In the bustling streets of Ayodhya, near the iconic Naya Ghat chauraha that was renamed last year to Lata Mangeshkar Chowk, Vasudev Gupta owned a small but beloved tea and sweets shop, charmingly named 'Tinkle Mishthan Bhandar' after his daughter.
In the last week of October in 1990, tens of thousands of religious volunteers from across the country were in Ayodhya on a mission to reclaim Ram Janmabhoomi (Lord Ram’s birthplace).
The site had been a focal point of centuries-old communal strife due to a mosque erected over an ancient temple by Babur’s army in 1528.
The volunteers were called ‘karsevaks’, which literally translates to those who render service through hands. The term derives from the Sikh tradition, according to senior members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a prominent Hindu organisation that took the struggle for Ram Janmabhoomi nationwide in that pivotal year.
One day, Gupta, 45, was serving tea and snacks to karsevaks when he was stung by a comment he heard in the streets — that locals of Ayodhya were busy running their businesses and making money while “outsiders” were fighting for the temple.
The words struck an instant chord with him. Determined to prove his commitment, Gupta pledged to join the karsevak rally the next day — 30 October 1990.
The VHP had appealed to karsevaks to assemble at the Janmabhoomi site that day in large numbers in a show of defiance against the Samajwadi Party-led state government.
The day was Shukla Paksh Ekadashi as per Hindu calendar, when lakhs of residents of Ayodhya and nearby districts take out an annual parikrama of an area encompassing the Janmabhoomi. It’s a tradition that predates the construction of the Babri structure.
The local administration, on orders of the state government, had announced the cancellation of the parikrama, fuelling widespread resentment.
The VHP’s call to action was to assemble at the disputed site and offer to be arrested and sent to jail.
Gupta decided not only to join the impending mass rally but also persuade his neighbours to participate.
A year ago, a ‘shilanyas’ (foundation stone-laying ceremony) was carried out for a Ram temple at a spot near the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri site.
Ahead of the ceremony, the VHP had stirred a nationwide movement in support of the temple by appealing to devotees of Lord Ram to send bricks for building the temple.
Lakhs of bricks arrived at the VHP office in Ayodhya. Local journalists say the offerings included bricks made of gold and silver.
Three years before the shilanyas, which proved to be a momentous step in the Ram Janmabhoomi struggle, the iron gates of the Babri structure were unlocked on the orders of a local court.
The development had come after a series of campaigns launched by the Mahants of various Ayodhya-based akharas and ashrams demanding the locks be opened so the devotees could offer puja to a murti of Lord Ram seated under the central dome of the structure.
The locks were in place since 1949, with restricted permission given only to a few pujaris to conduct daily rituals for the murti (idol).
Former head of Nirvani Ani Akhara in Ayodhya, Mahant Dharam Das, said he was part of the ‘Tala Kholo Abhiyan’ launched in the mid-1980s.
“Many of us Mahants and other prominent people of Ayodhya started for Delhi with the singular aim of meeting Indira Gandhi [then prime minister] and demand opening of the locks,” he recalls, and adds, “but she died when we were on the way.”
“The news reached us when we were somewhere around Lucknow,” he says. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984.
The group returned to Ayodhya and called off the campaign.
Two years later, Indira Gandhi’s son and newly appointed prime minister Rajiv Gandhi gave a go-ahead to the opening of the locks of the Babri mosque following a court order, amid communal polarisation spurred by his decision of overturning the Supreme Court ruling on the famous Shah Bano case, in a move widely seen as an attempt to placate the conservative Muslim ulema.
It was around this time that the VHP got deeply involved in the campaign.
When the locks opened, residents of Ayodhya celebrated for a month. Sheetla Prasad Pandey, a resident, says that people from every colony of Ayodhya went to worship the murti in turns, and the trend continued for a month. “It was like a month-long mela [fair],” he said.
Gupta, however, had been quite indifferent to these developments, recalls his daughter Seema, now 38. “As a father of four children, his entire focus was on running the household."
On 30 October 1990, Gupta kept his shop closed. He had spent the previous evening meeting his neighbours to convince them to offer karseva and join him for a walk to Ram Janmabhoomi, about 3 kilometres away.
Unbeknownst to karsevaks, the government had deployed armed forces authorised to kill.
Tragedy struck when the procession, led by Gupta, neared the Ram Janmabhoomi, and the police opened fire on the karsevaks.
The violence claimed the lives of at least 16 people that day. It was a prelude to further bloodshed just three days later, which would raise the death toll to nearly 50.
Gupta sustained three bullet wounds. Seema says he was the first to die that day and shared haunting images of her father's bullet-ridden body.
Sushil Kumar Pandey, who lived near Sundar Sadan colony of Ayodhya at the time, witnessed the killing. He was an undergraduate student.
"I saw a procession being led by a man. The procession were chanting slogans for Lord Ram. Paramilitary forces were deployed at the spot," he recalls. "A CRPF man hit straight at the man. I saw it. My father, who was watching the scene with me, screamed — he is my student, Vasudev!"
Gupta had been a student of Pandey's father in college. For Pandey, the death suddenly became a personal loss. "I felt extreme sadness. I could not sleep for days," he says.
The next moment, he watched Gupta's body being taken away from the spot by locals. Pandey, who went on to become a journalist and presently works for a newspaper called Rashtriya Sahara, reported extensively about the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the coming decade, particularly a terror attack in 2005.
That year, a group of heavily armed militants broke the barricades of the Ram Janmabhoomi premises and blasted the explosive-laden vehicle they had come in, aiming to blow up a makeshift Ram temple that karsevaks had built after razing the Babri mosque in 1992.
After Gupta's death, his family was plunged into chaos. Gupta’s wife, Shakuntala Devi, raced to the site upon hearing of the shooting, only to discover that her husband's body had been taken away for post-mortem examination to the adjoining Faizabad town.
The family was ultimately denied a final reunion with him in Ayodhya. Shakuntala Devi attended his funeral in Faizabad, the only one from the family in attendance.
In the aftermath, the Gupta household saw a series of visits from VHP and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. From L K Advani, the family received a grant of Rs 10,000.
Shakuntala refused an offer of compensation from then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who stated in several interviews before his death in October 2022 that he had no regrets about ordering fire on karsevaks.
In the coming days, the family was forced to close the sweets shop. Shakuntala found herself at a crossroads. She eventually opened a clothing shop, specialising in scarves and shawls bearing ‘Ram naam’ inscriptions, with the help of her parents. The children's education was cut short.
Their challenges were far from over. A year later, a menacing letter, allegedly from Islamist militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, arrived at their doorstep, according to Seema.
It was a four-page typed letter on A4 size white paper, marked with a thick red stamp that bore the name ‘Hizbul Mujahideen’. Written in Devanagari script but with heavy use of Urdu words, the letter said the family must be prepared to lose another man.
The holy river Sarayu would be renamed to Sharifa and Ayodhya would be renamed to Ayubabad in due course of time, the latter warned.
Seema says her mother showed the letter to the police and the administration, but the family was left to face their fears alone.
Seema says she still has the letter, but it was misplaced during the process of moving house.
Two decades after Gupta's death, the family mourned the premature deaths of two of Seema’s siblings, owing to illnesses.
Her mother, Shakuntala Devi, passed away in 2014.
Seema married recently. Her sister has been married for several years, and her brother, Sandeep, recently landed a job at the under-construction Ram Janmabhoomi temple at a monthly salary of Rs 10,000.
Three years ago, the house where Gupta lived, just outside which he ran his shop, was demolished by the administration for road widening to make way for more pilgrims to the holy city. The family used the compensation to buy a house about a kilometre away from the Naya Ghat chauraha.
The new house is marred by an overwhelming presence of monkeys. While monkeys are a common sight in Ayodhya, this colony looked desolate as if only inhabited by monkeys.
Seema said the area has so many monkeys that all the houses that can afford it have put grills all around the structure. They always keep windows and doors closed. Conversations with neighbours, as a result, is nearly non-existent.
She says it’s a marked change from their earlier house which was situated on a busy road, but she has adjusted to the new life now.
Last month, she filed a case against her father’s step-siblings for getting the family’s clothes shop demolished. The shop was spared by the administration on humanitarian grounds.
Her father, an only child, lost his mother early, and his father's subsequent children from another marriage never bonded well with him, she says.
Despite her efforts and appeals to the authorities, Seema's quest for justice continues. She says she wants to save the shop as it is the family’s last remaining bond with her father.
Meanwhile, the Ram temple trust, recognising her father's sacrifice, invited her to the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony in 2020. She hopes for an invitation to the temple inauguration on 22 January.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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