On the morning of 2 November 1990, Mahendra Tripathi, a photojournalist, was forcibly confined to a room by his family, who were adamant that he must not leave the safety of the house. Tripathi found himself torn between conflicting duties.
His professional commitments beckoned him to step outside, but his mother and wife feared for his life.
It was a tumultuous period in Ayodhya and lakhs of young men from across the country had converged in the town, answering the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) call to volunteer in their campaign to reclaim Ram Janmabhoomi.
These volunteers, known as 'karsevaks', were there to contribute physical labour towards the construction of the Ram Temple on a site historically revered by Ayodhya's residents as Lord Ram's birthplace, upon which a mosque had been built by Babur's Army in 1528.
The VHP had adopted the term 'Karseva' from the Sikh tradition that emphasises physical service in the upkeep of their religious shrines.
Three days prior, on 30 October, a highly charged incident occurred when police opened fire at karsevaks. This day was marked by contention, as the state government had prohibited the annual parikrama around the Ram Janmabhoomi site, declaring that ‘not even a bird would be allowed to breach Ayodhya’s borders’.
In response, thousands of karsevaks vowed not only to enter Ayodhya and walk to the site, but also to hoist saffron flags atop the domes of the Babri mosque, affirming Hindu ownership of the location.
The official death toll from the 30 October 1990 firing stands at 16, but this figure has always been met with scepticism by residents and local journalists, who estimate the actual number to be considerably higher.
Tripathi, who narrowly missed being hit by the gunfire himself, was forced to return home without covering the aftermath that day, as a curfew was swiftly imposed in the town.
An even more critical incident was anticipated on 2 November.
The day was Karthik Poornima, a major religious day for devotees of Lord Ram. The VHP and its volunteers were once again determined to defy the government's restrictions.
"If something happens to you, what will become of me?" Seema, Tripathi's wife, asked him.
But Tripathi longed to be in the streets. His motivation was twofold: as a dedicated journalist and a devout ‘Rambhakt’.
“As a journalist, sitting at home like a coward when a monumental event was unfolding in Ayodhya was unbearable,” he recalls, and continues, “As a Rambhakt, I felt it was my solemn responsibility to capture any police misconduct, preserve these accounts for historical record, and be a source of information for the families of karsevaks who were risking everything in Ayodhya."
By noon, he had found a way to leave his house. He discreetly gathered his two trusted cameras — a Pentax and Yashica MF-2 — and made his exit. He headed straight to Ram Jammabhoomi, certain that it would be the epicentre of the day's events.
Navigating through the town and evading police, he arrived at the Lal Kothi area near Hanuman Garhi temple. There, he encountered a macabre scene: numerous young men sprawled on the ground amidst pools of blood.
Recalling the gruesome details, he says, "There were bodies with missing heads, legs, and hands, all shot at with bullets. It was the most horrific sight I had ever witnessed."
To his dismay, Tripathi recognised two of the victims. They were Ram and Sharad Kothari, brothers who had come from Kolkata. Just three days earlier, he had briefly met them.
The brothers were exuberant, enthusiastically chanting 'Ram naam.' During their short interaction, Tripathi learned they belonged to the Marwari community, their parents were Hiralal and Sumitra Kothari, and they had a sister, Poornima, whose wedding was scheduled for December.
Ram lay with a gruesome head injury, while Sharad was upside down, his chest bleeding profusely. After photographing the bodies, Tripathi's thoughts turned to how he would break this tragic news to their parents.
Just then, a helicopter appeared overhead. There was a speculation among the locals that it was carrying then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was allegedly directing the firing on the karsevaks in real time.
Tripathi hastily left the site, seeking a vantage point to photograph the helicopter. He soon reached the Babri mosque and positioned himself behind it, lying on the road to take a picture.
Before he could snap, two gunshots rang out nearby. Two sadhus close to him were fatally shot right before his eyes. As they collapsed, bloodied, Tripathi found himself paralysed with fear. He remained flat on the ground alongside them, unsure of his next move.
Two CRPF personnel arrived, starting to move the sadhus' bodies to a vehicle. They also picked up Tripathi, one holding his arms and the other his legs. Just as they were about to throw him into the vehicle, Tripathi yelled out - "I am alive!"
The next instant, the jawans were interrogating him angrily. "Who are you? Why do you have a camera?". Tripathi quickly identified himself as a photojournalist. "Does a bullet spare journalists? Leave this area at once," they yelled at him.
Tripathi hastily departed from the scene, his intention to photograph the helicopter unachieved.
Just meters from his home, he encountered another horrific scene — a police chowki had been set ablaze by a furious mob of Karsevaks. They seemed to be aggressively searching for policemen to vent their fury on. Tripathi witnessed a man being burned alive.
"I couldn't tell who he was. It seemed like a policeman set on fire by karsevaks. I just ran away," he recounts.
Upon his return home, Tripathi's wife hugged him amid tears, relieved he had come back alive. Tripathi announced another startling decision — he would leave for Lucknow by train immediately.
Making it to Lucknow that day was a daunting task. It was already six in the evening, and a curfew blanketed large parts of the town. Most train services had been cancelled.
In those days, Ayodhya did not have any facility to process colour photographs. Whenever such a need arose, photographers would travel to Lucknow to get the job done.
As a photojournalist, Tripathi's work was unpredictable. Opportunities in Ayodhya were sparse, and income came only when the photographs got published in newspapers. Tripathi worked freelance, contributing to multiple print outlets including the esteemed Hindi daily, Dainik Jagran.
Like his peers, he primarily earned his living by taking pictures of tourists at the Ram Janmabhoomi site. A popular pose for these photos was people seemingly touching the tip of the domes.
The business operated on a model where visitors paid for their photographs, which were then mailed to them a week later. “I would make weekly trips to the colour lab in Lucknow,” he explains.
Tripathi's photo studio, Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Studio, operational since 1982, had a competitive edge. He had formed a partnership with Mahesh Narayan Singh, head of the Ayodhya unit of VHP that time. Both men operated from tiny offices located just outside the Janmabhoomi.
Tripathi became the designated photographer for all VHP events, from events featuring then VHP president Ashok Singhal in Ayodhya to visits by dignitaries. He made a substantial income. Through his VHP connections, he also secured a much-sought-after entry pass to the heavily guarded Babri mosque-Ram Janmabhoomi site.
On the evening of 2 November, Tripathi managed to board a train to Lucknow only at 7pm. He anticipated that the lab would be closed by his arrival by 10pm.
Determined, he decided that he would wake up the lab owner and persuade him to process his photos. He requested his newspaper to reserve a space for his pictures.
Normally, newspaper editions are finalised at midnight, with no further changes. However, given the circumstances, the newspaper's editor agreed to keep 12 slots open for Tripathi's photos of the firing and deceased karsevaks, and even offered to stay late until Tripathi delivered the images.
Tripathi’s plan was successful. Around 2am, he handed over the images to the newspaper. After spending a brief period writing captions, he caught the next train back to Ayodhya, arriving home by 6am.
The first thing he did was to check the day's edition of Dainik Jagran. There, to his relief, were his photographs. "I felt a profound sense of duty fulfilled,” he says. “I had shown the world the truth of that harrowing day, and I hoped that the families of those karsevaks would come to know what really happened.”
The following weeks were challenging for Tripathi. The haunting images and memories of the event often caused him to wake up sweating in the middle of the night. It took several months before he could return to a sense of normalcy.
The following year, on the same day of Karthik Poornima, Tripathi met the family of the Kothari brothers. Hiralal, Savitri and Poornima visited Ayodhya, pledging to return to the site every year until a temple was built. A photograph from 1991, showing the parents in his studio, can be seen below.
Tripathi lost his studio a year later. Following the events of 6 December 1992, when karsevaks demolished the Babri structure, the state government acquired the 2.77-acre Ram Janmabhoomi site. All commercial establishments in the area were demolished.
After the loss of his studio, Tripathi stepped away from photojournalism. He shifted his focus to writing and eventually became the editor of a local newspaper.
In the decade that followed, Tripathi's photographs gained significant popularity.
His poignant images of the slain karsevaks were widely utilised by the VHP to garner public empathy and bolster their campaign for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The VHP organised exhibitions across the country showcasing his photographs, and Tripathi states he did not accept any payment for them.
His photographs from the archaeological excavations at the Janmabhoomi site, taken between 1982 and 1992, served as vital evidence supporting the VHP's case for constructing a Ram temple at the contested site.
He also appeared in court as an eyewitness for various cases in the 90s, including the Babri demolition. He confesses he aligned himself with Rambhakts.
With the construction of the temple finally underway and Ayodhya attracting unprecedented attention, Tripathi frequently features on news channels.
Incidentally, it’s not for his coverage of police firing but for his interview of Narendra Modi during his first visit to Ayodhya in 1991. At that time, Modi was a BJP worker, accompanying Murli Manohar Joshi.
Tripathi asked Modi when he would return to Ayodhya, to which Modi responded that it would be only after commencement of the temple's construction.
This story has recently regained popularity as Modi, now Prime Minister, prepares to return to Ayodhya for the temple's 'pran pratishtha' ceremony on 22 January. "I exclusively reported that story," Tripathi, now 65, says with pride.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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