Seema Chishti

IN 1992, I worked as a correspondent for Eyewitness, a monthly video newsmagazine owned by Hindustan Times TV. The senior journalist Karan Thapar was the show’s executive producer. Our team had been covering Uttar Pradesh regularly, and I had visited the Babri Masjid in July.

Two years earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party president LK Advani had led a nationwide rath yatra for months to proclaim that Hindus had a right over the site, stoking communal violence along its path. In the winter of 1992, the atmosphere in Ayodhya began to heat up. Volunteers associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known as karsevaks, planned to congregate at the mosque on 6 December. Thapar decided to dispatch a group of four—three video crew members and me, the reporter—to Ayodhya. We expected the crowd to carry out a symbolic construction of the Ram Mandir around the mosque, which could be a story. Our team stationed itself in Faizabad and Ayodhya on 4 December. It had the makings of just another reporting trip.

Nothing could have prepared us for what happened. Beginning mid morning, on 6 December, over nearly six hours, thousands of karsevaks dramatically razed the three-domed, 464-year-old mosque to the soundtrack of fiery speeches by BJP and Vishva Hindu Parishad leaders. The Supreme Court had demarcated an area just outside the masjid for symbolic karseva. After walking around the area, Advani and his successor as BJP president, Murli Manohar Joshi, as well as the VHP’s working president, Ashok Singhal, had settled into the Ram Katha Kunj, a makeshift meeting ground situated a few metres away. Other Hindutva leaders, including Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharti, made speeches, remarks and exhortations of various kinds to the assembled crowd, which cheered the vandalising mob. The karsevaks also attacked several journalists to prevent us from recording what was unfolding. They broke some of the journalists’ equipment. My colleagues and I managed to record some damning footage before being shooed away.

The paramilitary personnel guarding the mosque had left the premises early, and no other central forces were in the vicinity. By noon, even the policemen had become bystanders. The district administration and the police had a perch on a building next to the nearby Sita Rasoi mandir, which served as a viewing gallery. Most of my journalist colleagues were taking shelter on the ground floor. I hid in a nearby sweet shop. In the afternoon, some of us managed to listen to the All India Radio bulletin on our transistor sets. It spoke of “chhut-put kshati”—a bit of damage—to the domes of the mosque. In front of us, the mosque was being systematically smashed, unhindered by law enforcement. The BJP was in power in Uttar Pradesh, with Kalyan Singh as chief minister. PV Narasimha Rao of the Congress was the prime minister. Both leaders remained incommunicado, as the mobs eventually flattened the mosque down to the ground.

Around evening, the state armed constabulary packed journalists into trucks and escorted us to Faizabad, the district headquarters, where the only two large hotels of the town were situated. All along the evening skyline, we could see tunnels of smoke rising from Muslim homes that had been set on fire by Hindu mobs almost as soon as the demolition began. There was a sense of uneasiness even among the supporters of the act, who, uncertain of how this would be received by the nation at large, held off on celebrations. Most, if not all, of Ayodhya’s Muslims had simply fled their homes to nearby towns. The next day’s media coverage was mostly dark and sombre. Though the Hindi papers in Uttar Pradesh did not reflect despondency, celebration was not a mainstream theme either.

Communal rioting claimed thousands of lives within hours of the demolition. Later that month, Bombay burned in the worst case of rioting and violence in decades, which continued until January 1993. The violence claimed at least nine hundred lives and injured over two thousand people, according to official records.

When a large structure is brought down, a lot of dust is kicked up. Sometimes, its ruins live on as important witnesses, telling its tales for millennia. Sometimes, there is only rubble.

The transformation of the Babri Masjid into the Ram Mandir can be told in multiple ways. How the courts, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the MS Liberhan inquiry commission—institutions that were said to constitute pillars of secular and modern India—dealt with the aftermath of the demolition is of great significance.

But the demolition is an episode in the story of India that is still unfolding. It is not always clear how much of its legacy—whether ruins or rubble—remains in our politics, our society and our consciousness. What the demolition foreshadowed about the country and its future were somehow minimised in the heat and light of a tumultuous decade.

The Toyota truck that was reshaped into an opulent “rath” for Advani brought religion and theatre into politics. Thirty years on, the spectacle has only become bigger. The echo of the mosque’s fall is regularly discernible in the blood-curdling cries during anti-Muslim pogroms, in the hate-filled noisy debates on popular news channels, in the cheering crowds that recently egged on the flogging of Muslims during Navratri and in the deafening public silence on the unlawful bulldozing of the homes of Muslims.

Jawaharlal Nehru famously termed India a “palimpsest,” where change was a constant but the past always lingered on, carried forward as a trace, a mark or at least a stain. What was lost forever in the lengthy process of configuring a large medieval mosque into a new temple, and what remains, concerns all Indians. Through this time, as we were on that pivotal day, journalists including myself have become eyewitnesses to an assault on the idea of India. It became the story that would never leave us, as much as it never let go of the nation.

THE BABRI MASJID STOOD in Ayodhya, in the erstwhile Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, from 1528 to 1992. It was built by one Mir Baqi, just two years after the Mughal Empire was established in India, when Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi at the First Battle of Panipat. It is said to have been built on Babur’s instructions, but there is no mention of this in Baburnama, the emperor’s memoirs.

It remains unclear when the talk of there being a structure under the masjid began, when it was claimed to be a destroyed Hindu temple or when this spot became known as the Ram Janmabhoomi—birthplace of Ram. Even the 2019 Supreme Court judgment, which awarded the site to the Hindus, did not certify the claim that the mosque was built after destroying a Hindu temple. Still, the masjid was embroiled in this conflict for decades before and after it was destroyed.

The first recorded skirmish between Hindus and Muslims over the mosque took place in 1853. Six years later, British officials erected a fence to delineate areas within the complex, allowing Muslims to use the inner court and Hindus the outer court. In 1885, a local priest, Raghubar Das, sought permission to build a canopy on what he called the “Ram Chabutra”—a platform close to the central dome of the mosque that was believed to be the birthplace of Ram. The Faizabad district court rejected his plea.

After Independence, the first dramatic and reality-altering moves in the masjid took place in December 1949, when local Hindus placed an idol of Ram inside it one night. In their 2012 book Ayodhya: The Dark Night—The Secret History of Rama’s Appearance In Babri Masjid, Krishna Jha and Dhirendra K Jha write that a first-information report registered by the Ayodhya Police named Abhiram Das, the head of the Nirvani Akhara, as the prime accused. “In course of time, many Hindus in Ayodhya had started calling him Ramajanmabhoomi Uddharak”—saviour of Ram’s birthplace. The authors note that the communal frenzy unleashed during Partition had not yet died down; this act of subterfuge took place less than two years after MK Gandhi’s assassination. While that was a crime committed in broad daylight and this one in the dead of night, “neither the conspirators nor their underlying objectives were different,” they write. “In both instances, the conspirators belonged to the Hindu Mahasabha leadership—some of the prime movers of the planting of the idol had been the prime accused in the Gandhi murder case—and their objective this time too was to wrest the political centre stage from the Congress by provoking large-scale Hindu mobilization in the name of Lord Rama.”

The local administration locked the doors of the masjid complex after the idols appeared, sealing India’s fate for decades to come. It was clear that politicians were firmly in lockstep with the vandals. In 1949, large sections of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh shared the Hindu Mahasabha’s views on the primacy of Hindus in India. Their support, as well as that of the state administration, such as the Faizabad district collector KKK Nayar, were as critical to altering the site. Nair was elected to parliament on a Bharatiya Jana Sangh ticket in 1967. His wife had won on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket in 1952.

In 1986, attempting a shrewd political manoeuvre, the Rajiv Gandhi government, reportedly on the advice of the prime minister’s cousin Arun Nehru, had the locks of the Babri Masjid complex opened, hoping to seal the Hindu vote in exchange. Instead, it opened a Pandora’s box. Once a proud exception in South Asia, where nations were formed along religious lines, secular India now appeared to be accelerating towards one where being Hindu would be seen as synonymous with national identity.

Litigation was always central to this metamorphosis. Four suits were filed between 1950 and  1989. In 1950, Gopal Singh Visharad asked the local court for the right to worship the idols that had been installed. The court restrained the removal of idols and allowed the worship to continue. In 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara filed for possession of the site, claiming to be the custodian of the spot at which Ram was believed to have been born. In 1961, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Waqf claimed possession of the mosque and the adjoining land. In 1986, a district judge directed the gates to be unlocked to allow darshan—viewing—for Hindus. The following year, Muslims set up the Babri Masjid Action Committee, aimed at protecting the mosque. In 1989, the former VHP vice-president Deoki Nandan Agarwala filed the fourth suit in the name of Ram, for possession in its favour, at the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court.

In October 1989, all four suits were transferred to a special bench of the high court in Lucknow. The veteran journalist Ram Dutt Tripathi often describes how representatives of opposing parties could be seen travelling together to Lucknow for the hearings in a Fiat. The long-drawn, complex court proceedings had a way of lulling those on the outside to the fact that this was a pressure cooker on the boil.

In 1990, Prime Minister VP Singh announced his decision to implement the Mandal Commission report, which would ensure 27 percent reservation for Other Backward Classes in government jobs and institutions. Protests by upper castes rocked the country. Sensing a chance to cement popular Hindu opinion, LK Advani began his rath yatra to garner support for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. He was halted in Bihar by a young Lalu Prasad Yadav, but the yatra had done enough to make its mark on the nation’s politics.

The Narasimha Rao Government handed the matter of the demolition to the Central Bureau of Investigation on 13 December 1992. The investigation and the trial in the CBI court took almost three decades.

There were 49 FIRs on the incident, two of which were crucial to the demolition: FIR 197, accusing unnamed karsevaks, and FIR 198, involving Advani, Joshi, Bharti and Katiyar. The CBI first began looking into FIR 197 and later took charge of all 49 complaints. After various transfers and logistical issues, the CBI eventually clubbed FIRs 197 and 198. In 1993, it filed a combined supplementary charge sheet in all 49 cases. For over a decade, no witnesses were called and examined, no evidence was recorded, no charges were framed by the courts. The case remained stuck over procedural questions.

In an already sluggish system, extra inertia was introduced by rapid changes in the political fortunes of the BJP, whose leaders were directly implicated in the demolition, and of the Congress and others, who appeared to be interested only in ensuring that the storm passed with minimal effort to confront culpability. Rao lost power in 1996 to Vajpayee, whose government lasted two weeks. Two coalition governments rose and fell between 1996 and 1998. After the next general election, the BJP and others formed the National Democratic Alliance, and Vajpayee was once again prime minister. His government fell again in 1999, but the NDA secured a comfortable win in the subsequent elections and Vajpayee was sworn in a third time. Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw multiple changes of guard between the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.

Those whom the CBI was meant to be acting against were rewarded electorally and had begun to hold high political offices. During Vajpayee’s second and third terms, Advani was appointed home minister and then deputy prime minister, while Joshi was the minister of human-resource development. These terms saw also the Kargil War and the nuclear tests in Pokhran—both crucial to a rise in nationalist sentiments.

The CBI’s case took a long, complex and confusing route, reflecting who was in power in New Delhi and Lucknow. In February 2001, the Allahabad High Court noted a procedural “defect” in clubbing FIRs 197 and 198. It effectively stayed proceedings on the conspiracy charge and left it to the state government to rectify the error. The BJP government ruling the state at the time did not take any corrective measures.

A few months later, a special court in Lucknow dropped the charges against the accused in FIR 198. The CBI and the NDA government, under pressure from a noisy opposition, was forced to ensure that the agency appealed against the decision in the high court. The Supreme Court dismissed pleas against the high court’s verdict and ordered a separate trial of FIR 198 in a special court at Rae Bareli. When the CBI filed a supplementary charge sheet in the Rae Bareli court, on 31 May 2003, it avoided the conspiracy charge, invoking strong condemnation in parliament by the opposition.

My colleagues and I deposed before the CBI court—I appeared once in 2014 and thrice in 2019. Each time, the summons had taken ages to reach us. The agency had no fire in its belly. It seemed content with its bureaucratic processes and glacial pace, not bothering to secure even a basic authentication from any specialist to certify that the video footage had not been tampered with. Despite the ubiquitous cell phone, CBI officers would be heard grumbling about being unable to trace well-known journalists. The photographer Praveen Jain had valuable evidence of Hindutva activists rehearsing the demolition a day earlier, in Ayodhya, and I had detailed video footage, a rarity in 1992. Jain was particularly upset that the CBI appeared to not care much about the condition of the negatives of his very precious pictures, which were in its custody. In the time it took for the CBI to hear witnesses, the U-matic tapes we had shot on in 1992 became almost extinct. Our testimonies unsettled the CBI officials in court. In a rapidly transforming political scenario, enthusiastic witnesses only complicated the lives of the agency’s officers. But all the CBI had to do to weather the storm was to let time take its toll, weakening memories, destroying evidence and letting witnesses die.

After the UPA government came to power, in May 2004, the CBI revived the challenge to the dropping of proceedings against BJP leaders before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court. But the court dismissed this revision petition, six years later. In February 2011, the CBI moved the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court took another six years to hear the case. In April 2017, it said that it favoured a time-bound completion of the trial in the case. It restored the criminal conspiracy charge against Advani and Joshi, who were now octogenarians, as well as Bharti and others, and clubbed together the trials in the matters involving both the VIPs and the karsevaks. It also ordered the trial court in Lucknow to complete the hearing within two years. But the zeitgeist has been starkly altered. The BJP was once again in power at the centre, this time with a majority of its own. The stakes felt different.

Daily hearings finally began in the special CBI court in Lucknow on 20 May 2017. The matter was termed “Ayodhya Prakaran”—the happenings in Ayodhya. The court heard and reviewed all those the CBI could manage to grab and get to testify, two and a half decades after the demolition.

The court could not meet the 2019 deadline set by the Supreme Court and was granted an extension until April 2020, and another until September. The ground had shifted even further by this time. In 2019, the BJP had been re-elected with an increased majority. During Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister, the politics, the media environment and the debates it spawned on the subject made the four-hundred-year existence of the masjid, not its destruction, seem like the crime. This feeling intensified quickly in his second term, like a knot tightening in the chest of the Indian polity.

Not even a third of the 1,026 witnesses cited by the CBI could be heard. Seventeen accused and around fifty witnesses had died. In the absence of formal authentication, the judge, SK Yadav, refused to accept into evidence photographs, newspaper cuttings and contemporary published accounts, saying that the originals were not produced. On 30 September, the court acquitted all the accused. The judge said that the CBI had been unable to produce any evidence of the likes of Advani, Joshi, Bharti and others working with the karsevaks who actually demolished the structure. “There is no conclusive proof against the accused,” he said.

The Liberhan Commission was set up ten days after the fall of the masjid, and three days after the centre asked the CBI to look into the matter. MS Liberhan, a former chief justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, was asked to probe the sequence of events that led to the demolition. The commission’s tenure was intended to be three months, but it was granted 48 extensions, eventually submitting its report on 30 June 2009.

Along with fellow journalists, I deposed before the commission a few times, in the nineties. The Liberhan commission’s office was located in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan. In the first few hearings, Liberhan set a no-nonsense tone that seemed to have at least fired up the commission’s member-secretary, the bureaucrat SK Pachauri. Journalists such as Rakesh Sinha of the Indian Express, Mrityunjay Kumar Jha of India Today’s Newstrack show, the BBC’s Mark Tully and Ram Dutt Tripathi, and the photographer Praveen Jain were among those who deposed. Each of us who had been present that day in Ayodhya had brought back notes, writings, photographs and recorded interviews—all of it evidence.

The atmosphere was like that of a trial court. Witnesses deposed and were cross-examined by representatives of the leaders and karsevaks accused of carrying out the demolition. Journalists testifying as eyewitnesses faced hostile questions from lawyers who did everything to shred our personal credibility. Our religions, our last names, our backgrounds and presumed affiliations were all brought up, even as Liberhan made a valiant attempt to keep the proceedings civil.

The initial enthusiasm soon wilted. Years dragged on, governments changed and memories faded. Files and transcripts yellowed inside a steel almirah. The staff began to look tired, anxious to wrap things up.

When the report was released, it read like a difficult but obscure chapter of history. But the thirteen years that followed have made the report seem much more significant. “A handful of malevolent leaders unabashedly invoked the name of the paragon of tolerance to turn peaceful communities into intolerant hordes,” the report stated. There is “indisputable evidence,” it argued, that, “lured by the prospect of power or wealth, a rank of leaders emerged within the BJP, RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal etc. who were neither guided by any ideology nor imbued with any dogma nor restrained by any moral trepidation.” It did not spare the top leadership of the BJP and Sangh affiliates, who “saw the ‘Ayodhya Issue’ as their road to success and sped down this highway mindless of the casualties they scattered about. These leaders were the executioners wielding the sword handed to them by the ideologues.”

The Liberhan commission categorically rubbished the claims made by the Sangh Parivar that the demolition was a spontaneous outpouring of Hindu passion. It wrote that “the mobilisation of the kar sevaks and their convergence to Ayodhya and Faizabad was neither spontaneous nor voluntary. It was well orchestrated and planned.” It recorded that “tens of crores of rupees” were used to fund the act. These vast resources were “a categorical pointer to the planning and preplanning carried out for the entire process of the movement commencing with mobilisation onwards right up till the very demolition itself.” The commission indicted the former prime minister Vajpayee, Advani and Joshi, whom it termed “pseudo-moderates,” for the demolition. It also named various Sangh Parivar leaders and outfits. “To support the prerequisites for such a movement, the finances required were channelled from the coffers of the various Sangh Parivar organisations through various banks to accounts held in the names of various organisations and individuals to carry out the innumerable acts needed for the movement,” it stated. “Apart from the inflow of the cash from unidentifiable sources, cash was also transferred and transacted through banks to the recipient organisations. The RSS, VHP, BJP and also the other members of the Sangh Parivar raised funds for conducting the movement from time to time.”

The commission, however, failed to examine the culpability of the Narasimha Rao government. Coincidentally, the report was submitted and made public when the Congress-led UPA government was in office. But for a scoop by the Indian Express’s Maneesh Chhibber, who got hold of portions of the report, the centre may never have made the report public.

It is quite a thing to realise that, despite its sixteen-year delay, the Liberhan commission was still faster than the CBI and the courts in discharging its duty on the matter. Moreover, its  conclusions remain the strongest articulation of the crime and its scale, and the only indictment of the culprits. In his 2014 book Ayodhya: Debacle, Divide, and Dividend, Pachauri, who had a ringside view of the inquiry as member-secretary, wrote that the Babri Masjid dispute was the result of a collapse of both political and administrative wisdom. “Feelings and sentiments of national pride dormant for long were stoked to create a situation that became … irreversible.”

Just when the Supreme Court was to start its day-to-day trials in the title suit for the 2.77 acres of disputed land upon which the Babri Masjid once stood, Liberhan told me in an interview, in December 2017, that the “Supreme Court should hear the demolition case first, then the title suit.” But that was not to be.

Between 1992 and 2019, all levels of the judiciary had always viewed the title suit in Ayodhya—the legal case over the ownership of the land—as more than a regular land dispute. It was about long-held beliefs and a strong undercurrent of bitterness on both sides that only religion blended with politics could have inspired. How the courts would resolve the case of the land was seen as critical to how much India stood by its constitutional promise of being a plural, non-denominational democracy. Was India larger than the sum of its parts?

The Allahabad High Court took eighteen years to come up with a somewhat clumsy answer, in 2010. It delivered a divided verdict, converting the title suit into a partition suit. It split the land into three, with three owners: the Sunni Waqf Board representing Muslims; the Ram Lalla Virajman, the infant Ram, who had been made into a juristic entity during the course of the case; and the Nirmohi Akhara. None of the sides were pleased, and appeals were filed in the Supreme Court.

After the political turmoil of the 1990s, the question of justice for the mosque was lost forever. Following the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, the NDA government dropped its dogged pursuit of the issue and raised it selectively. The UPA brought with it a sense of moving on, an anxiety to not allow questions around the Congress’s responsibility as far as Muslims were concerned and to desist from provoking the Hindutva sentiment. For the mass media and the public, this was a time when, under the shadow of 9/11 and the attack on parliament, terrorism was laid squarely at the door of Muslims.

After 2014, the political and social mood that prevailed demanded the construction of a Ram temple at the site. Media commentary and court proceedings focussed on the obduracy of the “Muslim” side. The political context made it appear as if the matter was about how and when to build the temple rather than how to judiciously decide the title suit or hold to account those responsible for demolishing the mosque.

On 9 November 2019, days before the chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, was to demit office, the Supreme Court struck down the high court’s verdict. It delivered a unanimous and unprecedentedly unsigned verdict with an addendum, running over a thousand pages in all. The court awarded the entire disputed site to Ram Lalla Virajman, legally clearing away the Babri Masjid. It set aside the Allahabad High Court ruling, saying that it “defies logic and is contrary to settled principles of law,” and describing the trifurcation as “legally unsustainable.” It held that “the high court was called upon to decide the question of title, particularly in the suits … But the high court adopted a path not open to it.” It further directed that the Sunni Waqf Board be allotted five acres of land, far away from the site where the mosque once stood. The verdict assigned the job of temple construction to the union government, giving it three months to formulate a scheme to set up a temple trust and hand over the land to it.

The verdict, which was criticised for not being in consonance with the facts it cited, was evidently in tune with the times. The court found the demolition in 1992 to be “egregious” and spoke in detail of how Muslims had been denied their right to the Babri Masjid “through means which should not have been employed in a secular nation committed to the rule of law,” arguing that “justice cannot prevail” unless this was remedied.

“There was no abandonment of the mosque by the Muslims,” it added. “This Court in the exercise of its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution must ensure that a wrong committed must be remedied. … The Constitution postulates the equality of all faiths. Tolerance and mutual co-existence nourish the secular commitment of our nation and its people.” But the court seems not to have used any such reflection in whom it chose to award the land to. It sided with those who had remorselessly carried out the demolition and displayed no remorse. By accepting their claim and banishing Muslims, it effectively ended up justifying the means adopted in 1992.

In his autobiography, Justice for the Judge, Gogoi writes that, on the evening after the verdict, “I took the judges for dinner to Taj Mansingh Hotel … We ate Chinese food and shared a bottle of wine, the best available there. I picked up the tab, being the eldest.” He included a photograph from the evening in his book. Its caption began: “Celebrating the landmark Ayodhya verdict.” Four months after Gogoi retired, on the behest of the Modi government, the president nominated Gogoi to the Rajya Sabha, a post he accepted gladly.

Another matter before the apex court was a plea seeking contempt proceedings against the BJP leader Kalyan Singh, who was the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 1992. His government had submitted to the court that it would not allow the masjid to be harmed. The plea was filed in 1992, and the petitioner had filed multiple applications asking for it to be listed. Both the petitioner and the former chief minister died before it came up, in August 2022. The bench closed the matter, citing the passage of time and the 2019 verdict. “I appreciate your concern,” the court said. “But now nothing survives in this matter.” To keep the matter going would be like “flogging a dead horse.”

But there are seldom any dead horses in the life of a nation. India’s politics can neatly be divided into pre- and post-demolition eras. In the older scheme of things, the Hindutva elements were seen as “fringe.” The dominant opposition consisted of socialists and communists, who were not at variance with the ruling Congress on the essentials of what was India—the grand old party at least swore by a composite identity and was interested in securing votes across society. LK Advani’s blood-soaked yatra and the demolition firmly challenged this idea, immediately drawing a line in the sand and putting the BJP at the centre of the political alternative. By refusing to accept its culpability or correct its course, the Congress only made matters worse.

In February 1993, the Narasimha Rao government released a white paper on Ayodhya, in which it laid the blame squarely on the BJP’s door. Despite its silent inaction, it refused to be held accountable, arguing that the demolition was “not a failure of the system as a whole.” It said that the state government in Uttar Pradesh had “simply cast aside” its commitments to the Supreme Court and the Constitution. “Therein lay the failure, therein lay the betrayal.” For his failure to halt the demolition, Rao earned the moniker of “the first BJP prime minister.” The BJP’s white paper, released the same year, said with candour that “it was because of Ayodhya and the people’s perception of it that the BJP increased its voter support.”

The BJP won 161 Lok Sabha seats in the 1996 general election. Vajpayee’s 13-day government was the first time the party had come to power at the centre. The coalition governments that followed in the next couple of years were a direct result of the demolition, as political parties forged alignments with the simple aim of countering the BJP. In 1999, the BJP was only able to secure allies after it put the issue of the Ram temple on the backburner and turned down its Hindu nationalist credentials. The UPA government of 2004, led by the Congress and supported from the outside by the Left Front, would never have formed but for the shadow of the demolition creating a straightforward secular-versus-communal axis in politics.

Uttar Pradesh saw the maximum turmoil, being the state where the demolition was staged and where the BJP and its predecessor party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, already had significant support since 1967. The sheer size of the state has always ensured that it has a decisive weight in India’s political equation. Before the 1993 assembly election, the BSP and SP announced an alliance, securing 67 and 109 seats, respectively. The BJP managed 177 on its own. That it could not form the government—the SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav became chief minister with the support of the Congress and the Janata Dal—added ballast to the view that caste had trumped religious divides.

But now, nearly thirty years on, that seems like a hasty conclusion that avoided confronting the full impact of the cleavages Ayodhya had widened and cemented. The BJP had contested its first assembly election in 1980, the year it was founded, and won 11 seats. The Ram Mandir mobilisation pushed its vote share sharply up from 11.6 percent in 1989 to 31.5 percent in 1991. This share never really took a beating, despite opposition unity often trumping the party in terms of seats.

The BJP’s political grip on UP is perhaps the single biggest reason of its ability to seize power at the centre. In this state, the BJP has never needed to sugar coat its Hindu nationalist agenda. Every time the BJP has formed the government at the centre, it has won more seats in Uttar Pradesh than any other party—only once failing to win a majority in the state. It is no surprise, then, that, in 2014, Modi abandoned Ahmedabad and picked Varanasi as his constituency of choice.

The demolition and its aftermath cleared the ground for a politics of impunity that finds regular and consistent expression. The OBC assertion following the implementation of reservations, in 1990, made it appear as if Mandal had bested the kamandal—a ceremonial pot used in Hindu rituals that came to be used as a metaphor for upper-caste politics. But, despite the rest being able to combine successfully against the BJP, the party managed to form a much larger support base across India that would carry it for years to come. That is 1992’s biggest and most enduring imprint—the BJP’s parliamentary seats vaulted upwards and have never slid below the three-figure mark since.

A metaphorical line runs also from the 1992 demolition all the way to the 2002 Gujarat violence—it was a train coming from Ayodhya, the Sabarmati Express, that was set on fire in Godhra, killing 49 karsevaks and leading to anti-Muslim pogroms in the state. To note how the 2002 violence and his pursuit of the Ram Mandir solidified Modi’s standing as a Hindu nationalist politician would, in 2022, be belabouring the point.

And so it was done. To create an internal enemy became successful politics. The veil over unhealed social divisions in India, already tattered, was cast aside.

The 1990s had marked a clear break in what it meant to be Indian. Liberalisation inaugurated a journey towards a consumer-driven society and changed Indian aspirations. It is hard to recall this time as necessarily good or bad—a new sense of restlessness began to characterise India. The before and after was most visible in how the media operated and behaved.

Unlike the lynchings and other hate crimes that go viral today, the Babri Masjid demolition happened in the age of Doordarshan, when India was at the cusp of liberalisation. BBC World, having just launched satellite news broadcasting in India, managed to beam a couple of minutes of footage from the demolition into a small number of homes. Video newsmagazines such as Eyewitness and Newstrack had also begun building audiences. The launch of private cable television provided the Indians who could afford it a menu of choices previously thought impossible. People began to interpret the world through advertisements, which reflected the mood of the times, anxious to welcome consumer goods and the free market. A new crop of television serials helped nurture new values of loyalty to family and community.

New ideas of modernity were seeded, characterised by, as the journalist Mike Marqusee articulated in War Minus the Shooting: A Journey Through South Asia During the 1996 Cricket World Cup, more aggression, more goods and more things as symbols of success. A nationalism centred around popular culture, such as Hindi cinema and cricket, combined with new ideas of globalisation to forever change what it meant to be “middle class.” The non-resident Indian was no longer frowned upon as causing a brain drain and was instead held up as an example worth emulating.

Even as the implementation of the Mandal commission’s report threatened to loosen the tight grip of the upper castes over opportunities for social mobility, the media hit back. It had bought—and also decided to sell—the privatisation dream, which was decidedly anti-Mandal. This suited its upper-class, upper-caste owners, who were happy to brand affirmative action as a blow to “merit.” The Sangh Parivar’s unapologetic claims to a muscular reclamation of Hindu India found validation and acceptance.

Still, on the Babri question, there was earlier a sense of shame in demonising and attacking Muslims, who form a seventh of the country’s population. The “global” norms, or at least what may have been seen as acceptable in the West, meant that the storming of Babri Masjid was only secretly welcomed by media and business houses whose founders were long-term Sangh members or sympathisers. For the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, the headlines on the morning of 7 December 1992 projected the previous day as a dark one. “The scenes will return, like deranged ghosts, to haunt those of us who were at the graveside to witness the burial of a secular dream,” Dilip Awasthi wrote in India Today. “The screams of exultation with each blow of a pickaxe, each thrust of a rod, each dome that came crashing down.”

Cut to television channels run by the same business houses today and the transformation could not be starker. India Today’s Hindi channel, Aaj Tak, recently hired Sudhir Chaudhary, who is known for regularly setting new standards of hate speech and Islamophobia in his primetime shows. The Times of India’s television avatar, Times Now, gave us Arnab Goswami—the Modi government’s loudest media cheerleader. In 2019, when the Supreme Court announced its decision to award the disputed land to the Hindus, few of these mainstream media organisations bothered to even mask their glee. As they celebrated the verdict, almost all of them omitted the violence that had preceded and followed the demolition. Even if this was not an ideological choice of the owners, it was what had to be done to retain eyeballs and advertisements, and to ensure safety under the ruling dispensation. At a Press Club event in Delhi, marking 25 years of the demolition, a younger journalist, who had cut her teeth reporting on Indian politics in the twenty-first century, smirked as she remarked to me, “Strange that you all had to be beaten up in 1992 to prevent [you] from reporting.”

Meanwhile, in India, a generation has grown up after the Babri Masjid fell, well after the line was drawn in blood and Indian politics was transformed from a focus on the Constitution to one on faith. “Gen Z,” those born after 1997, has become the most significant demographic in India, for political parties and businesses alike. In 2020, India’s median age was expected to be 29, making it the youngest in the world.

Most of all, in these thirty years, being Hindu has now become central to being Indian. Modi’s ascent has signalled the erasure of all that is Not Hindu, especially that which is Muslim. In 2021, the prime minister of this avowedly secular nation sat, saint-like, at the prayers laying the foundation of the Ram temple.

In June 2022, three UN special rapporteurs told the government that the arbitrary destruction of Muslim homes by bulldozers, sanctioned by the administrations in various BJP-ruled states, could be seen as “collective punishment” to Muslims. To many, they carry the echo of the Babri Masjid, with destruction framed as retributive justice along religious fault lines.

One of the most significant outcomes of the frenzied mobilisation for the demolition was the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which was passed and supported by all parties in parliament other than the BJP. It was as if a barter was sought between the mob and the rest of India, with Ayodhya being set aside in exchange for freezing the other places of worship across the nation as they were on 15 August 1947. But even this act is now under challenge, as Hindutva groups in Varanasi and Mathura carry out a replay of the Ram Mandir movement, bolstered by a far more favourable political scenario than the one in the early 1990s.

Consider the Gyanvapi Masjid, which stands in close proximity to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Modi’s constituency, Varanasi. Leaders from the Sangh Parivar have openly stated their demand for this mosque to be reclaimed as a temple, gleefully suggesting a direct contravention of the Places of Worship Act. The construction of the Kashi corridor, the prime minister’s pet project, drew public attention to the masjid and coincided with the renewed demand among the Hindu Right for it to be taken down. The corridor casts Varanasi as a city of Hindus, airbrushing away its Muslims and their historic associations with the place. But, according to the prime minister, the project represents “vikas aur virasat”—progress and legacy. If 1992 was about muscular mobs clawing their way into the masjid and the system, the present day sees them installed in the inner sanctum.

A thrust towards a Hindu India is visible in political assertions and actions, in public records of history and archaeology, in school syllabi, in the mainstream and social media. The frequent crimes against Muslims have become public spectacles. Modi’s tenure as prime minister has seen the lynching of dozens of Muslims on unproven accusations of cow slaughter, communal violence in the national capital, the public flogging of Muslims during Hindu religious events and violent objections against Muslims praying in public, among countless other attacks. Much like the Babri Masjid, plural identities are being brazenly obliterated.

Meanwhile, a hunt is on for the rubble of the Babri Masjid. On 26 December 2019, the All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee, an organisation that was formed in 1987 to protect the mosque, told the media that it was deliberating filing a petition in the Supreme Court seeking custody of the rubble left behind after the destruction. “The pillars, stones and other remains of the demolished mosque should be handed over to Muslims,” Zafaryab Jilani, the convenor of the committee, told the media. “As per Shariat law, remains of a masjid cannot be used in any other construction.” But, people familiar with the committee’s proceedings told me the idea had been shelved. I asked MR Shamshad, the leading advocate in the matter, if he knew where the rubble was. “We don’t know where it went,” he said.

Thirty years on, India remains deeply in thrall of the demolition. An honest reckoning of the damage the act did to India is still pending. Anti-Muslim cruelty is a feature, not a bug, of India’s systems today. But, however marginalised those who do not agree with the idea of a narrow ethnic nation state may feel, they owe it to the imagination and courage of those that drew up the idea of an accommodative and forward-looking India to start the process of recovering India’s soul. Like the rubble of the masjid, India must not be allowed to go missing.

Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. She was formerly the Delhi editor for BBC India and a deputy editor at the Indian Express. She is the co-author of Note by Note, The India Story (1947-2017) and the author of Anees and Sumitra, Tales & Recipes from a Khichdi Family.
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