The illiberal “new” India’s foundations were laid with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed.
IRFAN ENGINEER | Caravan Daily
THE demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the communal violence that followed in several places propelled India rightward like never before.
Communalism is a political ideology that seeks to treat a religious community as a political community and establish an authoritarian state by imposing a sectarian hierarchical culture over the populace and polarising citizens along religious identities. Violence, along with the spreading of myths and prejudices against “others”, is a tool to achieve the goals of the proponents of that ideology.
Communal violence is what facilitated the Shiv Sena’s ascendance to power in Maharashtra in 1995. Bal Thackeray, who led his sainiks during the riots, and the 31 police officers who were named in the Srikrishna Commission Report for their misdemeanours during the communal violence in which more than 900 people were killed, all went unpunished. The 31 police officers were not only let off—some of them after a farcical trial—but promoted. After his death, Thackeray, a private citizen, even received a state funeral and a gun salute.
There have been larger riots in the country in which more people were killed, including Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh) in 2013. Orchestrating communal violence, spouting hate against minorities and winning elections have become a pattern, so much so that the term “secularism” itself is now scoffed at by the highest constitutional authorities. Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde ridiculed secularism as a concept without roots and said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power to change the Constitution. Though he later apologised for the sake of mere political expediency, he revealed the real agenda of the BJP.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid demonstrated the impotency of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the executive, to save the rule of law and the mosque in the face of a challenge from Hindu supremacists. The executive and the judiciary passed the ball into each other’s court, abdicating themselves from their constitutional responsibilities. The Supreme Court relied on an affidavit of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh belonging to the BJP, which had mobilised thousands of people for demolishing the mosque.
The Liberhan Commission, which was appointed to look into the circumstances and events that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, found that it was a meticulously planned event. It further observed that “Kalyan Singh’s [the then BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh] government was the essential component needed by the Sangh Parivar for its purposes. Kalyan Singh lived up to the expectations of the Parivar.”
Regarding the demolition, the Commission stated: “The preparation was accomplished with phenomenal secrecy, was technically flawless with consistency and assured results…. The theme was power. It attracted clusters of young men to support the hidden agenda. Leaders know how passions are aroused and how to prevent the same; they however always see what would be beneficial to them rather than what would be good for the nation. This is what happened in Ayodhya.” The crowd mobilised by the Sangh Parivar cheered the demolition. Among those who cheered the demolition were BJP leaders Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and L.K. Advani.
In the immediate aftermath of the demolition, law and order in Bombay, as Mumbai was known then, collapsed. The writ of the Sudhakarrao Naik government did not appear to run beyond Mantralaya. Armed Shiv Sena hoodlums were running riot throughout Bombay, targeting innocents, supposedly to take revenge for the murder of two mathadis (loaders) and the burning of Gandhi Chawl (wrongly referred to as Radhabai Chawl). The two incidents were played up and the entire Muslim community bore the brunt of it. The editorials in the Shiv Sena organ Saamna were provocative, saying that Muslims were loyal to Pakistan and therefore needed to be taught a lesson.
While a section of the police was trying to control the riots, there were others who acted as bystanders and those who deliberately targeted innocent members of the minority community. A.A. Khan, then Additional Commissioner of Police, was targeted by the Sena for effectively controlling riots in his zone. He was accused of being partial to Muslims or, as the Sena called them, landyas—a derogatory term referring to circumcision. Sub Inspector N.K. Kapse led his forces to fire on those praying inside Hari Masjid, killing seven Muslims. The then Joint Commissioner of Police, R.D. Tyagi, stormed Suleiman Usman Bakery and the madrasa attached to it and killed nine helpless bakery workers on the allegation that AK-47 rifles and other firearms were stored inside. When a policeman called the police control room through wireless to dispatch a fire tender, the person who attended the call asked which community’s property was being torched and said that if it was that of the minority community, the matter could be forgotten. In this mayhem some citizens came together to defend themselves against the rioting mobs and to resist communal polarisation. Vigilance committees including Hindus and Muslims were formed in many areas, particularly in slums, as they feared builders would take advantage of the situation by inciting violence to grab land. Ekta: Committee for Communal Amity was already active in Bombay.
Ekta was formed in 1986 by my late father, Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, and some trade unions as a platform for promoting communal harmony, and we took a stand during the riots.
In the Sakinaka area, where Ekta had organised communal harmony workshops, Hindu inhabitants assured the Muslims there that they would stand guard and confront Sena goons if they tried to attack them. Muslims put their trust in Hindus and supplied those guarding them at night with tea. Meanwhile, the Sena sent out feelers to the guards suggesting they should withdraw and be “true” Hindus. But they did not betray the Muslims’ trust. This had become possible because of the struggles for the development of slums they had put up together earlier.
We appealed to citizens not to join kar seva as there was nothing religious about it. Saamna wrote an editorial titled “Ajgar ka jaher”, meaning “poison of the python”. Ajgar was in reference to Dr Asghar Ali Engineer. The editorial warned of consequences if Ekta continued to campaign against kar seva. We disregarded the intimidations and did continue.
In defiance of a magisterial order prohibiting assembly of more than four persons, Ekta assembled about 2,000 people in Dadar and took a peace rally on foot to Azad Maidan. Initially, the police threatened arrest but relented when they realised that we were promoting peace, and escorted us.
We marched with white flags and placards reminding all of our common humanity and singing songs of peace. As we passed through the riot-afflicted lanes, we got instant support from people of both communities. They offered us water, some joined in singing and some joined the march for a short distance.
On January 26 that year (1993), the Babri Masjid Action Committee, led by Syed Shahabuddin, gave a call to hoist black flags. Ekta members were aghast.
Instead, Ekta organised a march to celebrate Republic Day and spoke of peace and harmony. I do not remember the entire route of the march but do remember that as we were passing from Mahim Church towards Mahim station, there were Shiv Sainiks lined up along the route. I do not know whether their presence was incidental or planned. With the tricolour in our hands, we were shouting slogans of communal harmony and sisterhood and brotherhood of all Indians, and the Sainiks, with saffron flags in their hands, were shouting anti-Muslim slogans to counter us. Both sides may have appeared provocative to each other though the Sainiks appeared menacing and aggressive as they perceived us as pro-Muslim. Fortunately, no untoward incident happened that day even though we had no police escort.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, new issues are being exploited to demonstrate that the culture and beliefs of a small section alone enjoy state patronage—nationalism as defined by a small section, cow slaughter, love jehad and ghar wapsi. While India had witnessed major riots periodically before 2014, which helped the BJP come to power, after 2014 the pattern seems to have changed although the objective of violence remains the same: impose the culture and faith of the upper-caste north Indian Hindu male on the vast majority. This would establish their cultural hegemony and privilege a few over the rest.
The trend too is changing; instead of a few big riots we see many more small violent incidents that are communal in nature. Citizens are told what history they should believe in, what clothes they cannot wear, what food they cannot eat, what films they should not see, whom they cannot love and what views they should not subscribe to.. This illiberal “new” India’s foundations were laid with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed.
(Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; he is also co-editor of a recent book, Babri Masjid, 25 Years On…)