“My information was, Rao had connived at the demolition. He sat at puja when the kar sevaks began pulling down the mosque and rose only when the last stone had been removed. Madhu Limaye told me that during the puja, Rao's aide whispered in his ears that the masjid had been demolished. Within seconds, the puja was over.”
Kuldip Nayar in Beyond the Lines
“I rang up the prime minister's residence early in the afternoon. I was told that he was not available to talk to anyone. I asked the person who had answered my call: 'Since when is he incommunicado, or is he out of Delhi.’ He replied: 'He is in Delhi, but he has locked himself in his room and our directions are not to disturb him under any circumstances.'
Arjun Singh in A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time
One tremendously shameful event in recent national history is the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The man who was prime minister then, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, was never able to unsling that albatross from around his neck. There’s of course no escaping that it happened on his watch. But eight years after his death in 2004, two books by persons who were in vantage positions during the 1990s have imputed to him far worse than that, making a Nero of him.
The first, Between the Lines, is the autobiography of Kuldip Nayar, a veteran journalist. And the second, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time, is the autobiography, recently released, of the late Arjun Singh, who was Rao’s HRD minister and for decades one of the most powerful Congressmen. Both books have set off a hubbub with their accounts of what happened in government in the days before the demolition, and especially of what Rao did—or did not do—on the day the mosque was demolished. Nayar says Rao was performing puja as the mosque came down; Arjun that he was unavailable to his own ministers.
Equally, there are those who dismiss those shocking accounts. They too had access to Rao in those days. “The late P.V. Narasimha Rao’s residence did not have a puja room, nor was he the sort to do special or even regular puja,” says P.V.R.K. Prasad, a retired IAS officer who was the late PM’s media advisor. “There was just one picture of Lord Venkateswara in his bedroom, and after his bath, PV would offer a namaskaram for about 10 seconds and his staff would light some incence sticks.”
Prasad says that on December 6, 1992, the day the masjid was battered by rampaging crowds, he had reached the PM’s residence at 11 am, when kar sevaks had already started surrounding the mosque. The PM, he says, spent the whole day supervising the situation, consulting ministers and officials about imposing President’s rule on Uttar Pradesh. He calls Nayar’s version “one of the best cock and bull stories” he’s ever heard. “Besides me, there were many witnesses to PV’s activities that day,” he says. “It’s strange that a senior journalist like Nayar has chosen to cook up such a baseless story. Was PV Lord Krishna to be in two places—the cabinet room and in a puja—at the same time?” He equally objects to the “incorrect facts” presented in Arjun’s posthumous autobiography.
Of the PM’s unavailability on December 6, 1992, Arjun’s book begins by saying: “The secular mosaic of India had been seriously damaged. In such a frame of mind, from Muktsar, I rang up the PM’s residence early in the afternoon.” It goes on to say he was told the PM was “not available to talk to anyone”, and when he probed, he was told the PM had “locked himself in his room.”
But P.C. Rao, who was law secretary when Narasimha Rao was PM and is now a judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg, dismisses Arjun’s unflattering portrayal and says Narasimha Rao did everything he could. The former law secretary also gives details of what happened on the preceding day, particularly an interaction between the former PM and Arjun. He says that during a meeting on December 5, 1992, at which then home minister S.B. Chavan was present, Arjun walked in and demanded the imposition of President’s rule on Uttar Pradesh. The PM asked him if he had any special information that the mosque was under threat, to which Arjun replied in the negative but said the BJP and other outfits associated with it—which were leading the agitation—could not be trusted.
“While PV did not get into an argument with Arjun, he did not concede to his demand as there was no conclusive information on a breakdown of the constitutional machinery in Uttar Pradesh,” says the former law secretary. “Even the IB chief and UP governor had advised the PM that moving central troops towards the mosque on December 5 would enrage the kar sevaks and encourage them to go for the structure.”
He says repeated calls were made to then UP chief minister Kalyan Singh to get the forces moving. Of the 20,000 central troops stationed in Faizabad, 8 km from the mosque, those that had moved some 2 km ahead were sent back. Narasimha Rao’s law secretary and his media advisor both say he was a hands-on PM that day, summoning the home secretary (Madhav Godbole), enquiring about troop movements, keeping track of developments in Ayodhya. Godbole and Chavan were briefing the PM over phone from North Block every 20 minutes.
According to the former law secretary, the Intelligence Bureau chief too had informed the PM that religious heads in Ayodhya had said in a meeting there was no plan to attack the mosque. “This was the information the PM, a stickler for rules and the Constitution, went by,” he says. “Besides, the Uttar Pradesh government had assured the SC the mosque would be protected at all costs. Officials and the PM went to bed that night with a sigh of relief, as we were assured all was quiet on the ground. When the horror unfolded on television screens the next day, the PM was as shocked as the rest of the nation.”
The PM held his first meeting of December 6, 1992, in the ante-room of the PMO, says the former law secretary, who attended it. Also present were Chavan, Godbole, A.N. Verma (the PM’s principal secretary) and Naresh Chandra (a special officer in the PMO, in charge of Ayodhya developments). “At no point,” says the former law secretary, “did Narasimha Rao lock himself up in a room.” He says Narasimha Rao and Arjun shared an uneasy relationship. “But PV did give Arjun due respect and always listened to him,” he says. “He never got into arguments with him.”
Asked for comments on their father’s memoir, Arjun’s sons Ajay Singh, leader of the opposition in Madhya Pradesh, and Abhimanyu Singh, who holds the copyright, say they haven’t read the book but plan to do so soon. But Abhimanyu says he doesn’t think anything “has been omitted” in the book.
Narasimha Rao quietly faded away from the political scene after his term ended in 1996, ignored by his own party. At least there are some who won’t see him painted a Nero.
By Madhavi Tata with Anuradha Raman