Struggle and violence: The chronicle of a 167-year-long saga
When tens of thousands of kar sevaks, or Hindu religious volunteers, packed trains, trucks and buses to descend on the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya in 1990, few carried the conviction that their dream of a Ram temple rising from the sanctum sanctorum of the disputed 16th-century structure would ever translate into reality.
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its zenith and the lanes of Ayodhya rang with chants of “Mandir yahin banayenge” (the temple will be built here), but the contentious issue was caught in a legal tangle and a political consensus looked impossible. The country was vertically divided between maintaining status quo at the disputed site and the Hindutva demand for the “liberation of Ram Janmabhoomi.”
At a press conference, journalists even asked former Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Ashok Singhal, who was leading the mass movement, if the temple would ever be built. The firebrand leader was not amused.
Sitting in Karsewakpuram, the nerve centre of the temple movement in Ayodhya, he told them, “Yes, Ram temple here at the sanctum sanctorum will turn into a reality --(although) it may not happen in our lifetime.” Some others, including former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh, Ramchand Paramhans, the chief of the influential Digamber Akhara, and current UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, shared the conviction that a temple would arise at the spot.
Despite the efforts of these leaders, enthusiasm around the movement cooled by the 2000s. The VHP and its rival group, the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), kept the issue simmering by marking December 6 as‘ “shaurya diwas” (day of valour) and day of mourning, respectively, after the Babri Masjid on the site was demolished on that date in 1992. Public attendance at Ayodhya events was thin.
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Even visits by senior leaders of the VHP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), dwindled and local firebrand voices fell silent after the death of Paramhans in 2003. Hindu seers continued to raise the emotive issue, especially before elections, but public gatherings were replaced by debates, discussions, negotiations and the legal case. The fight moved from the streets to the court, and in Ayodhya, life returned to normal. Over the years, common people also started doubting the effectiveness of the temple movement in extricating the issue from the legal web, as regional powerhouses, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, dominated state politics.
All that changed with the rise of Narendra Modi to power at the Centre in 2014 and Yogi Adityanath becoming UP chief minister in 2017.
The documented history of the dispute is 167 years old. It goes back to 1853, when the first report of communal violence at the site was recorded. In 1885, a local priest unsuccessfully petitioned a local court to start prayers at the site and in 1949, idols of Ram appeared under the central dome of the Babri Masjid, triggering one of the longest legal battles over land ownership, which finally concluded in November 2019 in the Supreme Court.
There were three major turning points– appearance of idols of the deity in 1949, the order of the Faizabad sessions judge allowing “darshan” of the deity by unlocking the gates in February 1986, and the demolition of the disputed structure in December 1992.
It was in 1983 when the RSS and the VHP first raised the emotive issue of Ram temple.
At a public meeting in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar town, Dau Dayal Khanna, Dinesh Tyagi, Gulzari Lal Nanda and Rajju Bhaiyya spoke about constructing a temple at the disputed site. Khanna, a former state minister, and Singhal later visited Ayodhya where they met Paramhans.
At a meeting of 50 saints, a decision was taken to form the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yojana Samiti under the chairmanship of Mahant Avaidyanath, a Lok Sabha member, the head of the Gorakhnath mutt and the spiritual guru of current UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
By October 1985, the VHP, which was constituted in 1964, launched its first formal “Rath Yatra” demanding the unlocking of the disputed structure, which had been out of bounds for the public since 1949.
In February 1986, the Faizabad district court ordered the unlocking of the disputed structure on the petition of a 28-year-old local Hindu lawyer, pushing the dispute into the national spotlight and triggering communal tension across India. The BMAC, a key Muslim party in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, was also born that year.
Soon after the locking, the VHP and various Hindu groups intensified their public mobilization campaigns. The first big event was the “Ram Shila Puja” held in thousands of villages across the country. About 250,000 consecrated “shilas” or carved stones reached Ayodhya in a matter of months and were stored near the disputed structure. After lying idle for three decades, these will finally be used for the Ram temple, whose foundation laying ceremony is on Wednesday.
In 1989, a shilanyas (foundation ceremony) was performed near the disputed structure, the permission for which was granted by the Congress government in the state. In a balancing act, a confused Congress wanted to win over Hindus without losing Muslims.
Before the 1989 Lok Sabha election, then Union home minister Buta Singh flew to Lucknow in the early hours of the morning and drove straight to the chief minister’s residence at Mall Avenue in Lucknow. Senior VHP leaders were already present there. Then chief minister, ND Tiwari of the Congress, walked out in a huff after signing an agreement. The permission for shilanyas was conditional, binding the VHP to a court ruling, the leaders said.
Weeks later, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched his election campaign from Faizabad, four kilometres away from the shilanayas site. He spoke about Ram Rajya and not Ram temple. But while the Congress attempted to maintain ambivalence, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doubled down on Hindutva. When the results were announced, the Congress’s tally from Uttar Pradesh fell from 15 to five seats. The BJP won eight of the 85 seats and its tally in the Lower House soared from two to 85 seats.
This momentous election marked the fall of Congress in UP politics, the rise of BJP and the dominance of two regional powerhouses who would go on to become multi-term chief ministers: Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati.
SHOCK AND SILENCE
As the 90s dawned on India, the country was vertically divided on the issue politically. The shilanayas activated the opposition parties, which came together under the banner of Janata Dal before the 1989 polls. Former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh along with leaders belonging to left parties gave a call for “ Ayodhya chalo.” Members of the National Integration Council, a body of politicians and intellectuals set up in 1961, went on an inspection that left them more confused as the disputed structure appeared like a mosque with an idol of Ram inside. Some members paid obeisance inside. Perplexed, some asked, “But where is the Babri mosque?”
In December 1989, Mulayam Singh became the chief minister of UP for the first time, but he was dependent on the support of Congress, which was also backing the Chandrashekhar government at the Centre, albeit for few months. Mulayam’s relations with VP Singh had soured after a split in the Janata Dal as both wanted to be the messiah of Muslims in UP.
In September 1990, BJP veteran LK Advani embarked on Somnath-Ayodhya yatra.
In October 1990, he was arrested in Samastipur in Bihar by then chief minister Lalu Prasad. But kar sevaks had reached Ayodhya in millions by then and started gathering near the disputed structure. Such was the frenzy that despite heavy deployment of security forces, the crowds kept moving towards the site in great waves, with one group managing to reach the dome. The Mulayam Singh government ordered the police to fire at the crowd, resulting in a pitched battle, in which around 20 people were killed. The government fell.
Assembly elections followed. The BJP grew from 57 to 221 members in the 425-member House in 1991. Kalyan Singh became chief minister. When the Lok Sabha election results were declared, no party was close to a majority but the BJP reaped rich dividends, bagging 51 Lok Sabha seats – its highest tally in the state until then.
The BJP government quickly changed the complexion of the disputed area. The government acquired 2.77 acres of land around the 0.313 acre disputed shrine through a notification, ostensibly to promote tourism and provide amenities to the pilgrims. The acquisition was challenged in the court that disallowed transfer of the land or construction of a permanent structure thereon.
Next, the Kalyan Singh government demolished various temples and buildings - Sankat Mochan, Sakshi Gopal Mandir, Falahari Baba, Sumitra Bhawan notable among them - to level the ground as the court had not banned demolitions. The entire area was levelled.
In early 1992, the government gave 42 acres of land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a key Hindu party in the case, on a 99-year lease on an annual rent of Rs 1 per year for the construction of Ram Katha Park. The trust also bought some additional six acres of land.
It is in this 48 acres of land where kar sevaks congregated in December 1992 for roughly a week before marching towards the disputed site.
On December 6, 1992, the disputed structure was demolished. PV Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister, dismissed the Kalyan Singh government. The Centre acquired 67 acres of land, including the one belonging to the trust.
The demolition also pushed Congress to the margin of state politics as Mulayam Singh, supported by left parties and the Janata Dal, projected himself as the saviour of Muslims.
Some senior BJP leaders feared losing a potent public issue in the political arena. Senior state minister Azam Khan, who was closely associated with BMAC, had then said: “The BJP’s deterioration started slowly after December 6, 1992 and that’s why LK Advani never wanted the mosque to go. They wanted to keep the issue alive.”
For the next 25 years, the BJP came close to power but never won a majority in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1993 and 1996 state assembly elections, it won 177 and 174 seats, respectively. Its numbers sharply fell to 88 in 2002, and 51 in 2007. It only returned to power in 2017 with a thumping majority of 300-plus seats.
The BJP continued to perform strongly in Lok Sabha elections from UP- from eight in 1989 to 51, 52 and 59 seats in 1991, 1996 and 1998 elections. But these number started slipping; in 1999, the party won just 29 seats, which plummeted to 10 in 2004, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government took power at the Centre.
A NEW CHAPTER
From August 5, a new chapter will start in Ayodhya.
The city is geared up for the ground-breaking ceremony. Bhajans have replaced the frenzy; and reconciliation appears set to triumph over anger and agitation. Muslims are forming a trust to build a mosque five kilometers away from the disputed site.
Religious sentiments are palpable but communal amity prevails with even firebrand BJP leaders talking about Muslim participation in the construction of the temple, reminding many of Kalyan Singh’s words, “Let Muslim brothers participate in building the Ram temple, I will lay the first brick of their mosque.”
While thousands of kar sevaks who might have wanted to be there will be missing due to the raging pandemi, global celebrations are all set to mark the mega event.
The temple city has been painted in saffron. Groups have surfaced in every corner to sing bhajans. The tone of the “Jai Shri Ram” slogans has changed from combative to celebratory. The streets are already reverberating with microphones playing Ram dhun or Akhand Path.
In the words of a Ram devotee, “Ram’s vanvas [exile] was 14 years. But the fight for his temple at his birth place has been 572 years old.” The Babri Masjid was built in 1528. In 2020, the Ram temple is finally on its way.