A Federal Series on the Ayodhya dispute

In part four of our series, we revisit the events that led to the mosque’s demolition and the BJP’s rise.

Part 4

Jai Shree Ram, ho gaya kaam: Mosque falls in Ayodhya, BJP rises in Delhi

Uploaded 3 August, 2020

S Srinivasan

Poet-politician Atal Behari Vajpayee was an orator par excellence. He would mesmerise his audience with his mastery over words. He would break into a poem, play with phrases and suddenly pause before delivering a punch that would turn his followers ecstatic. His felicity with language drew in appreciative crowds but not necessarily the required votes.

Vajpayee would often sign off flashing a victory sign. In 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi swept to power riding a sympathy wave in the wake of his mother Indira Gandhi’s brutal assassination, the BJP could only win two parliamentary seats. Vajpayee was mocked those days for “accurately predicting” the number of seats his party would win!

When India’s right wing electoral politics took a re-birth in the form of the BJP in 1980, from its previous avatar as Jan Sangh, it was a fledgling organisation with Vajpayee as its first president. Those days, BJP was not even considered a prominent opposition party. The party was trying to reinvent its ideology and was intensely debating concepts such as ‘Gandhian socialism’ and ‘integral humanism.’

Then, as a journalist, one could walk into the Ashoka Road office of the BJP and try to understand an interpretation of these concepts first hand from Vajpayee and his close friend L.K. Advani, who would sit in an adjoining room.

It would take nearly a decade for the BJP, backed by its extended saffron family— RSS, VHP etc— to come to terms with what it stood for as a political party. In 1989, at a convention in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP passed the ‘Palanpur resolution,’ adopting Ram temple as its political plank. Over the years, this vaulted the BJP to the centre stage.

Advani wasn’t a great orator. During his 1990 ‘rath yatra’ the speeches would be often pedantic. He would start describing the vehicle he was traveling in. “What you see is a grand rath,” he would explain pointing out that his ‘chariot’ was actually built over a Swaraj Mazda, a Light Commercial Vehicle. Over the years he turned more precise in his messaging and it was his leadership in the 1980s and 90s that turned the BJP into what it is today— a powerful vote-catching machine wrapped tightly in right-wing ideology.

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On Nov 7, 1990, the BJP pulled the plug on the V.P. Singh government, angered by the police firing in Ayodhya that resulted in at least two dozen deaths. Singh did try a patch up between the VHP and the Babri Mosque Action Committee (BMAC), which represented the Muslims. He issued an ordinance that intended to take over the land surrounding the mosque. This was to be handed over to the VHP for the construction of a temple. The mosque was to be left untouched till the appropriate authorities decided whether it was built over a temple. If so, it would be handed over to the Hindus, Singh’s compromise formula suggested. But, when Muslim groups learnt about such an arrangement they objected vehemently. Singh issued another ordinance cancelling the previous one.

Rajiv’s distaste for Chandra Shekhar was well known as their ideologies and thinking clashed. Rajiv was keen on liberalising the economy and opposed Mandal, but Chandra Shekhar was a staunch socialist.

Chandra Shekhar, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of the ‘young turks’ of the Congress party, switched sides and severely criticised Indira Gandhi for imposing emergency. As President of the Janata Party, he would represent a brand of politics that passionately opposed the Congress party. Ironically, two decades later, he would be seeking the support of Indira’s son Rajiv to become the prime minister of India.

Rajiv’s distaste for Chandra Shekhar was well known as their ideologies and thinking clashed. Rajiv was keen on liberalising the economy and opposed Mandal, but Chandra Shekhar was a staunch socialist. With a mere 61 MPs, he became prime minister backed by the 220 MPs of the Congress and its allies. It was a lame duck government right from the word go. Haryana strong man Devi Lal conspired with Chandra Shekhar to throw out V.P. Singh and became deputy prime minister once again. But Chandra Shekhar wasn’t a walkover either. He did not allot lucrative ministerial berths to his allies, causing consternation and anger.

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Chandra Shekhar was known for his unconventional methods. As a PM, he would land up at various state government ‘bhawans’ to hold talks with chief ministers instead of hosting them at his office. He would not hesitate to go across to anyone to hold talks and seek their support. He would unabashedly defend all his decisions. Often, when reporters questioned him on controversial issues, his retort would be, ‘so what?’

Chandra Shekhar drew up a plan to solve the Ayodhya tangle. His confidant Subodh Kant Sahay, who was the Home minister, organised an across-the-table dialogue between the two warring groups. According to a book authored by Harivansh (till recently deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha) Chandra Shekhar’s government was “on the cusp of” resolving the Ayodhya tangle. He was supposed to have passed an ordinance, but was scuttled by the Congress party as Rajiv Gandhi was advised against allowing any development that may give prominence to Chandra Shekhar for solving such a major crisis. The government lasted 120 days and fell when the Congress withdrew support on a vague allegation that two policemen from Haryana were spying on its leader.

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Since the support was withdrawn and elections announced, Chandra Shekhar ran a lame duck government. He could not pass the Union Budget and as a result the credit rating agencies further downgraded India. The economic crisis was at its height— India did not have enough foreign exchange reserves even to finance a few weeks of import. The government had to quietly pledge 2 tons of gold from RBI vaults to raise $200 million.

Tragedy struck the nation when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperambadur, near Chennai, when he was campaigning for the remaining two phases of parliamentary elections. Chandra Shekhar was blamed for lax security. Though the BJP was growing, it still hadn’t developed enough heft politically.

Sonia Gandhi mourned and declined to take over the mantle after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991.

As Sonia Gandhi mourned and declined to take over the mantle from Rajiv, the responsibility fell on P.V. Narasimha Rao. Apparently, Rao was not the first choice, but he was preferred over others for his wide administrative experience. Interestingly, the offer came to Rao when he had begun to pack his bags and was moving to Hyderabad for spending a quiet, retired life. He was not even an MP and had not contested the 1991 general elections.

Rao turned out to be one of the best PMs India ever had as far as economic reforms were concerned. He quickly dismantled the licence-permit raj, junked the archaic industrial policy, opened external trade and liberalised the banking sector and set the rupee free. But he failed miserably when it came to resolving the Ayodhya dispute.

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The BJP had, meanwhile, stepped up its campaign on Ayodhya and it became the party’s slogan for the upcoming state elections. In June 1991, Kalyan Singh took over as the first BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh after ousting Mulayam Singh Yadav. The temple activities had picked up speed as the state took over 2.77 acres of disputed land.

In June 1991, Kalyan Singh took over as the first BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh after ousting Mulayam Singh Yadav

In mid-1992, Kalyan allowed the VHP to dig up the area around the mosque to create a ‘platform’ for holding bhajans. This was, however, described as “foundation for a temple,” by the VHP.

On December 6, 1992, the BJP and the VHP had given a call to its volunteers to gather in Ayodhya to try and restart construction work for the Ram Temple. Rao wished to continue from where Chandra Shekhar had left and asked his officers to ensure that the two warring sides hold a dialogue. But the Sangh parivar had other ideas.

The All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee, representing the Muslims, protested against the December 6 announcement, raising apprehensions. They wanted to know whether the dialogue was only a diversionary tactic.

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was constantly under pressure from his No.2 in the Cabinet Arjun Singh who wanted to be the Congress president.

Meanwhile, Rao was facing pressure from within. His No.2 in the Cabinet, Arjun Singh, was constantly cornering him on various issues. He was writing letters to the PM complaining about the deteriorating situation in Ayodhya. His ambition was to take over as president of the Congress party from Rao, but that never materialised.

Rao called a meeting of BJP politicians including Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh. He was apparently assured that there was no immediate threat to the mosque.

According to a book authored by P.V.R.K. Prasad, the then media advisor to the PM, his boss had a plan. He wanted to resolve the issue through an ‘apolitical’ trust and had asked him to take the initiative. The plan was to focus on building a temple, whereas the BJP was focusing on the dirty work of demolishing the mosque. This version was later rubbished by critics.

According to eyewitness accounts, Ayodhya was calm on the morning of December 6. The kar sewaks had begun to gather near the site. A temporary platform was pitched just 100 metres from the spot for the benefit of the VVIPs. This was to be later occupied by Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati, among others. Top VHP leaders too had gathered at the spot. The press was given a vantage point to observe the event.

Unlike 1990, the security forces did not offer any resistance. There was an air of festivity in the town. Amid Ram bhajans and pro-temple cries, a section of the crowd was also mouthing communal slogans. The volunteers were supposed to offer fistfuls of the Sarayu mud at a designated spot. The kar sewa was going on smoothly.

Meanwhile, a section of the crowd started pushing the barricades. A few minutes later, some of them climbed on the mosque and started chiselling away. They were armed with pick-axes, iron rods, and hammers. By noon, there was a full-fledged attack on the mosque. According to one version, the leaders on the dais tried to dissuade the kar sewaks, but according to another version Rithambara and Uma Bharati, using loudspeakers, continued to raise provocative slogans.

Holes were made on the walls to fasten ropes and were tugged to tear them down one by one. Post noon, the domes began to fall and by 5 pm the demolition was total. The Babri Masjid was gone.

On December 6, 1992, by afternoon, there was a full-fledged attack on the mosque and by evening the demolition was total.

Kalyan Singh’s government was dismissed by the Centre. The defence of the state was that they were overwhelmed by the crowd. The RSS washed its hands off saying the kar sewa was meant to be peaceful. The Liberhan Commission, set up by the government to go into the demolition of the mosque, exonerated Rao. Cases were filed against 68 people, including Advani and Joshi.

Rao later, in an interview, expressed helplessness saying he was wary of the wider impact the incident would have had on the nation.

Arjun Singh told this writer that “anything may happen any day.” He was alluding to the fact that the mosque may be demolished.

But it wasn’t as if Rao’s Cabinet was oblivious of the developments. This writer had met Arjun Singh on the night of December 4 when he had returned from Lucknow after meeting Kalyan Singh. Clearly, he was disturbed and agitated. When asked him whether the mosque was safe, Arjun Singh told me that “anything may happen any day.” He was alluding to the fact that the mosque may be demolished. When I insisted on how the failure would be explained by the state government, an irritated Arjun Singh told me that in the end they may simply say that the security forces were overwhelmed.

After the fall of the mosque, the BJP became a political untouchable for a while. Since the coalition era hadn’t ended, it took a few years for the BJP to collect allies and come to power at the Centre. Over the years, the BJP stopped evoking Ram for votes, but its objective of shifting the narrative away from Congress and consolidating Hindu votes had already been achieved.

(Next, Say with pride you are Hindu)

Part 4