This piece was written for University of Iowa’s International Writing Program: Power of the Pen – Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction
On 6 December 1992, a young man jumped over a protective railing, and climbed atop a dome. From there he looked down at the crowd consisting of some hundred-thousands of his brethren, senior leaders, locals, and police constables. This act of intrepidity caused the aggressive crowd to rush forth, shouting, toward the 300-year-old structure with axes, tridents, and iron bars in their hands. The police, a handful, with only batons to manage an event like this, ran away. Six hours later, the light from the setting sun in Ayodhya did not fall on the three-domed Babur’s Mosque, but on its rubble.
Between the Tien-Shan and Gissar-Alai mountains lies the triangular Fergana valley. The rivers Naryn and Kara Darya falling into this beautiful intermountain depression make the Fergana valley fertile, rich and cultivable. Chroniclers from China date the valley’s history back to 2,100 years, when its provinces were already teeming with civilization, cultivation, and economic activities. But its people were invaded many times, earlier by Greco-Bactrian kings, and as late as 1219 by Genghis Khan. It was in this valley in a small province called Andijan, in 1483, when Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur was born to Qutlugh Nigar Khanum and Umar Sheikh Mirza II. Today, the Fergana valley stretches across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia.
Babur’s bloodline goes back to Genghis Khan on his mother’s side and Timur-i-lang on his father’s, both known to be powerful and feared rulers. Timur-i-lang was a Turco-Mongol with an empire between Caucasus and Delhi, whereas Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire had conquered regions between the Black Sea and Beijing. Perhaps it was the greatness bestowed to him from his ancestors that Babur would himself establish the Mughal Empire and dynasty, stretching over four million square kilometres, covering Afghanistan and much of the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal Empire, beginning in 1526 ended only in 1857, when the East India Company established its rule in the subcontinent.
When Babur was only eleven, he lost his father, when Umar Sheikh Mirza fell into a ravine overlooking the palace. As the eldest son, he rightfully inherited the throne, but was soon threatened by his uncles, who tried to remove him and the many territorial gains he would have received, and were eventually successful. In Babur-nama, his personal journal, he writes, “During my stay in Tashkent, I endured much poverty and humiliation. No country, or hope of one!”; in another entry, “It was very hard for me. I could not help crying a good deal.” But Babur was not one to give in early, at least not this time. With 300 men, who he had with him, and his mother, he finally reached Kabul (in Afghanistan), which had recently become leader-less. From here, he led his first expedition to Hindustan (India), for which, as he wrote, “My desire for Hindustan had been constant.”
Hindustan was a mystery to Babur. He refers to its complex society, its people, and its cultures as “of little charm”. In his travels, he would find the absence of poetry, symmetry, nobility, and good food, among the many severe lacks of this place. Most of all, the faith practised by the Hindus, Hinduism, with its concept of reincarnation, karma, idol-worship, and idols, seemed to him confusing and at times, disapproving especially the “stark naked with all their private parts exposed”. Babur destroyed temples of Hindu worship, killed people wherever it was of strategic importance, and conquered. As he wrote, “For the sake of Islam I became a wanderer; I battled infidels and Hindus. I determined to become a martyr. Thank God I became a holy warrior.” But his Islam extended over to celebration of music, gardens, wines, sensual poetry, and women as well.
Babur’s mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, or as it is more commonly known Babri Masjid, was built by one of his generals named Mir Baqi in 1528. Although “an inscription attributes [it] to him”, it is likely that Babur could have only renovated an existing mosque built around the year 1194. Following Babur, his Mughal descendants established a rule where the multiculturalism was celebrated, Hindus and Muslims co-existed, and co-opted each other’s practices and cultures. Babri Masjid was a place of importance to both religions – Muslims prayed at the existing mosque while Hindu sentiment held that this site was “Ram Janmabhoomi”, the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram and worshipped here peacefully.
In a film made in 1991, a year before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it has been claimed that fearing the solidarity between Hindus and Muslims as a threat to the British Empire in India, the British started a rumour – the Mughal Emperor Babur had built the mosque over the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, after demolishing it. In the disturbance that followed in 1850s, at least according to the Patrick Carnegy report in 1870, a railing was installed to separate the places of worship. Where Muslims prayed inside the mosque, Hindus offered their prayers on a raised platform. The historian Wendy Doniger writes, “the report was based on no evidence whatsoever that there had been such disputes or any need to separate the worshippers. And even by this report, the British had put up a railing where none had been, causing the disputes that they were allegedly preventing.”
India became independent in August 1947 but not before succumbing to a gruesome partition into two separate nation-states: India and Pakistan. Conflict between the Hindus and Muslims had by this time risen to its zenith, and partition of the nation according to religious lines, appeared as the immediate solution. For months, the violence that escalated led to at least two million deaths, a number that is still contested. The displacement of people trying to make it to a nation-state of their religious identity (Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus & Sikhs to India), was estimated around twelve million. Rape, pillage, murder, starvation, destruction of property, culture, and the past created the hostile, irreconcilable relationship that India and Pakistan hold today.
It was in this volatile environment, when two years later, on 23 December 1949, Mahant Ramsevak Das Shastri, the head of All India Ramanand Sect, placed an idol of Ram inside the Babri Masjid. According to the mahant, he only enacted a dream, in which Lord Ram appeared to him as a 5-year-old boy inside the mosque. In the morning, the muezzin of the mosque informed Imam Haji Abdul Gafar that an idol has been placed by the Hindus. When the imam went to the District Magistrate, K K Nayar to report, he was assured, “Conduct this Friday’s prayers elsewhere and we promise that in a few Fridays, we will resolve this issue, and you can resume prayers in the mosque.” According to the old imam’s son, “he is waiting for that Friday ever since.” When news broke, the incident was celebrated among Hindus as the miraculous appearance of the Lord reclaiming His birthplace. Tension soon broke out, and the mahant was arrested only to be later released on bail. Soon, a court order was released to keep the Ram idol locked and away from worshippers, except for one day in the year. Not many knew then that the District Magistrate, a practising Hindu himself, was also involved in placing the idol in the mosque. K K Nayar went on to become a Member of the Parliament.
In 1985, the Supreme Court of India gave the verdict to a petition filed as under Mohammed Ahmed Khan vs. Shah Bano and Ors, upholding an earlier judgment in favour of Shah Bano. Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim woman from Indore had been cohabiting with her former husband Mohammed Ahmed Khan and his current wife, when she was asked to move out. A desperate Bano, who needed monetary support for herself and her five children, filed a petition in a local court. When the local and the High court both ruled in Bano’s favour, Mohammed Ahmed Khan appealed before the Supreme Court, claiming he had done right by paying Bano alimony for three months, as directed under the Muslim personal law. Following the Supreme Court’s judgment and its renewed effort to bring forth the Common Civil Code, Muslim organizations and leaders condemned the decision. Shah Bano was threatened, and was asked to be ostracized by the Muslim community.
With mass agitation against the judgment, the climate immediately bore a religious colour, whereby constituencies with large Muslim populations soon turned against or at least moved away from the ruling Congress government. The alarming rate at which events followed, fearing it will lose its minority support, the government placed a Muslim Women’s Bill in the Parliament, which intended to exclude the Muslim personal law from under the Criminal Procedure Code. Bano herself denounced the Supreme Court verdict under the pressure. With one group, which played a strong role in the elections, now appeased, the government prepared itself for facing another – the Hindus. Ten months later, in 1986, in response to a petition filed for public worship of the Ram idol, the locks in the Babri Masjid were opened.
One of the political commentaries preserved from this period in the 1980s is that of Kewal Verma’s, the political editor of the Calcutta weekly Sunday. He writes, warning the incumbent government of its mistakes, “Also, the Rama Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid issue could lead to large-scale communal war in north India.” Only five years later, a “large-scale communal war” began in India, with the demolition of the Babri Masjid at the centre of its vortex. Ayodhya, the site where Babri Masjid once stood, fell to Muslim cleansing. Muslims including women and children were burnt alive, killed by violent Hindu mobs or were shot dead by the police. Homes and localities were burned down. Muslims retaliated to the demolition of their sacred mosque, and attacked and burned down government buildings in some places. The violence did not stop. As a wildfire, it spread across the fragile nation.
In Bombay, the violence peaked on 7th December 1992, when in a Muslim-dominated locality, anger resulted in raids and burning of Hindu-owned shops and effigies of political leaders. Meanwhile in Hindu-dominated localities, Muslims suffered, their houses burned and thrashed. By the time curfew was imposed, the violence had continued for ten days, claiming at least 800 lives, two-thirds of which were Muslims. Three months later, a series of bombs rocked Bombay, one at the Bombay Stock Exchange, claiming more than 300 lives. Bombay, India’s most cosmopolitan city had turned into a divided city, “a city at war with itself.”
The Muslim Women’s Bill and allowing Hindus to worship the Ram idol placed in the Babri Masjid were not the only incidents that guided the environment in the 90s. The rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) during the late 1980s along with Rashtriya Swayamsewaka Sangh (RSS; in English: National Volunteer Organization) the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP; in English: World Hindu Council) have a crucial role to place. The organizations operate on the ideology of the Hindutva or the right-wing Hindu nationalism and have had a key role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Their rise in the country’s politics has been credited to the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in Ayodhya.
While the BJP leader L K Advani took a rath yatra (chariot march) across the country, stopping only for public meetings, where he blasted the government of its minority-appeasing politics and pushed forth the Ayodhya temple agenda. The rath yatra itself was a symbol of masculinity, militancy, religion, and anti-Muslim, with swords and the saffron colour represented strongly. Meanwhile, Lord Ram made appearance on national television screens across India- as a 78-episode long television program. With more households with a television set, the one-hour long episodes on Sunday mornings became a ritual, with even Muslims watching the program sincerely. However, what went amiss in the Bollywood-style custom-made program was that the many versions of the epic Ramayana were disowned and only one – Ram as the ideal great Lord – version was indoctrinated into the minds and memories of Hindus across India. Babri Masjid, even with its 300-year-old history couldn’t stand against this revived sensationalism.
It took 16 years for the Liberhan Commission, set up for investigating the Babri Masjid demolition, to present a report it was expected to submit within six months of its setup. In 2009, when the report was leaked, it held 68 people accountable for the demolition of the mosque. The then-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, who led the BJP government in the state, was held culpable for being “the essential component needed by the Sangh Parivar for its purposes… systematically and in a pre-planned manner removed inconvenient bureaucrats from positions of power, dismantled and diluted the security apparatus and infrastructure, lied consistently to the high court and the Supreme Court of India and to the people of India to evade constitutional governance and thus betrayed the confidence of the electorate”. Everyone learned that the demolition was a planned act or as one VHP leader boasted, “Without this planning how do you think we razed the masjid in six hours?” Only justice was not served.
For Babur, India held little charms except its “gold and silver and the weather after the monsoon” and he wanted to “set out immediately” once he had established his Empire. When Humayun, his eldest son fell ill in 1530, Babur prayed. It is said that through his prayer, Babur transferred his positive karma to his son, giving up his own life. Perhaps it was true. Not long after the “transfer”, Humayun recovered. Babur was buried in a garden in Agra and later disinterred and finally laid to rest in Kabul, Afghanistan (as he had wanted). There at Bagh-e-Babur (Babur Gardens), he rests among maple and fruit trees, pools of water, and lavish intricate ornamental-work. In India, it is yet to be established whether a Ram temple ever stood on the site of his mosque.
- 32 Years On: Revisiting The Shah Bano Judgement, Disha Chaudhari (2017, Feminism in India)
- Archaeology of Ayodhya, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeology_of_Ayodhya)
- Babur, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babur)
- Bagh-e-Babur, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardens_of_Babur)
- Conspiracy Against Babri Masjid, Dr Zakir Naik (https://archive.org/details/ConspiracyAgainstBarbriMasjid-Dr.zakirNaik)
- Fergana Valley, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fergana_Valley)
- History of Babri Masjid, The Popular Front of India (https://archive.org/details/HistoryOfBabriMasjid)
- India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha (2007, Harper Collins)
- Layers of Truth, R Prasannan (2003, The Week)
- Liberhan Ayodhya Commission Report, Ministry of Home Affairs (http://mha.nic.in/LAC)
- Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohd._Ahmed_Khan_v._Shah_Bano_Begum)
- On the Liberhan Commission, Mukul Dube (2009, Mainstream Weekly)
- The Hindus: An Alternative History, Wendy Doniger (2015, Speaking Tiger)
- VHP Dissects the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission Report, VHP (http://vhp.org/vhp-dissects-the-liberhan-ayodhya-commission-report/)
- Wine and Tulips in Kabul, The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/17723207)