A Federal Series on the Ayodhya dispute

In part one of the series, we revisit the origin of the Ram Temple-Babri Masjid dispute and the role played by the Congress in turning Ayodhya into a legal, political and cultural flashpoint.

Part 1

How Ram lalla ‘appeared’ one winter night in a disputed mosque

Uploaded 31 July, 2020

Ram lalla Virajman, the deity of the janmabhoomi, triggered a dispute that hurled India into a political, legal and socio-cultural battle that was to claim many lives, topple several governments and reshape the contours of India’s polity and society over five decades. Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

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Sandipan Sharma

Constable Mata Prasad of the Faizabad police station rubbed his eyes in disbelief when he entered the sanctum of the Babri Masjid on the morning of December 23, 1949, a Thursday.

A few days ago, a large group of Hindus had vowed to hold an akhand kirtan (a prayer marathon) in the courtyard around the mosque. They claimed the prayers would miraculously make idols of Lord Ram kept on a wooden platform outside appear in the middle of the mosque. This group of around 5000 devotees had been dispersed by the administration. Two policemen, a Hindu and a Muslim, were assigned the duty of guarding the gates by rotation.

When Prasad took the keys from the Muslim guard, dawn was breaking over the Sarayu that streams through Ayodhya (in Sanskrit, a place that can’t be conquered). But, even through the winter mist he could see the unthinkable had already happened—there was indeed an idol made of ashtadhatu (eight metals) of the deity and his brothers bang in the middle of the of the mosque.

Several years later, the local administration and the police were to emerge as the key figures in the conspiracy to make Ram’s idol “appear” in the mosque. But, that evening, in his report, Prasad blamed some local leaders for the break-in. FIR number 215/167 filed by the constable at the Faizabad police station a good 12 hours later read:

“Around 7 am, when I reached the janmabhoomi, I came to know a group of 50-60 persons had removed the barricades around the Babri Mosque compound and installed idols of Shree Bhagwan. On the walls outside and inside, they had inscribed in saffron and yellow Sita, Ram etc.”

A large group of Hindus had claimed their prayers would miraculously make idols of Lord Ram kept on a wooden platform outside appear in the middle of the mosque, which ended up "happening". Illustration: Sagarika Pant

News of the appearance of the idol had already spread through Ayodhya. Its narrow, winding by-lanes, teeming with sadhus and cows, were already buzzing with chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram’. Groups of people were roaming around, announcing on loudspeakers that Ram lalla (the deity’s as an infant) had finally become virajman (appeared) in their town.

A middle-aged priest Abhiram Das was especially excited by the turn of events. That day, he went from school to school, screaming that the Lord had finally reclaimed his birthplace. A few hours later, he was to be named as the man behind the conspiracy to install the idol in the mosque.

And thus was born Ram lalla Virajman, the deity of the janmabhoomi, and a dispute that was to hurl India into a political, legal and socio-cultural battle that was to claim many lives, topple several governments and reshape the contours of India’s polity and society over the next five decades.

**

In the winter of 1949, the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) were witnessing a resurgence of communal politics. After being pushed to the fringe by a wave of remorse that engulfed India after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the hardliners had started asserting their Hindutva agenda in public. One of their principal demands was for renaming the province as Aryavrata, the mythological empire of the Aryans who settled down in the Gangetic Plains around 2500 years ago.

Ayodhya was central to their demand for an Aryavrata. For centuries, Hindus had believed their most prominent deity, the warrior prince Ram, was born on the banks of the Sarayu in a palace atop a hill called Ramkot in Ayodhya. But, the birthplace of the deity, the Hindus argued, had been razed by Mir Baqi, a commander of Mughal Emperor Babar, to build a mosque in 1528.

The story of Lord Ram’s birthplace is a complicated mix of myths and history. A few days ago, when the Prime Minister of Nepal claimed the Hindu deity was born in the Himalayan Kingdom, he was only adding to the chorus that Ram belongs with many cultures and countries, including India, Afghanistan, Thailand and Indonesia.

Also read: Evolutionary logic and history contradict belief Rama was born in Ayodhya

Ayodhya’s first documented link with the deity emerged in 1717 when the founder of Jaipur, Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh, purchased a plot of land adjacent to the Babri Masjid. A map of the site kept in Jaipur’s City Palace depicts a structure with three spires resembling the domes of the Babri Masjid that was demolished in 1992. In the map, the courtyard is called ‘janmasthan’ and has a raised platform that was later to be known as Ram Chabutara.

A map of the site kept in Jaipur’s City Palace depicts a structure with three spires resembling the domes of the Babri Masjid that was demolished in 1992.

But, this version of the site is contradicted by the earliest recorded evidence of the Hindu claim on the disputed land. In November 1858, a Muslim resident of Ayodhya filed an FIR against a group of Sikhs for forcibly entering the Babri Masjid, performing prayers and constructing a platform (chabutara) and inscribing Ram’s name on it. This was verified by his superior officer in his report to the colonial government.

In 1850, after violent groups of Hindus and Muslims clashed for control of the site at a place called Hanumangarhi, the British had already fenced the compound. In 1859, as part of a compromise, the British allowed Muslims to use the inner sanctorum and gave Hindus control and rights over the outer court. This arrangement survived for almost 160 years.

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The truce between Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya was shattered by two events in 1948. The first was the Partition. As large masses of Muslims migrated to Pakistan, the Hindus sensed an opportunity to reclaim some of the sites they believed had been usurped by Muslims under the patronage of the Mughals and the British. In the United Provinces, three mosques, in Mathura, Varanasi and Ayodhya, emerged as the biggest flashpoints because of the belief among Hindus that they were built on the debris of sites sacred to them.

In Ayodhya, a political battle between two factions of the Congress added butter to the communal fire. It is widely believed, the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru wanted socialist leader Acharya Narendradev to become the first premier (later chief minister) of the United Provinces, the largest state of independent India. The task of broaching the subject with Narendradev, an intellectual giant and a renowned scholar of Hindu scriptures, was assigned to another Congress stalwart, Govind Ballabh Pant.

Many historians believe Congress stalwart Govind Ballabh Pant never conveyed Jawaharlal Nehru’s offer to become the first premier of the United Provinces to socialist leader Acharya Narendradev because of his own ambitions.

For reasons that only Pant could have revealed, Narendradev declined the offer. And, since Pant was the next in line, he was named chief minister of the province. Many historians believe Pant never conveyed Nehru’s offer to Narendradev because of his own ambitions. Others argue that Narendradev rejected the idea because he was a saint in the Gandhian mould by temperament and, like his idol, was not interested in political power or office.

In 1948, Narendradev—whose socialist faction had separated from the Congress by then—resigned his assembly seat of Faizabad, precipitating a by-election, an event that was to redefine the idiom of India’s politics.

Even though Narendradev was not the Congress candidate, Nehru wanted the socialist leader to win. But, an insecure Pant wanted Narendradev out of his way forever. Defeating Narendradev, a local and regional hero in his own backyard, was, however, a tough challenge.

Pant took refuge in religion. Ignoring Nehru’s advice, he decided to communalise the election by fielding Baba Raghav Das, a Hindu saint from Gorakhpur, and vilifying Narendradev as an agnostic who didn’t believe in Lord Ram and, thus, deserved to be defeated in the birthplace of the deity. In that election, the Congress made two arguments that were to resonate for decades—a victory for its candidate would help Hindus claim the disputed site, and, strengthen India’s case against Pakistan on Kashmir (sounds familiar, no?).

Pant’s high-pitched communal campaign comparing the election with a battle between Lord Ram and his adversaries created an atmosphere that emboldened the groups that wanted to claim the disputed site as Ramjanmabhoomi. So, it didn’t come as a big surprise when Mata Prasad’s FIR named Abhiram Das and five Congress workers for breaking into the compound on the intervening night of December 22-23.

Govind Ballabh Pant decided to communalise the election by fielding Baba Raghav Das, a Hindu saint from Gorakhpur, and vilifying Acharya Narendradev as an agnostic who didn’t believe in Lord Ram and, thus, deserved to be defeated in the birthplace of the deity.

**

Readers would have noticed the provincial leaders of the Congress were the original architects of the communal politics that was to later engulf all of Uttar Pradesh (renamed in 1950). The role of the Hindutva brigade— represented by the Hindu Mahasabha—was initially limited to endorsing Pant’s communal pitch.

Some versions of the events of the winter of 1949 indicate the idol installed in the mosque were first bathed in the waters of the Sarayu and then consecrated at a ceremony organized by leaders of the Mahasabha. But, even if this is true, there is plenty of evidence to show the miracle of Ram lalla’s appearance was choreographed mainly by the Congress, encouraged by the success of its communal campaign that defeated Narendradev and sent a mahant (priest) to the state assembly. (Narendradev lost by around 1200 votes in a polarized election).

In all likelihood, the entire administration was involved in the conspiracy. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal later revealed that the plan to install the idol in the mosque was executed by the topmost officials in the administrative hierarchy—KK Nayar, the district magistrate of Faizabad, and Guru Dutt Singh, the city magistrate. According to the journal, both these officials had asked the police constables on duty to let Abhiram Das and his followers sneak into the mosque to install the idol.

In spite of the connivance of the administration, the controversy could have been killed immediately if chief minister Pant had heeded Nehru’s advice and ordered the removal of the idols from the mosque. “I am disturbed at developments at Ayodhya,” Nehru’s telegram said in a telegram to Pant on December 26, 1949. “Earnestly hope you will personally interest yourself in this matter. Dangerous example being set there which will have bad consequences.” But, Pant ignored the PM’s missives for several months, wearing down Nehru’s resistance.

His recalcitrance was endorsed by the local Congress legislator, Baba Raghav Das, who not only led functions celebrating the 12th day of the birth of Ram lalla but also threatened to quit if the idols were removed. (Ayodhya: The Truth of Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid, author Sheetla Singh).

Local Congress legislator Baba Raghav Das not only led functions celebrating the 12th day of the birth of Ram lalla but also threatened to quit if the idols were removed.

On ground zero, Nayar continued to provide excuses for not acting against the rampaging sadhus, who had by then started gathering in large numbers in the mosque and performing akhand kirtans. He argued that removing the idol was “fraught with the gravest danger to public peace” and would lead to a “conflagration of horror,” according to a copy of his correspondence accessed by the Wall Street Journal. (Later, both Nair and his wife joined the Janasangh and successfully contested elections to the Indian parliament and the state assembly. Guru Dutt Singh resigned soon after the appearance of idols in the mosque and joined the Janasangh.)

A few days after Ram lalla appeared inside the mosque, Nayar was to make another decisive move—that of attaching the property, appointing a government receiver and locking the gates of the compound. The gates were to remain closed for nearly four decades, waiting for a Muslim woman to precipitate a crisis that had nothing to do with the disputed site.

(Next: The gates are opened)

Part 1