Lal Krishna Advani on his Ram Rath Yatra in October 1990 (Photo: Getty Images)
Having visited Ayodhya several times over 1988-1989 to report on the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, there was no way I was going to miss being there on October 30th, 1990. BJP leader LK Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra, which had begun from Somnath, was to have culminated at Ayodhya on that day which was to also witness the start of ‘kar seva’, or voluntary work by Hindus, to prepare the ground for the Shri Ram Mandir to commemorate the place of his birth. An old dilapidated three-domed mosque, built by Babur’s commander Mir Baqi in 1528 and called Babri Masjid, stood at the site held sacred by Hindus as Ram Janmasthan. Mir Baqi had built the mosque, as was proved by the Archaeological Survey of India’s excavation and deposition by archaeologists and historians in court later, after demolishing a temple. Much of the structure, including the granite pillars with intricate carvings of Hindu motifs, was visibly built with the remains of a temple. It was obvious to any visitor.
The mosque had remained locked for decades after an idol of Ram Lalla, or baby Ram, appeared under its central dome in 1949. The Faizabad district court had ordered the reopening of the disputed structure for darshan and worship in 1986; that coincided with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) launching a vigorous campaign for the liberation of Ram Janmabhoomi. Three years later, in 1989, hoping to stall the rising tide of Hindu anger over his Government’s abject capitulation on the Shah Bano judgment and blunt the Opposition’s campaign against corruption in the Bofors deal, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had allowed the VHP to conduct a formal ‘shilanyas’ or foundation stone-laying ceremony for the proposed Ram Mandir. That did not quite help Rajiv Gandhi—the Congress lost the General Election and VP Singh became Prime Minister, propped up by both the BJP and the Left.
If seven days is a long time in politics, a year is an era. The anti-corruption agenda of 1989 had transmogrified into Mandal politics in 1990, threatening to rip apart India’s social fabric as never before, pitting Hindu versus Hindu, caste versus caste. Advani stepped into the breach with his Ram Rath Yatra. As he would explain later, it was important to present the nation with a unifying cause that would bring together Hindus and prevent Hindu society from fracturing and splintering along caste lines. That cause, Advani decided, was Ayodhya with its central theme of Shri Ram, the great unifier. Events that have followed, culminating in the Shri Ram Mandir Bhoomi Puja on August 5th, are a collective testimony to Advani’s strategic thinking.
The Ram Rath Yatra, however, did not reach Ayodhya after setting off from Somnath. Lalu Prasad, then Chief Minister, ordered the district magistrate of Samastipur to arrest Advani as his rath trundled into Bihar. That singular act led to the BJP withdrawing its support to VP Singh which, in turn, triggered a slew of events, including the police firing on kar sevaks, killing a large number of them, on October 30th and November 2nd, 1990. That incident marked a watershed in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, making a negotiated settlement of the nearly five-century-old dispute non-negotiable.
There were pools of coagulating blood, broken glass bangles, bits of clothes. Some of the kar sevaks grievously wounded by the raining police lathis sat down, others staggered along towards Ayodhya, only to be beaten with lathis again. Then came the tear gas
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So there I was in my office at Statesman Building in Calcutta, as the city was then called, trying to figure out whether I should go ahead with my planned visit to Ayodhya. It was essentially meant to cover the arrival of the rath yatra in Ram Ji ki Nagri and Advani’s moment of triumph. But now that Advani had been arrested, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, had decided not to let anybody enter the temple town, let alone conduct kar seva, it didn’t make much sense to go ahead with the visit. On the other hand, it would be interesting to check out how exactly did Mulayam Singh plan to stop the hordes of kar sevaks, who had already started out for Ayodhya from various parts of the country, from entering the town which could be reached, apart from by rail and road, by simply walking through the surrounding fields. The day before I left for Lucknow en route to Ayodhya, my editor asked me to look for birds in the sky: Mulayam Singh Yadav had told an obliging media “Parinda nahin paar hone dunga (I won’t let even a bird to fly into Ayodhya)”.
By now, the road from Lucknow to Ayodhya had become familiar and I had a fair idea how long it would take me to reach Faizabad, where journalists would park themselves in the two hotels, very spartan and with rudimentary services, that then existed in the vicinity of Ayodhya. The hotels were located, by happenstance but to the great convenience of visiting mediapersons, right across the local post office, or PCO, from where stories could be filed without much effort, unless the telex machine was down, in which case we had to shout into a Bakelite phone, reading out the story to a disinterested sub-editor at the other end who would laboriously write it down. If both the telex and the phone were down, the only way of communicating with our offices was through telegram. The only problem was that the pages with strips of text pasted on them could be stuck together by the time the telegram reached the newsdesk. In which case, it went into the wastepaper basket. But we digress.
It turned out to be a rather long drive with several diversions and many checkpoints along the highway. This is how the routine went: The ramshackle Ambassador car in which I was travelling would be flagged down by policemen every few kilometres. They would peer into the car, open the dicky, look at my bags and then ask me where I was going. Ayodhya. Why? To report for my paper. ID card? Yes. The card would pass from grimy hand to grimy hand and each of them would stare at it balefully for a few minutes. It would then do a reverse journey and reach me. After a flick of the hand, the driver would resume the journey. At the last checkpost, a young police officer, possibly a deputy superintendent of police, told me that my ID card would take me up to Faizabad and not beyond. I would have to get a permit from the district magistrate’s (DM) office to visit Ayodhya.
It was late afternoon when I reached the hotel where I had booked a room. As usual, the place was crammed with journalists, most whom I had met on previous visits to Ayodhya. A sort of camaraderie had developed amongst us. The DM’s office was to issue permits in the evening. We set forth in a group with the legendary Mark Tully leading us. At the DM’s office we were told to wait—the wait lasted for a couple of hours. Armed with the small pink cards, we returned to our hotel only to find there was a power cut. Was that an attempt to stop the media from filing stories?
We were loafing outside the hotel when a local resident, who seemed to know Tully, came with information about senior RSS, BJP and VHP leaders sneaking in through the fields around Ayodhya. Till well past midnight, we kept going from village to village, speaking to strangers, each of whom would tell us some more stories of having spotted this or that leader at this or that place. At one point we were too tired to pursue the leads any further. But Tully Sahib would not give up. It was almost dawn when we returned to our rooms, without having met any of the leaders who had sneaked in. (We were to discover the next day that Uma Bharti had cropped her hair and sneaked in riding a motorcycle. Ashok Singhal, the moving spirit of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, was also in town, as was Sadhvi Ritambhara and several others.)
After resting for a couple of hours, we left for Ayodhya. A strange sullen silence hung over the town, the only sound was that of the clanging bells of Hanuman Garhi. The one-and-half-kilometre road to the disputed Babri structure had been barricaded. There was a sea of khaki—armed PAC (state armed police) men were swarming all over the place. I was hanging around with Manoj Raghuvanshi and his Newstrak team. Manoj, with his large build and scowling face, was elbowing his way through the PAC jawans, making a path for us. Suddenly, almost magically, the lanes and bylanes of Ayodhya came to life as hundreds of kar sevaks began pouring in, seemingly appearing from nowhere. Cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ rent the air. The kar sevaks marched up to the barricade where they were stopped. Tens became twenties, twenties became fifties, fifties became hundreds. There was khaki on one side, saffron on the other. Neither side budged an inch.
After a while we went to the bridge over Saryu river and it was a sight to behold: hundreds of men and women were trying to cross the bridge, only to be met by lathi-wielding policemen. They were struck with full force, they fell down bleeding, they stood up, and they started walking again. The bridge was littered with rustic shoes and worn slippers. The small bundles the kar sevaks had carried with them on their journey lay around pitiably. There were pools of coagulating blood, broken glass bangles, bits and scraps of the clothes they were wearing. Some of the kar sevaks who were grievously wounded by the raining police lathis sat down on the bridge, others staggered along towards Ayodhya, only to be beaten with lathis again. Then came the tear gas—canister after canister was fired at the kar sevaks, a large crowd now, snaking well beyond the other bank of Saryu. But I did not see anybody turning around and walking back. They just kept surging ahead, step by another step.
It was important to present the nation with a unifying cause that would bring together Hindus and prevent Hindu society from fracturing. That cause, Advani decided, was Ayodhya, with its central theme of Shri Ram, the great unifier
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Manoj said we should go and find a vantage point for ourselves before the crowds overran the place. As we were walking towards the barricade, something extraordinarily dramatic happened. A sadhu jumped into a UP Police bus that had been parked near Hanuman Garhi, got into the driver’s seat and drove it at break-neck speed through the barricades towards the Babri structure. With the barricades down, the crowd rushed in from all sides, almost sweeping us from our feet. We scurried to a raised platform where we stood and watched Mulayam Singh’s arrangements to stop even a bird from flying into Ayodhya come crashing down as the air reverberated with thousands of voices chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.
I was standing next to Manoj, and there was a sadhu standing next to me, when the PAC began firing at the crowd of kar sevaks. By then, some of them had reached the Babri structure and clambered atop the domes and raised saffron flags. Among them were Ram Kothari and Sharad Kothari, the ‘Kothari Brothers’ from Calcutta. A helicopter came sweeping in, and we heard sniper shots. That was a momentary distraction. A bullet came and hit the sadhu standing next to me, a large crimson spot appeared on his forehead, and he crumbled on the spot. Manoj pulled me aside and we ran for cover. That moment was subsequently frozen on the cover page of a popular magazine called Probe which was published from Allahabad and is now defunct.
Later that evening, I filed my story, as did the others. We went with the official claim of ‘17 killed, many injured in the firing to control unruly mobs’. With curfew imposed and all passes cancelled, it was impossible to fact-check that claim. Three days later, the kar sevaks, wounded but not defeated, returned to continue their march to Ram Janmasthan. Some of them managed to reach the disputed structure, some climbed atop it with saffron flags, only to be clobbered and shot by the PAC. On that day, the bodies of the Kothari brothers were found in a lane near Hanuman Garhi. There were stories of how they had been dragged out of a house and shot dead. Till date, nobody knows for sure.
In 2017, Mulayam Singh, pretending repentance, admitted 28 kar sevaks were killed over October 30th and November 2nd, 1990. Those who know better peg the number of fatalities at 56 or more. Rajnath Singh, the editor of Swatantra Bharat, was the only journalist to dare Mulayam Singh and call his bluff. He was hounded out of his job.
In many ways, 1990 determined the denouement of the passion play called Ayodhya. After October 30th that year, there was to be no going back, there could not have been any going back. Those who thought otherwise clearly have no feel for the pulse of the masses whose consciousness is rooted in the life of Shri Ram, for whom ‘Jai Siya Ram’ are three words that lie at the core of India’s civilisation and culture, faith and religiosity. I recall ending my report along these lines; my conclusion was excised by my editor who thought I was exaggerating. I wonder what he thinks today.