Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinon | Babri anniversary: ‘It’s better if children are not afraid’

On a charged anniversary of destruction and death, a recollection of fear and fury from December 1992 in Old Delhi

Let me tell you a story about how memories have a way of remaining, how events have a way of reprising. Two days after the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was demolished on 6 December, 1992, I was in Pahari Imli, about two hundred metres south of the Jama Masjid. There was curfew here and everywhere in the area.

There was fear, but you wouldn’t always know it in these congested lanes and by-lanes behind the barricades. As I wrote for India Today, the newsmagazine where I worked at the time, children found enough place around steadily rising piles of garbage—curfew prevented the arrival of municipal cleaners—for games of ludo, hop-scotch, catch, cricket and carrom. “It’s better," my host Nasim Khan, a small-scale exporter of leather and dhurries told me, “if children are not afraid."

As for the elders, he had a quip: How could anyone feel safer with so many policemen around? Curfew hadn’t been as strict, I was told, since the Maliana massacre near Meerut in 1987. But he was afraid, Khan admitted, as did others. Matters had “moved from the head to the heart".

Everyone had braced for trouble in the face of a seemingly unstoppable break-Babri-build-Ram-temple wave of the preceding months. There could have been a blood-bath right here, had the Naib Imam of the Jama Masjid, Ahmad Bukhari, hadn’t displayed uncharacteristic diplomacy and taken only a few people with him to court arrest as a protest. Crowds could have led to heightened emotion.

There was anger at the demolition, at the government’s betrayal—doing nothing. And at the dismissal of the Supreme Court’s order of status quo on Babri claiming divine ordinance was driving the aggressive will of an emotionally wronged majority, or so the Babri charioteers claimed.

The situation was the worst since Partition, I repeatedly heard. A lecturer told me about being taunted in college, of his children returning home in tears, saying other children at school had said they should go to Pakistan.

As I walked through the by-lanes, crept over roof-tops to reach another mohalla, paramilitary troopers and police in riot gear screaming at me to get back in, past tea shops, provision stores, I heard snatches of conversation. “Did you see the pictures of BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) people courting arrest with smiling faces?" “They say that sadhvi, Uma, whatever her name is, and the other one (they meant Uma Bharti, currently union minister, and Sadhvi Rithambara), were embracing people when the Babri Masjid was being demolished."

And, even, that a sharp fielder like Mohammad Azharuddin dropped two simple catches; he must have been depressed about Babri. Whatever the truth of it, India had lost a one-day cricket match against South Africa on 7 December, in Cape Town. Azharuddin as captain had also scored an uncharacteristically off-colour 9.

Information was spreading. There was satellite and cable television. Khan’s college-going son Adnan (he attended St Stephen’s College) said that he told his orthodox friends: “Let them do what they want, as long as they leave Muslims in peace." But he didn’t really think the mosque would be demolished. When they mocked him now, he had “no answer".

But he would remain in India, he insisted. “This is my country. There’s no question of leaving it. Pakistan means nothing to me."

I tried to cheer him up. I told him that I’d heard from a colleague that the Shiv Sena chief in Varanasi—not the Sena chief in Mumbai, who had urged the demolition—had proclaimed there would be no trouble in that holy city. For, among other things, Hindus and Muslims had a symbiotic relationship in the area’s legendary fabric trade. For a while business would trump brutality.

See, I said, there are kites in the sky. Even on such clear days of horror there was never any curfew for kites.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.