measure that they deemed fit. The euphoric karsevaks would not take it lying down and a clear consequence would be many deaths, we shuddered to think. As a matter of fact, we had heard from the grapevine around an hour ago that commandos of the Rapid Action Force of the CRPF wanted to take control of the situation and were on their way, but the district magistrate issued an edict to send them back to their barracks. The BJP government of UP was well in its constitutional rights to refuse the CRPF, and expectedly so, but if and when the government got dismissed, Delhi could give marching orders to the central forces. We all knew that the central government had a contingency plan in case of an eventuality like this. At least home minister SR Chavan kept saying so in Parliament for days in the run-up to this day. As such, twenty-eight battalions of CRPF jawans were already deployed at the Faizabad cantonment, notwithstanding vehement protests by Kalyan Singh. Of these, ten battalions comprised the RPF. We were confident that given the situation, the central government would not look by and bring these forces into action.

3pm: The demolition

However, when not a single jawan of the central forces appeared in the distant horizon even as the clock struck three, which coincided with the news of the fall of the dome on our right, the leaders started breathing easy. Tapananda Brahmachari, the Bengali sadhu, lectured me. “You live in ivory towers and live the lives of hedonists. How would you know the schemes of God Almighty? The fall of the mosque was inevitable.” Sadhvi Rithambara was brimming with pride, “Whatever happens, happens for good, whether you want it or not.”

The leaders quietly accepted that the inevitable had happened and resigned themselves to their fate. Even as they went down to discuss the subsequent moves, the sadhus took centre stage. “Block all roads that lead to Ayodhya. Go and sit on the highways. Make sure that the central forces are kept at bay,” they thundered on the microphone. “Go to the temple and take your Prasad,” was the continuous instruction that Swami Dharmendra kept blaring. Prasad, in this case was not any food, but broken bricks of the Babri Masjid. A long line of disciples carrying bricks was streaming downstairs, even as the two other domes were being demolished. Chandan Mitra, then the associate editor of the Hindustan Times, suggested that we visit the site before it got completely demolished. Mahajan’s personal secretary assured us that he himself would take us down there and there was nothing to worry.

Not that there was no cause for fear. As we made our way through the crowd towards the mosque, the choicest of invective greeted us. Nonetheless, we braved them and approached the mosque. It was a grisly sight. The zeal and fervour with which the karsevaks were taking part in the demolition sent a chill down our spines. Those who had no tools to use were scratching away like mad with their fingernails on the domes. A few young men tied a noose around the domes and were trying to pull them down. Chandan and Ruchira Gupta of Business India, climbed the hillock while the rest of us stayed down. Wherever we moved, a crowd encircled us. I looked in the front and saw an old man trying to come down the hillock. Wearing thick, dirty lenses, the octogenarian was carrying four bricks on his head. As I gaped at him, I saw two young men cradling Ruchira down to where we stood. She was in shock and could hardly speak. “A few karsevaks mistook Madam for a Muslim woman and pounced on her. It could have been a disaster if we were not around,” said one of the men. We chided Ruchira for her uncalled for bravery and came back to the roof of the office.

4.30pm: The final push

What was relief half an hour ago when we left for the mosque had by now turned into celebrations. The sadhus were gambling on the exact time when the last of the domes would be razed to the ground. Sadhvi Rithambara removed Swami Dharmendra and took charge. “Ek dhakka aur do” (Give one more push), she roared. “Babri Masjid tod do” (demolish Babri Masjid), replied thousands gathered down below. As the last dome tumbled on to the ground at forty-nine minutes past four, all hell broke loose. Sadhvi jumped down from the stage and hugged Uma Bharti. And then, she kept hugging everyone whom she could find in her proximity. All the sadhus were dancing. The only man maintaining equanimity was BJP President Murli Manohar Joshi. “No questions and no answers. Please excuse me today,” the ashen-faced Joshi mumbled.

babri-2_021518070748.jpgSecuritymen at the disputed site in Ayodhya on December 8, 1992, two days after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. (Photo:India Today)

5pm: The final Act

The December afternoon was fast fading into dusk. I looked outside and saw many houses engulfed in flames. Thick black smoke was billowing from everywhere. None of the police officers had any clue of anything. A few know-all karsevaks explained, “The Muslims are torching their own houses so that they can blame it on us.” And yet, there was no inkling of any central intervention. With a smirk on his face, Ashok Singhal returned to the roof to a fresh round of embraces. Everyone was celebrating, including police officers. One of them enquired, “Have you noted the exact time when the mosque got demolished?” and added in the same breath, “You are fortunate. You just saw history being made.” The leader of RSS’s think tank, Sudarshan, who did not take part in the unbridled celebrations, was sitting quietly on a chair nearby. When asked how he would explain what had happened over the past five hours, he replied in fluent Bengali, “Just one thing. Today’s incident proved that history is not made, it happens.”

Whether it was a historic moment or a historic blunder is not something I could have dwelt on then. My only concern then was how to get my copy through to my office in Kolkata. Chandan advised me against depending on the Central Telegraph Office of Faizabad and suggested that I should go back to Lucknow. “For all you know, the telephone and telegraph lines may well be snapped just to prevent news from reaching the outside world,” he said, “just as they did after Operation Blue Star in Golden Temple in 1984.” However, nothing like that happened.

It was important to get a reaction from Advani before I left the place. The NSG commando who was manning the door, smeared our foreheads with vermilion. He said triumphantly, it was no ordinary stuff, but extracted out of the forehead of the Ramlala idol, which was now in safe custody. We went inside into complete darkness. Two youths, sitting on a wooden platform in a corner room, were trying desperately to tune in to the news from a transistor set. The electricity connections had been snapped at the time when the domes were being pulled down, they informed. They also informed that Advani was in the next room, trying to get in touch with Delhi via telephone, in candlelight, and was all by himself.

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Advani emerged after a few minutes. For the past eight years that I had known him closely, I had never seen such a nervous Advani before. It seemed that he could not digest the wild celebrations that were happening right above his head. At least, till then.

Q. Has the UP government been sacked?

A. No, not yet. However, Kalyan Singh telephoned me twice to seek my permission to offer his resignation. I have advised him against it, because if he does, central forces would immediately take over and we will see bloodbath. But by now, he might have resigned. By the time you reach Lucknow, the resignation would most probably have been accepted too.

Q. When do you plan to return to Delhi?

A. Till this morning, my plan was to take the evening flight from Lucknow. But now I must stay here for a couple of days more. I cannot leave all these people to their destiny.

Q. Could you get in touch with Delhi?

A. I have been trying for long, but cannot get through.

Q. How would you react to today’s incident?

A. Unfortunate and regrettable.

A few hours later, after returning to Lucknow, we came to know that Advani changed his mind and left Ayodhya in the evening itself. Many days later, on his release from prison, Advani told journalists that he did not regret the demolition of the Babri Masjid. What he regretted was that he could not gauge the mood of the people. I was not surprised at this volte face. After all, the man was in realpolitik and had his stakes in place. As we came out to the last rays of the setting December sun, speculating on whether Chandan’s new Maruti Gypsy car could escape today’s onslaught, Anju Gupta, the demure yet smart police officer with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a stick in another, met us. She drove out the crowd and whispered into Chandan’s ears, “Two photographers have been in hiding since morning in a nearby room. Mind taking them with you?” We would have been glad to do so, but a small car like his would not have been able to accommodate those two, over and above the eight that we already were, Chandan explained. Anju understood and with a shrug said, “Don’t worry. I shall take care of them.” One of the two photographers was Nitin Rai, our colleague from Sunday Magazine. Nitin told us later that had it not been for Anju, he could have been killed that day. When the rest of the police force was enjoying the manhandling of reporters and photographers, the only man around was this little woman.

When we reached the main road, we found, to our surprise and relief, that Chandan’s car stood just as he had left it there in the morning. Not a scratch or a dent. The car might have escaped the madness, but not so lucky were the local Muslims. Every Muslim house was torched. A few matador vans, auto rickshaws and car tyres were also burning. The karsevaks did exactly as the leaders asked them to. They blocked the roads by felling logs and turning asphalt drums. Around these blockades the karsevaks were dancing like mad men. As we dodged and swerved to make our way through the flames and the maddening sea of humanity, shouts of “Abhi toh yeh sirf jhaanki hain, Mathura, Kashi baaki hain” (This is just the beginning/we will now turn our attention to Mathura and Banaras) filled the evening sky.

Curfew was already imposed in Faizabad. As we reached our hotel, Shaan-E-Awadh, we could see for ourselves how scribes had been beaten up by karsevaks. I met Alok Mitra, my photographer colleague. He looked devastated. “Not only was I beaten to a pulp, but lost everything — two cameras and cash worth nine thousand rupees. They even snatched my gold chain,” he cried. I had no words to console him.

In the hotel lobby, there were at least fifty scribes from across the globe, all with sunken faces. We learnt that Peter Hynes Lane, of Voice of America, had suffered a serious head injury and was taken to the hospital. He was beaten with an iron rod. Former editor of Navbharat Times, SP Singh, stood next to the reception counter. “In my twenty years as a journalist, I have never seen such manhandling of journalists,” he sounded shell-shocked. But Bob Drolin, the Los Angeles Times correspondent, who had come to Ayodhya, for the first time, wrote in The Telegraph, perhaps what was uppermost in every journalist’s mind that day — “Any journalist who was not scared today was stupid”.

(Excerpted with permissions of Rupa Publications from My Date with History by Suman Chattopadhyay.)

Also read: Why we can't let courts decide on Ram Temple issue

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Suman Chattopadhyay Suman Chattopadhyay @sumanchattopa12

Suman Chattopadhyay is the editor of Times of India Group's Bangla daily Ei Samay

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