I was working for a weekly newspaper, Sunday Mail, back then. The paper went to press on Friday evening and my story for Sunday was to be filed by Friday afternoon. On the basis of whatever I had got from 30 November (when I had reached Faizabad/Ayodhya) and 4 December, my story (which was the lead) had said `Kar seva will mean construction' and detailed how the sadhus and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders had upped the ante.
But on Saturday afternoon, at a press conference, almost the very same people had assured that the kar seva would be symbolic and peaceful. I was worried – after all my story was going to be wrong! All the other dailies had that as the headline. Mine was going to be the only one that said trouble was afoot.
So I was a bit low on 5 December evening and 6 December morning. Journalists had been given I-cards to go to the top of Manas Bhavan, which overlooked the kar seva site. But with nothing happening, many of us wandered down and positioned ourselves around the kar seva site.
So when the first stones started being thrown at the Babri Masjid and it became obvious that there was going to be trouble, I was relieved (that my story wasn't entirely wrong) and excited. My first thought, I must admit, was `thank God my story is vindicated.' Vicarious, but true.
6am. 6 December. I woke up to the faint sounds of Jai Shree Ram and bhajans in Faizabad. Groups of kar sevaks with saffron headbands and scarves were trekking their way to Ayodhya, seven kilometres away. Faizabad residents were out on their balconies to encourage the kar sevaks and give them refreshments. There was a look of eager anticipation on all of their faces as they walked down the roads greeting each other.
In Ayodhya, the atmosphere was festive. I could hear the town before I reached it. Bhajans and Jai Shree Rams resounded through the town. On the streets, all I could see were saffron-splashed kar sevaks with large tilaks on their foreheads, some of them dancing on the roads. It was like Holi day when people go around in groups chanting ‘Holi hai’. One saffron-coloured mini bus with kar sevaks wound its way through the town with its loudspeaker playing the bhajan, "sri ram jai ram jai jai ram", followed by a jeep, full of policemen, some of them clapping their hands to the music.
The children in Ayodhya, sitting on the verandas of their houses, were also singing the bhajan. But amidst all this apparent goodwill, there was a discordant note. Some kar sevaks were shouting provocative slogans: "hamari ladayi kisse hai, Babar ke santhanon se" and "teen nahin ab teez hazaar, nahin rahegi koi mazaar".
10am. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi arrived in a cavalcade. As they got out of their cars, they were mobbed but managed to get to Ram Katha Kunj, from where they were to make their speeches.
Seen from atop Manas Bhavan (from where the journalists were to watch the kar seva), which adjoins the disputed structure, there was a carnival-like atmosphere at the complex. As if to match the sunny weather, the sadhus and sants were dressed in robes the colours of which ranged from canary yellow to deep saffron. On the platform (chabootra) built during the kar seva in July, a group of sants and mahants were performing a puja which was presided over by Jagadguru Shankaracharya Swami Basudevacharya Saraswati of Jyotishmath. Also on the platform were Mahant Ramchandra Das Paramhans, president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Mahant Avaidyanath and Ashok Singhal, the VHP leaders. To the far left, under tents, kar sevaks were lined up state-wise. They were supposed to march in that order to the kar seva site, carrying fistfuls of Sarayu mud, according to the programme decided upon. Rehearsals for this orderly programme had taken place on Saturday.
At one end of the disputed site, near the Sakshi Gopal Mandir, kar sevaks who were not included in this programme began straining at the iron barricades and pushing their way to the site. The PAC constables on duty and sadhus kept pushing them back. One tall, bearded, strapping sadhu, Abhiram Pehalwan, stood out among them, running after the unruly kar sevaks, slapping them, hitting them with a lathi, catching them by the scruff of their collars and literally dragging them out of the area.
The barricade finally gave way and the kar sevaks danced their way in amidst cheers and whistles. Chanting Jai Shree Ram and shouting slogans of "mandir vahin banayenge", they danced, some doing the Amitabh Bachchan jig for the benefit of the photographers. The sadhus tried to get them to sit down but in vain. Finally they appealed to the photographers to leave in order to help them maintain discipline. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers in their khaki half-pants were then brought in to make the kar sevaks leave, but even they had to give up. They began repairing the iron barricades instead. Peace seemed to have been restored.
11.30am. RSS volunteers, wearing bright yellow headbands, rushed in and cleared the place of kar sevaks in seconds. But at the barricades, there were heated arguments between the two groups. The mood had turned ugly and tense.
Just then, a group of swamis entered the area. The unruly kar sevaks rushed back along with them. This time, some were carrying bricks and iron rods. They had scuffles with
RSS workers who warned photographers not to take pictures. Utter chaos prevailed. Some sadhus, Abhiram Pehelwan again the most prominent, began hitting out at the mob, snatching lathis from PAC constables and using them. But it was clear that the situation had gone beyond control. The PAC deployed there stood watching impassively as did the CRPF jawans in the security corridor leading to the Babri Masjid.
11.50am. Debabrata Thakur of the Anandabazar Patrika, a Swiss journalist (Bernard Imhalsy, as I was to learn later) and I were watching all this from a mound next to the security corridor, which was barricaded by steel rods. Suddenly we heard a clattering sound. "They're stoning the masjid," said Debu, and we rushed there slipping through the barricades and past bemused CRPF jawans. As we reached the masjid wall, we saw the first of the kar sevaks clambering on to the building.
12 noon. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled kar seva was to begin, many more were climbing the hillock on which the masjid was situated from the sides and the back. When we reached the exit arch in the outer wall, the kar sevaks had already gained entry. CRPF and PAC jawans tried to hit them with lathis, but it proved ineffective. The force was hopelessly outnumbered.
A trembling senior superintendent of police, D B Rai, panic writ large on his face, was saying to no one in particular, "fire tear gas, fire tear gas". As we went in through the gate, the kar sevaks had climbed on to the dome to the sounds of cheering. The women CRPF constables rushed out first, all of them looking scared. As I went in to get photographs of kar sevaks on the dome, all Debu could say was, "Seetha, take off your shoes."
Within minutes, the CRPF gave up the fight. The video camera there was overturned and smashed. The constables came out with their cane shields and ran down the stairs. A CRPF jawan's shoe came hurtling past my ear. Debu got hit on his hand by a brick. We took cover behind the CRPF shields and rushed down. All of us were quickly taken to the adjoining Sita ki Rasoi complex where the police control room was stationed.
We went up to the terrace and watched the street separating the building from the masjid complex. The street and the open ground in front of the masjid were teeming with kar sevaks. All one could hear were whistles and Jai Shree Rams, as saffron flags were put up on the central dome. Kar sevaks jumped and danced around.
Operation Demolition now got underway. Pick-axes and stone breakers (iron rods) with which the kar sevaks had come prepared, were used to attack the structure. Some kar sevaks started tearing down the steel rods and barbed-wire fencing at the bottom of the hillock, and the uprooted poles, bricks and so on were being used as crude implements. CRPF posts were tossed down like toys. Ropes were tied to the by-now heavily damaged outer wall and sections of it were pulled down by those below the hillock. Every time a portion came down, there was wild rejoicing.
Anybody and everybody pitched in – the young and the middle-aged, jeans-clad youth and half-clad sadhus. But they all had the same frenzied look on their faces as they destroyed or cheered the destroyers on.
Ayodhya residents, the less active kar sevaks and the inactive police watched the proceedings from the open ground behind Sita ki Rasoi and from their rooftops. Many of them, including journalists, were on the terrace of this complex. When I was talking to BJP MP Brigadier Khanduri (who later became the chief minister of Uttarkhand), a woman kar sevak saw me taking notes and threatened me with a brick, asking me to leave.
After this, all the journalists present had to put their notebooks away and pretend to be kar sevaks, wherever possible. Cameras had already been put away.
S C Dixit, BJP MP from Varanasi who has now been entrusted with the task of enquiring into the violence, was there. The parents of the Kothari brothers from Calcutta, who had hoisted the saffron flag on the masjid in 1990, were also present.
So were the tense police and administration officials who went into a huddle. "Tear gas karen ya firing," one asked. "Firing nahin," said another before he noticed nosey reporters surrounding them and shamelessly eavesdropping. They moved away. More journalists had come in for shelter, most of them photographers and film crew who had been attacked. Everyone sat around glumly, making plans to get out and reach Faizabad.
2.45pm. There was a rumbling sound followed by wild cheering. The first dome had fallen. The wanton destruction went on. One could just about make out individual sounds – metal striking stone, stone striking stone, metal striking metal, whistles, bhajans, speeches on the microphone. The combined din was unbearable. An hour later, the second dome fell. The cheering grew louder. Injured kar sevaks were being taken out.
Meanwhile, Advani and Vijayaraje Scindia, who were watching the events from the terrace of the Ram Katha Kunj building which overlooks the open ground, appealed to the kar sevaks over the microphone, asking them to leave the complex. No one paid any heed. However, between their speeches, Sadhvi Rithambara read out an incendiary poem from the same platform asking the kar sevaks to raise clenched fists and repeat the chorus after her. She got a vociferous response. An hour earlier, another woman on the mic, presumably Uma Bharti, had exhorted kar sevaks to squat on the roads leading to Faizabad so that central forces would not be able to reach Ayodhya. There did not appear to be any attempt to restrain them.
The journalists were hungry. One woman reporter went out with a policeman and got some fruits. Others wrapped saffron scarves and went to the nearby Manas Bhavan, where a langar was on, to get puris and alu. There the kar sevaks and those doling out the food were asking one another, "How much has fallen?” It was like following a cricket match.
A kar sevak from Madras brought a message that three foreign journalists had taken shelter with them in a nearby dharamshala. A police escort was sent to bring them back.
4.45pm. The central dome fell. There was unlimited, uninhibited jubilation. People danced around in joyous abandon. There was a look of ecstasy on all faces. Two kar sevaks hugged each other and cried. Their friend had died during the 1990 kar seva. "Jis kaam ke liye aaye the voh ho gayee," people said. "Mubarak ho," they greeted one another. It was all over.
An hour later, the journalists holed up in Sita ki Rasoi were escorted out and into CRPF trucks and taken back to Faizabad.
This piece was originally published in the Sunday Mail on 13 December, 1992, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.
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