New Delhi: Journalists who covered the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 remember the efficiency with which they were targeted. Cameras were broken, reporters attacked, and attempts made to divert everyone’s attention away from the scene of action.
If there is a graphic video footage of the demolition, it is thanks to the courage of some journalists, and a smart sound engineer who hid the tapes in a temple.
There were no 24x7 TV channels then; nor were there mobile phones; but there were video magazines.
Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha was in Ayodhya at the time, reporting for Newstrack, the monthly English video news magazine of the India Today Group. He’d been parked in nearby Faizabad’s Shaane Awadh hotel with his camera crew from 22 November. Sensing that the situation could escalate during the kar sewa, he convinced the editor, Madhu Trehan in New Delhi, to send another camera team. This, despite chief minister Kalyan Singh’s promise to the courts that he would not allow any damage to the mosque. Trehan agreed and dispatched Jha’s boss Manoj Raghuvanshi to Uttar Pradesh along with a team.
Another video magazine’s team was also there in Ayodhya. Seema Chishti was covering the issue for Eyewitness, the video news magazine edited by Karan Thapar for Hindustan Times Television. (HT Media Ltd is the publisher of Hindustan Times and Mint.)
By the time Raghuvanshi reached Ayodhya, around noon on 6 December, the crowds at the site had swelled to about 100,000, all draped in saffron or yellow, chanting Jai Shri Ram amid exhortations to destroy the mosque.
Raghuvanshi drove right into the mob. K ar sewaks (religious volunteers) were attacking anyone with a camera. They damaged the camera with Raghuvanshi’s team and burnt the car he was in, Jha remembers. He and his cameraman were also attacked, but they were rescued by security forces and locked up in a room in the Manas Bhawan dharmashala, which gave them a bird’s eye view of the disputed site.
“While most media ran for their lives, the two Newstrack teams hung on and shot everything,” Trehan says. “We caught on camera photographers and journalists being beaten, and bleeding.”
Reporters and cameramen with experience of covering riots say it was the first time that the media was at the receiving end of the right-wing frenzy. Upendra Pandey, who was covering Ayodhya for Dainik Jagran newspaper, remembers that the photographer for Hindi daily Rashtriya Sahara was so badly hurt that he had to undergo multiple surgeries and was bedridden for eight months.
Among the large number of foreign correspondents on the scene was Mark Tully of the BBC. He saw kar sewaks attacking journalists, besides having a brush with them himself.
“I was prodded with tridents by a mob when I tried to re-enter the city after filing the first report on the tragic events through telephone for BBC Radio. I cannot clearly recall, but that was probably among the first news that was sent out,” Tully says. Luckily, someone in the crowd recognized him.
There was method behind the madness, according to Chishti.
“The attempt to round up media people and remove them from the place of action, in hindsight, was a neat operation. Those who did not move were beaten up and their cameras broken. Our attention was diverted to the construction site where some sort of a shilanyas (foundation stone laying) had already happened. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was issuing passes to the construction site. The idea was to get us to leave,” recollects Chishti, who lost her still camera and was separated from her team in the melee, and had to take refugee in a shop selling sweets.
Jha agrees: “In Ayodhya, I am confident that they wanted to be sure that no one had any photographic evidence.”
When the situation went out of control, Central Reserve Police Force vans started rounding up media persons to take them back to Faizabad a few kilometres away. However, some journalists, including Pandey and Jha, covered themselves with yellow shawls, chanted Jai Shri Ram and mingled with the crowd to continue reporting.
“That was the only way we could get in,” recalls Pandey, who cycled back from Ayodhya to Faizabad after they couldn’t find their vehicles or drivers.
While newspaper journalists faxed their stories or dictated them over the phone, the video magazines had to exercise great care to protect their tapes. Trehan says Newstrack’s sound recordist Ashok Bhanot hid tapes under a priest’s bed in a temple and picked them up later.
Those invaluable tapes “brought the full story in the public domain”, she adds. The footage showed constables refusing to obey orders to stop people from destroying the mosque. Some officials and their wives drinking tea and eating biscuits as they watched the destruction, were also caught on camera.
The censor board banned Newstrack’s footage, but Trehan appealed the ban. “Justice B. Lentin ruled that not only should the tape not be banned, it should be required viewing for every citizen of India. And no, we did not market it. We lived in a world where ‘marketing’ violence was just not done,” she says.
Two decades on, Jha’s lingering memory is of the key leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party—Murli Manohar Joshi, Sadhvi Ritambhara, Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar—all sitting triumphantly atop the Ram Chabutra (a platform constructed slightly away from the Babri Masjid. Ram Mandir exponents used to address the kar sewaks from this platform).
Pandey stayed on in Faizabad for another four years after the demolition of the mosque as the bureau chief of Dainik Jagran’s new edition there.
Chishti still keeps in touch with the sweet shop owner who protected her from mob fury by hiding her in the basement of his shop.