A view of Ayodhya (Photo: Bloomberg)
A view of Ayodhya (Photo: Bloomberg)

Opinion | Ayodhya 2003: Uncovering what lay beneath

An account of a visit to Ayodhya by the first mainstream journalist to report evidence of a Hindu structure underneath the Babri mosque

In early May 2003, I received a call from a man I had never heard of before. He introduced himself as the brother of a late relative of mine by marriage, based in Faizabad (now renamed Ayodhya). In March that year, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court had ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to excavate the land on which the Babri Masjid had stood from 1528 till 6 December 1992, to check claims that a huge Ram temple had existed there before the mosque was built. The caller knew that I was a journalist at Outlook magazine, and asked if I would be interested in visiting the site and reporting truthfully on what the ASI team was discovering.

I was certainly interested, and my editor Vinod Mehta immediately agreed and told me to go ahead, with the astute advice that I discuss this with no one else in the office. Vinod was a proudly self-confessed “pseudo-secular", but first and foremost, a journalist. So a few days later, I flew to Lucknow, drove down to Faizabad, and checked into the Shaan-e-Avadh Hotel. I knew that photography was strictly prohibited at the site, and cameras were not allowed. I had decided to try my luck with a camera-loaded cellphone (I had to borrow one, because in those days, only very high-end phones had cameras), but one look at the thorough body searches being carried out at the entry to the site, and I left the phone with my driver.

The ASI had turned the area around the now-long-gone mosque into a grid of 4m by 4m trenches, each trench separated from the adjacent one by metre-long strips. Aluminium ladders extended into the trenches. Every find in every trench was being photographed, and the recovery, packing and sealing process videographed. But this was all concealed from the public. The common people—mostly darshanarthis (pilgrims)—reached the makeshift structure (at the heart of the razed mosque), where an idol of Ram Lalla sat, through a long cage-like serpentine corridor that wound through the excavation site. The steel rods of the cage prevented people from entering the excavation site, and the cage walls were covered from roof to ground with dark-red curtains, so one couldn’t see what was going on outside, just a few feet away. And there were policemen patrolling the corridor to make sure no one was peeping.

As I ambled down the narrow cage, I kept watch on the policemen. Every time I saw one disappear round a corner, I would tear the curtains apart—they had been roughly stitched together, as far as I remember—and look out. I had no idea when the next cop would appear, but I knew I had a maximum of a minute or two every such chance I got. Even then, what I managed to see through these sneak peaks was very interesting. I possibly spent an hour in that tunnel. Over the next two days, I met activists, lawyers and observers nominated by the litigants—every evening, the ASI handed over a list of the day’s findings to the observers. My article appeared as Outlook’s cover story a week later.

Re-reading that cover story today, I am surprised that it caused a furore at the time. It seems quite impartial to me—I had balanced every pro-Ram temple interpretation of the archaeological discoveries with a counter-argument. The only really exciting artefact I had mentioned was a recently discovered stone slab which seemed to have the Hindu sacred sign “swoaham" and “Ram" inscribed on it in early Devanagari script. In this case too, I had carried the deniers’ view. In fact, when I returned to Lucknow, on my way back to Delhi, I discovered that the city editions of national newspapers had been carrying the list of ASI discoveries every day on some inside page, and the artefacts on every list were overwhelmingly of Hindu origin. What I had written must have been common knowledge among Lucknow journalists, but due to laziness or ideology, they had never given it any play. Whatever the reason, I thought it was poor—if not unethical—journalism. So all I had done was bring something which was well-known locally into the national limelight—that it was quite evident that there had been an older (and much larger) Hindu structure under the Babri mosque. I had not even said that it was a temple.

After the story was published, among others, the historian Irfan Habib wrote to Vinod, denouncing it. I think there was even a meeting called at the Delhi Press Club addressed by some leftist historians. I came to know that some colleagues in Outlook were badmouthing me in the media fraternity. I had to inform Vinod about this, since I believed it was bad for the magazine’s image, and Vinod called in the political bureau and told them to cease and desist. A few months later, the ASI submitted its report to the court. Vinod called in the political bureau again and told them that the report confirmed everything that I had written, so they should really shut up.

That May afternoon, when I came out of the Ram Lalla tunnel into the blazing Ayodhya sunshine, where shopkeepers were doing brisk business in puja-related items and Ram-Sita souvenirs and paraphernalia, from little idols to music cassettes, an elderly lady stood in the middle of the street, screaming obscenities at the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The theme of the rant was that it was 11 years now that the dhaancha (structure) had been destroyed and there was still no bhavya (grand) temple in sight. The shopkeepers were grinning—this was a daily occurrence, they told me, and they could almost set their watches by her arrival.

The next day, I saw the scale model of the envisaged grand temple, and visited a yard where the components of the temple were all built and stacked—sculpted pillars, stone slabs. It was like a giant machine, all its parts ready to be assembled. Well-built young men with tilaks on their foreheads stood around, exuding icy calm and an air of quiet efficiency. We are waiting for the call, and when it comes, we can have the temple up in days, they said. I met several extremely interesting men, including one who claimed to have been part of a team that had placed an idol of Lord Ram under the central dome of the mosque in the dead of night in 1949, leading to the locking of the compound’s gates (which were unlocked by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to assuage Hindu sentiments after the Shah Bano episode).

One of the sants I met told me: “People think of Ayodhya only as a holy place. But it has always been a city of warriors. Look around you and see what the localities are called—Laxman Qilla, Hanuman Garhi, Chhoti Chawni. This is where Kshatriya dharma resides." I did

not write about many of these conversations then, and some I won’t write about even today.

Many years later, years after I had quit Outlook, Vinod, who had just retired after nearly two decades as editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine, was asked by an interviewer whether he regretted carrying any story in it. He said that there was only one—a cover story on the Ayodhya excavations. I felt deeply honoured to be given that special recognition by an editor I had respected so much.

Close