Ram Ke Naam follows the rath yatra of L.K. Advani who in 1990 traversed across India in a Bollywood designed, air-conditioned Toyota dressed up as a mythological war chariot. His aim was to gather Hindu volunteers, or kar sevaks, to demolish a 16th century mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babar in Ayodhya and replace it with a Ram temple, which according to Hindutva, marked Lord Ram’s birthplace. The rath yatra left a trail of blood as kar sevaks attacked local Muslims for not showing due respect. Over 60 people were killed in the wake of the rath.
For a year-and-a-half we researched and filmed. We learned that the original archaeological digs had not supported the theory of a temple underneath the mosque. We learned that up to the 16th century the Ram legend was largely restricted to the few Brahmins who knew Sanskrit. It is only after Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas that Ram became a popular god. It is highly unlikely that there were any Ram temples before this and Tulsidas makes no mention of any Ram temple demolition. Today, Ayodhya is full of Ram temples and at least twenty claim to be built at the birthplace of Ram. The reason is obvious. Any temple that establishes itself as the birthplace of Ram gets huge donations from devotees.
Video source: youtube/anandverite
We reached Ayodhya a few days before the planned assault on the mosque on October 30, 1990. Here we met Shastriji, an old Mahant who in 1949 had been part of the group that had broken into the Babri Mosque at night and installed a Ram idol in the sanctum sanctorum. The site then became a disputed territory as the then district magistarate K.K. Nair shockingly, refused to have the idols removed. The DM, after retiring from government service, went on to join the Jan Sangh (precursor of the BJP) and became an MP. We crossed the Saryu bridge to Ayodhya’s twin city, Faizabad. Here we met the old Imam of the Babri Mosque and his carpenter son who recounted the 1949 story from their perspective. The DM had told them after the break-in that order would soon be restored and that by next Friday they could re-enter their mosque for prayers. As the Imam’s son put it, “We are still waiting for that Friday.”
As October 30 dawned and we made our way on foot to the Saryu bridge, already thousands had gathered despite the curfew. There had been a small lathi-charge and shoes and footwear were scattered all over. Busloads of arrested kar sevaks were driven away after arrest but the buses stopped a short distance away, allowing them to disembark and rejoin the fray. By the side of the bridge thousands were chanting at the police: “All Hindus are brothers. Why let your uniforms interfere?” As the day progressed, it was heartbreaking to those of us who knew that any attack on the mosque would rend apart the delicate communal fabric of the nation. What we saw at many places was active connivance from a section of the police and paramilitary. It was utter confusion. In the end some kar sevaks did break through to attack the mosque but at the very last instance police opened fire. Some kar sevaks tied an orange Hindutva flag from the top of the mosque’s dome but police firing prevented the larger crowd from demolishing the mosque. In all 29 people lost their lives. Later, BJP and VHP propaganda claimed that over a thousand had been killed and initiated another rath yatra across the country carrying the ashes of their Ayodhya “martyrs”.
On the night of October 30, in the sombre mood that the attack had spawned, we met Pujari Laldas, the court-appointed head priest of the disputed temple/mosque site. Laldas, despite being a Hindu priest, had received death threats from Hindutva activists. It is this clairvoyant interview of one of independent India’s unsung heroes that gives Ram Ke Naam its real poignancy. Laldas spoke out against those who were using religion for political and financial gain. He spoke of the syncretic past of Ayodhya and expressed anguish that Hindu-Muslim unity in the country was being cynically sacrificed. He predicted a storm of mayhem but was confident that this too would pass and sanity would return. The film won a national award and a Filmfare award. I then submitted it for telecast on Doordarshan. Tragically for secular India, DD refused. I took them to court. Years later we won and the film was broadcast but the damage had long been done.
In 1991, Pujari Laldas attended our premiere in Lucknow and took back several cassettes. When I asked about his own safety, he laughed it off and said he was happy that now his views would circulate more widely. A year later, a tiny news item noted “Controversial priest found murdered.” Pujari Laldas had been killed with a countrymade revolver. The article never told us that the real “controversy” was the fact that this brave priest believed in a Hinduism that is the mirror opposite of Hindutva.
(The writer is a well-known film-maker whose documentary, Ram Ke Naam, was based on the events leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid)