Babri demolition one of Narasimha Rao’s biggest failures: Pranab

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 28, 2016 11:17 IST
A mob demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, claiming it was built on the birthplace of Ram. The demolition triggered religious riots that killed some 2,000. (Sanjay Sharma/HT File Photo)

In the second volume of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, President Pranab Mukherjee shares an insider’s account of several significant events during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In this extract, he talks about how the inability to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid was one of PV Narasimha Rao’s biggest failures as the prime minister. He also talks about how the incident “deeply wounded the sentiments of the Muslim community in India and abroad”.Excerpt:

I was in Bombay on 6th December 1992, and it was Jairam Ramesh, then my Officer on Special Duty at the Planning Commission, who telephoned at lunchtime and informed me about the Babri Masjid demolition.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So I repeatedly asked Jairam how such a structure could be demolished. He patiently narrated the entire sequence of events. I was to return to Delhi the same evening but gathered that tension had already gripped Bombay. The Home Secretary of Maharashtra telephoned me and conveyed that an escort and a pilot car were being organized for me, as the route to the airport passed through certain sensitive areas. I left for the airport with a police jeep in front of my car and an Ambassador with plain-clothes policemen behind. A personal security officer sat in my car.

En route, I saw the lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, in a vehicle, frantically trying to draw my attention. I stopped my car and asked him to follow so that he could also be covered by the security personnel. As we proceeded towards the airport, I could see people in small groups standing at street corners. There were stones and bricks strewn on the roads, indicating that there had been a violent exchange just before we had passed through. The next day’s newspapers confirmed, in graphic detail, the rampage that had occurred in those areas.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was an act of absolute perfidy, which should make all Indians hang their heads in shame. It was the senseless, wanton destruction of a religious structure, purely to serve political ends. It deeply wounded the sentiments of the Muslim community in India and abroad. It destroyed India’s image as a tolerant, pluralistic nation where all religions have coexisted in peace and harmony.

In fact, the Foreign Minister of an important Islamic country later pointed out to me that such damage had not been inflicted on a mosque even in Jerusalem, which has seen religious conflicts for centuries.

Hindu groups say the site is the birthplace of Ram and contend a temple to him stood on the site before the mosque. (Sanjay Sharma/HT File Photo)

There are many who blame P.V. (then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao) for the destruction of the mosque. l was not in the Cabinet at that time and, therefore, not part of the decision-making regarding the Babri Masjid issue. However, I believe the Government of lndia was confronted with a Hobson’s choice. It did not have many options. The central government could not dismiss an elected state government simply because it was apprehensive that the latter might not fulfil its obligation to maintain the safety of the Babri Masjid. The UP government had given a solemn assurance not only in meetings of the National Integration Council, but also through an affidavit to the Supreme Court. People argue in hindsight that the central government should have dismissed the state government under Article 356. But this is wisdom in hindsight. How could President’s rule be approved by Parliament? The Congress party did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha.

The inability to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid was one of P.V.’s biggest failures. He should have entrusted the task of tough negotiations with other political parties to a more senior and seasoned politician familiar with politics in UP--like N.D. Tiwari. Home Minister S.B. Chavan was an able negotiator but could not fully grasp the emotive aspects of the emerging situation. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam worked sincerely but was young, relatively inexperienced and a first-time Minister of State.

Matters took a dramatic turn after the fall of the Babri Masjid. Sitaram Kesri created a scene, collapsing into tears and disrupting a Cabinet meeting at which I was present. I had to tell him, ‘There is no reason to be melodramatic. All of you were members of the Cabinet and some of you were members of the CCPA. All decisions were taken in the meetings of the Cabinet and CCPA. Responsibility is collective; the onus cannot only be on the Prime Minister or Home Minister.’

Later, in a private meeting with P.V., I did not mince words. I burst out, ‘Was there no one who advised you of the dangers? Did you not understand the global repercussions of any damage to the Babri Masjid? At least now take concrete steps to quell communal tensions and assuage the feelings of Muslims through affirmative action.’

PV looked at me as I said this, and in his characteristic style did not let any emotion cross his face. But I had known and worked with him for several decades. I did not need to read his face. I could feel his sadness and disappointment.

I have often wondered later if it was this outburst of mine which finally led to the call I received from him on 17 January 1993, inviting me to join the Cabinet.

Read: Pranab Mukherjee recalls how Rajiv Gandhi became PM after Indira’s death

For more exclusive extracts, click President Pranab’s memoirs

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