Skip to content

5. Ram Janmabhoomi politics

5.1 V.P. Singh and Ayodhya

The centuries-old struggle over the Babri Masjid - Ram Janmabhoomi came in a critical phase on November 9, 1989, when the first stone of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir was laid, in a grand Shilanyas ceremony. The astrologers who had chosen the time, had clearly picked a very auspicious stellar configuration, for on the very same day, the Berlin wall was broken. Jay Dubashi wrote : “While a temple was going up in Ayodhya, a Communist temple was being demolished five thousand miles away in Europe” If this is not history, I don’t know what is.1

The actual construction had been announced for February, but then the VHP leadership decided to give the new prime minister V.P. Singh, who at that time enjoyed a lot of goodwill, four months time to work out an amicable agreement among all the parties concerned. During those four months nothing was done. At least, that is the impression among the public. Later, one of V.P. Singh’s aides was to come out in defense of his boss saying that a lot of consultations had taken place, but that a compromise was just not possible. And it is true : no compromise is possible between the demands of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and those of the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Babri Masjid Movement Co-ordination Committee.

In July 1990, well after the four months’ grace period had elapsed, the VHP announced it would start temple construction on October 30.

On August 7, V.P.Singh announced that his government was going to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report, giving 27% reservations in government jobs to the so-called Other Backward Classes (i.e. Castes). It was a surprise move, for which he had not even consulted his allies, the BJP and the Communist parties. The move was calculated to divide all other non-caste-based parties along caste lines, to attract the massive OBC vote bank (and prevent it from being hijacked by legitimate OBC leader Devi Lal), and last but not least, to divide the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Prime Minister V.P. Singh really did seek a compromise solution for the Ayodhya dilemma. Behind the screen, he had worked out an arrangement on October 15 to 18, which was divulged only after it had fallen through, by Arun Shourie2. The plan was that the disputed area would be acquired by the government. For further decision, it would be divided in the structure itself and the adjoining land including the Shilanyas site. The structure itself would be referred to the Supreme Court for determining its character. On the adjoining land, the VHP would be allowed to start building the Mandir. Since part of the land was private property, it could only be acquired through the Land Acquisition Act procedure, which would take at least three weeks even in an emergency formula. However, it could be acquired immediately under a special Ordinance.

On October 19, by 3 p.m., the formula was agreed upon by several ministers and leaders of the BJP, VHP, RSS. Then, V.P. Singh had a meeting with the Muslim leaders. So, at 5 p.m. he told his aides he had changed his mind : all the land considered disputed before the Allahabad High Court would be referred to the Supreme Court, and there was no question of handing over the Shilanyas area to the VHP. His law officer explained to him that once the government has acquired the land, all disputes about the land titles would end, so no further decision on the land surrounding the structure itself was needed. Nevertheless, that night the Ordinance came, without anything of the distinction between the structure and the surrounding land, which the prime minister himself had worked out and agreed upon with the VHP leaders.

The VHP felt it had been taken for a ride, and was furious. Nevertheless, the land had been acquired, so perhaps it was a very small step in the right direction (that is what L.K. Advani had to say about it). But the Muslim leaders, whom the prime minister had already tried to appease with his unilateral change in the Ordinance, were not appeased enough. That’s the way it goes with appeasement policies : the concession made is never the final concession. By October 21, they realized that this acquisition of property claimed as Waqf property could be a precedent for more such take-overs, and they didn’t want to take any chances. So they called on the prime minister. What happened there behind closed doors can be deduced from the outcome: the Ordinance, issued in the name of the President of India, was withdrawn.

Arun Shourie has made the point that V.P. Singh gave in twice to the pressure from such secularists as Imam Bukhari, when they threatened V.P. Singh with the prospect of the Muslim vote bank deserting him the way it had deserted Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.

One might also wonder if this agreement between the government and the BJP/VHP, which must have been in preparation for some time, has not also influenced the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. Could it be that when in September, the BJP threw its full weight behind the VHP campaign, and to an extent even took it over, it acted on the understanding that the government would allow the start of the temple construction from the Shilanyas site?

At any rate, this is the story of one of the most impressive episodes in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. BJP president L.K. Advani set out on a Rathyatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, where he would join in the Kar Seva, the actual bricklaying of the temple, on October 30. The trip took him through Gujarat, Maharashtra, a tip of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. Everywhere the popular response was massive and enthusiastic. No riots took place. In some places, caste riots that had been triggered by the Mandal plan, subsided. It seems that when Hindus utter the name Rama, they forget their differences.

From Delhi, Advani took the train to Bihar, and resumed his Rathyatra. Even in the sensitive tribal belt, the response was enthusiastic and not tainted by riots. But as Advani came nearer to the Uttar Pradesh border, the political fever was rising. Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had announced he would arrest mr. Advani as soon as he would enter the state. At the same time, behind the scene, he was challenging prime minister V.P. Singh to intervene. The latter finally obliged, via his political friend Laloo Prasad Yadav (Mulayam, while still a fellow partyman, was fast turning into a political enemy), the chief minister of Bihar. In the early morning of October 22, i.e. after the Ordinance plan had fallen through, L.K. Advani was arrested.

The BJP reaction was prompt. The party wrote to president Venkataraman that it withdrew its support from V.P. Singh’s minority government. It also announced an all-India strike (Bharat bandh) on October 24.

With the fall of the government now a certainty, the ruling Janata Dal fell apart. Dissidents led by Chandra Shekhar and Devi Lal, soon joined by Mulayam Singh Yadav, formed the Janata Dal (Socialist). V.P. Singh insisted on proving his majority in the Lok Sabha, on November 7, knowing that only a rump of some 90 Janata Dal MPs plus the Communists would support him. Chandra Shekhar started working out an arrangement for a JD(S) minority government supported by the Congress-I. For the first time, a government had to step down for its anti-Hindu policy.

5.2 Mulayam’s Emergency rule and Kar Seva

Meanwhile in Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav was playing it rough. He pre-emptively arrested all leaders of organizations involved in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In order to prevent Kar Sevaks from going to Ayodhya, he suspended all public transport in the state, blocked roads, and imposed curfew in a number of cities. House-to-house searches for hiding Kar Sevaks were carried out, the borders were sealed, and massive numbers of Hindus (as well as a number of Muslim Kar Sevaks) were jailed. The numbers cited vary between one and eight lakhs, which is a lot more than during the Emergency or the Quit India movement in the whole county.

On October 30, when according to Mulayam’s boast, no bird would be able to fly into Ayodhya, thousands of Kar Sevaks broke through the police defenses thanks to their sheer numbers (not through force of arms : hardly any policeman got hurt). A gate was actually opened by policemen, who later justified this action by saying it was the lesser evil in the circumstances, otherwise many people would have been killed.

Some Kar Sevaks climbed the domes and planted saffron flags there. The structure got damaged a little bit, far less than what the crowd could have done if it had really wanted to demolish it. Gradually, the police forces regained control and drove the Kar Sevaks out, arresting many, and killing about 10, others cite figures from 5 to 50.

On November 2, the Kar Sevaks came back. As they were sitting or standing in the narrow lanes near the Janmabhoomi site (secularists say they were slowly moving towards it), the police opened fire. According to press reports, it skipped the normal procedure of first warning, lathi-charge and teargas, shooting in the air, and ultimately shooting at the legs. Most of the dead bodies had bullet wounds in the head and chest. Well, hitting the legs without hitting the heads may have been difficult as the security forces were shooting from the rooftops.

The death toll is a matter of dispute, as many of the bodies have been carried off in Army vans, and unceremoniously disposed of in an unknown place. The papers said 9, or 17, or 25 at most. The Chief Minister said 16, and stuck to it. The official Home Ministry figures3 for the communal violence in 1990 mention 45 as the total death toll in Ayodhya, which implies that less than 30 got killed on November 2. But many local people, including eyewitnesses, say that several thousands have been killed. The BJP appealed to the president to depose Mulayam, and cited the figure of 168 people killed. Some days after, the VHP claimed it could substantiate a death toll of about 400, or as many as were killed by general Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh.

It has been briefly mentioned in a few press reports that some of the bullets found in dead or wounded Kar Sevaks’ bodies, were not of the kind the security forces normally use. Some people infer from this, that Mulayam or someone else who has a say in the deployment of the security personnel, had allowed minority snipers to take up positions and join in the shooting. It sounds a bit fantastic, but given the high criminalization of politics especially in Bihar and U.P., it is not entirely impossible. Then again, it is hard to imagine that legitimate security men would accept it and that none of them would have leaked out the precise facts, which we would have heard by now.

The prevalent explanation for the merciless shooting, is that the security men wanted (or had been told) to make up for their weak performance on October 30. That is not entirely convincing. It certainly does not explain why the prescribed steps before an actual shooting were not gone through. One can understand the police immediately resorting to shooting when it is attacked. But here, no-one has claimed that the Kar Sevaks were attacking the police and threatening their lives.

Could it be that the security men had received orders to be purposely ruthless, as a show of strength on the part of the Chief Minister ? Many Muslims seem to have appreciated his tough stand. Communist Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, had insisted that he be tough and unflinching. As Jay Dubashi has observed, with a Communist Chief Minister, not hundreds but thousands would have been shot.

At any rate, the Chief Minister would regret his ruthlessness. He became overnight the most hated man in Hindu India. With the split in the Janata Dal, he had to seek Congress support. The Congress, feeling it was massively losing popularity because of its non-opposition and now even support to Mulayam, started to put pressure on Mulayam to tone down his anti-Mandir stand, and to make goodwill gestures towards the Hindus. Even after a month of climbing down, Mulayam was still too controver-sial for Congress, and Rajiv Gandhi expressed the desire that Mulayam step down. Only because the Congress party was divided on the issue and very afraid of elections, could Mulayam stay on.

The general change of atmosphere made Mulayam suggests that a Mandir be built by the government, starting from the shilanyas site, but in such a direction as not to come in the way of the Masjid. That the Hindu claim was justified, even anti-Hindu politicians had come to concede.4 The question for them became: how, where and by whom can the temple be built without really antagonizing the Muslim ?

Rajiv Gandhi wrote a letter to brandnew prime minister Chandra Shekhar, to suggest that the historical and archaeological evidence on whether the Masjid had indeed replaced a Mandir, be considered as a decisive element in the Ayodhya solution. In practical terms : if experts agree that a Mandir had been destroyed to make way for the Masjid, then the government should treat the disputed site as a Hindu site. Still vague enough, and yet a remarkable departure from the earlier anti-historical position that the courts should decide (which meant that the issue had to be treated as purely an ownership dispute).

The government then invited the AIBMAC and the VHP to come forward and present the evidence for their respective cases. On December 23, the VHP submitted a carefully prepared argumentation full of exact references to authentic material, with 28 annexures. The AIBMAC submitted nothing but a pile of documents, with no explanation of how it proved what. Most of these documents were just recent newspaper clippings, statements of opinion by non-experts and outright cranks, and Court documents concerning legal disputes emanating from the situation created by force in 1528, totally irrelevant to the question what was on the site before the Masjid was built.

On January 6, both sides submitted rejoinders to the other party’s evidence. At least, that was what had been asked of them, but only the VHP had done so, The AIBMAC had nothing to offer but an even bulkier pile of documents without any proof value whatsoever. Since the AIBMAC had not even challenged the VHP documents with a formal rebuttal, the objective position was that it conceded the validity of the VHP evidence. Both the press and the Babri activists, who till a month before had been decrying the VHP’s “suppression of history in favour of myth” etc., now started downplaying the importance of the historical evidence. As N. Kunju put it : “History obscures, not clarifies.”5

Syed Shahabuddin, conveyor of BMMCC, declared that regardless of the evidence, the title suit had to be decided as such by the Allahabad High Court, even if the government would ask the Supreme Court for its opinion on the historical evidence. Apart from an admission of weakness on the historical evidence front, Shahabuddin’s demand was just tactics : the more forums deliberating on the issue, the more chance that one of them would go against the Hindu demand ; and if all of them go against the Muslim position, the Committees can always launch an agitation, as in the Shah Bano case. He also said he would not allow the rival AIBMAC to concede the Masjid. The AIBMAC itself declared that it would only concede the Masjid if proof was offered that Ram was born on that exact site.

Short, faced with the evidence that the Masjid had indeed forcibly replaced a Mandir, they just raised their demands and made it clear that this evidence talk was for them just a tactical device to keep the Hindus busy with everything except building the new Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir. But at least they had effectively conceded what everybody had known all along : that the Babri Masjid was one of the thousands of mosques built on destroyed Pagan temples.

With the scholarly contest about the historical evidence yielding only a firm historical conclusion, but not the concomitant political consensus to leave this Hindu sacred site to the Hindus, the matter was again down to its bare essentials : a power struggle.

On the ground, the VHP had taken to softer tactics. After the killing on November 2, in which many sadhus had also died, the feeling among at least the non-VHP leaders of the movement in Ayodhya itself, was to tread slowly and to avoid more of this mass martyrdom. Hinduism has no cult of martyrdom (to avoid the Islamic term shaheed, the Sanskrit word hutatma, “sacrificed self”, was used), and prefers to advance without this waste of human lives.

There were rumours that the Bajrang Dal had prepared a hit list of culprits for the massacre, who would have to be punished (after the Khalistani example). The rumour apparently sprung from a pamphlet in which the officers directly responsible for the massacre were mentioned by name. But it turned out that no police officers with those names existed. This ridiculous pamphlet incidentally does show to what a miserably low level even a movement for a just cause can stoop. The propensity to indulge in silly and reprehensible rumours is of course encouraged by the stress on emotionalism (quite different from the normal Hindu cool) and the lack of factual information and ideological education of which the Ram Janmabhoomi movement has suffered on some occasions.

Anyway, I have asked Vinay katiyar, Bajrang Dal leader, what the truth was of this hit list story : did activist Hindus think that a need for armed struggle had arisen ? He told me : Where is the need for hit lists, for revenge ? Mulayam will be boycotted by the people. We have the people on our side. It is only when you cannot count on the support of the people, that you have to take to assassinations. So, let them live, let them feel the anger of the people. We have no intention of turning murderers into martyrs.6

Some days after the massacre, the Hindu leadership in Ayodhya decided to organize a Satyagraha, with one thousand people courting arrest every day, from December 6 till January 15. But, as more people than one thousand per day volunteered to participate, the total number of people who courted arrest in those forty days was over two lakhs.

Meanwhile, on the political front the wind was turning. In different quarters, the mood was increasingly in favour of hijacking the Janmabhoomi movement rather than suppressing it. Alright, let the Mandir be built, but let us build it and take the credit. The Kar Seva campaign’s material success on the ground might have been limited, but that change in the mental atmosphere would be decisive for the further development of the issue. No matter who would lay the actual bricks of the Ram Mandir, the credit for that change of mood in favour of the Mandir certainly goes to the Ram Bhaktas who were there in Ayodhya in the autumn of 1990.

5.3 Reactions in neighbouring countries

In November 1989, Muslims in Bangla Desh destroyed more than 200 Hindu temples, on the pretext of reacting against the Shilanyas in Ayodhya. The government agreed to pay for the repairs of 10 of them. I have no information on how much it has paid already. Moreover, during this anti-Hindu violence, many women were raped, some people killed and many wounded, and many shops looted and burned down.

In November 1990, another forty or fifty temples were razed or burnt down in Bangla Desh. Or at least, those are the figures given by the secularist press. The Hindu-Buddha-Christian Oikya Parishad, the Bangla minorities’ association, reported that in the a village in Chittagong district more than fifty Hindu women had been raped, two killed, and that hundreds of temples had been damaged or burnt down.

Both the opposition parties and the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council of Bangla Desh have alleged a strong government involvement in the communal violence. They pinpointed ministers and leaders of the ruling party as having instigated the communal violence. More : “We directly blame the president for these heinous anti-human incidents… they were staged in a planned way under a blueprint in co-operation with law-enforcing agencies.”7

But the government indulged in the same anti-communal rhetoric as the Indian governments usually do : president Ershad declared that “the glorious tradition of communal harmony would be preserved at all costs and trouble-makers indulging in anti-social activities would be dealt with severely”.8 And it even got praise from the Indian secularists : “President Ershad acted firmly in handling the riots… The fact that Hindus were free to organize a protest march shows that the government had placed no curbs on such demonstrations.”9 I think it shows in the first place that Hindus had reason to protest.

You see, the secularists are like the followers of Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (a parody of Stalinism). When Big Brother has raised the prices, they hold a demonstration to thank him for lowering the prices. And when a Muslim government organizes pogroms against the Hindus, the secularists thank it for keeping communal harmony.

But Bangla Desh has not returned the compliment. On the contrary. General Ershad gave speeches attacking “a neighbouring country” for “hatching a conspiracy” and “inspiring destructive activities” etc. So far, no problem. But his deputy prime minister, Shah Moazzem “went a step further, questioning the identity, religion and citizenship of the people behind the disturbances [in opposition anti-government strikes]… Giving a call for resisting the designs of a neighbouring country, Shah Moazzem almost incited communal violence by calling upon people to identify the particular community, which, he said, is very easy.”10 Meanwhile, “the opposition parties, the United Minority Council and independent groups of lawyers, professionals and teachers have accused the government of organizing communal violence last month to distract the ongoing opposition movement”.

In Pakistan too, Muslims used the Ayodhya news as an occasion for temple-burning, rape, murder, and looting. The Indian secularist papers highlighted the Pak army intervention in Quetta (Baluchistan), in which two Muslim rioters were shot dead. However, in Dera Murad Jamali, “the police was unable to control the mob”, which ransacked fifteen shops belonging to Hindus and set a temple on fire. Little was said about the large-scale outbursts in sindh. In Latifabad and Hyderabad , at least three temples were destroyed, in neighbouring Siroghat the Rama Pir temple was looted and set on fire, etc. Islamic student organizations also took the occasion to attack a Christian school and church in Peshawar.

Of course, Pakistan didn’t take this as an occasion for being criticized (in fact, official India has only reacted to the Pak interference, but, as always, it has failed to criticize the persecution of Hindus). Rather, it was on the offensive, constantly feeding its citizens gory stories of a mosque being demolished and Muslims being oppressed by India’s Hindu government. So Pakistan lectured India about human rights, religious freedom, secularism. The Senate Committee on Religious and Minority Affairs took serious note of the desecration of the Babri Masjid in India, and referred to the Liaqat-Nehru pact, which promised safeguards to the minorities in both India and Pakistan. Adds commentator Aabha Dixit : “The committee, however, maintained a deafening silence on the need for Islamabad to fulfill its part of the obligation.”11

To the credit of the secularist People’s Union for Civil Liberties, it must be said that they have protested against Pak interference : “The Pakistani leaders must clearly understand that theirs is a theocratic state where religious and other minorities are denied fundamental freedoms including the freedom to worship…”12

In Nepal, the Hindu kingdom, some five Hindu temples were burnt down by Muslim gangs, who had probably come over from Bihar. No official protests from any side have been reported.

Some secularists have made a confession : “The trouble, both in Bangladesh and in Pakistan, might have been averted if the media had not played up the Ayodhya incidents in highly provocative and exaggerated tones.”13

Not that journalists have suddenly become modest and self-critical : these Indian journalist are just blaming their Pak and Bangla colleagues. However, it is they themselves who are most to blame for precisely those undeontological practices they mention. They themselves have highly provoked Muslims into action by telling them that a mosque (in fact mosque architecture functioning as a Hindu temple) was about to be demolished (relocated, was the BJP/VHP plan). And they themselves have exaggerated, to say the least, by describing the Hindus as extremists and even fascists, who systematically start riots against the wretched Indian Muslims. The disinformation on which the Pakistani Muslims have acted, was not only there in their own papers, but just as much in the Times of India or the Illustrated Weekly of India.

The following is quoted as an example of distorted reporting in Pak papers : A wave of anti-Muslim riots has engulfed all corners of India these days and more than 50 cities are under curfew. Despite this, however, Muslims are being killed mercilessly…14 In India, this is something of a standard secularist column phrase on riots (see ch.11). And Aabha Dixit adds a comment on Pak reporting : The headlines only refer to the desecration of the Babri mosque. There is never a mention of the Hindus who fall to police bullets. Replace headlines with editorials, and this describes the situation in Indian secularist papers.

It is not only the papers who have broadcast lies about Ayodhya. They were hand in glove with the secularist political establishment. As V.K. Malhotra, BJP national secretary, remarked : “The responsibility for what has happened in Pakistan and Bangla Desh is entirely that of the Union and U.P. governments. They have been making so much anti-Hindu propaganda on this issue that those countries are getting all the excuse for this.”15

Incidentally, for those who believe in SAARC and in Indo-Pak friendship, it may be interesting to hear the comment of Abdul Qayyum Khan, the president of Pak-occupied Kashmir. He said the controversy was “paying the way for a movement [in India] for an independent and liberated Islamic country within India”.16


  1. Organiser, 26/11/1989 ; also included in Hindu Temples : What Happened to Them. 

  2. “Arey bhai, Masjid hai hi Kahaan ?” meant for publication in Indian Express, but just then Shourie was sacked as its editor. The reason was not so much the article, but, apparently, his entire policy of including columns by Hindu communalists like Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, and his own articles that debunked some of the prevalent secularism, such as Hideaway Communalism. 

  3. Published in Sunday Observer, 30/12/1990. 

  4. For a real proof of the change in the atmosphere, this is what Chandra Shekhar said in Parliament, two weeks after the Ayodhya slaughter :“I am a Hindu… I am proud of being a Hindu… and because of tolerance to all other religions, I consider Hinduism superior.” (mentioned in a interview with him in Hindustan Times, 19/11/1990). The CPI has protested against this statement, because it implies that religions are not tolerant. Well, exactly. 

  5. Patriot, 11/1/1991. 

  6. Interview on 17/11/1990. 

  7. Pioneer, 10/11/1990. 

  8. Reported in Sunday, 11/11/1990. We also get the view of the Bangla Jammati Islami leader Maulana Abbas Ali Khan: “There is no scope for communal harmony.” 

  9. Northern India Patrika, 15/11/1990. Ershad was also held up for praise by Blitz columnist P. Sainath. 

  10. Pioneer, 23/11/1990. 

  11. Column in Sunday Observer, 25/11/1990. 

  12. Hindustan Times, 19/11/1990. 

  13. Northern India Patrika, 15/11/1990. 

  14. Sunday Observer, 25/11/1990. 

  15. Times of India, 2/11/1990. 

  16. Sunday Observer, 25/11/1990.