Thursday, Mar 23, 2023

The Dark Night

The Dark Night

The secret history of Rama's appearance in Babri Masjid: what happened on the fateful night of December 22-23,1949 in Ayodhya that went on to change India’s polity forever

This is what Awadh Kishore Jha remembers of the night: 

That evening there was a glow on the face of Abhiram Das. I was certain that he was up to something, but did not know exactly what it was. For the last few months he had been very busy and of late he had started looking tired. But that evening he seemed to have become rejuvenated. He kept talking to us and had his evening meal there only. However, he did not say anything about the plan. Th e following night, despite Paramhans backing out, Abhiram Das led his small band of intruders, scaled the wall of the Babri Masjid and jumped inside with a loud thud.

The sound of a thud reverberated through the medieval precincts of the Babri Masjid like that of a powerful drum and jolted Muhammad Ismael, the muezzin, out of his deep slumber. He sat up, confused and scared, since the course of events outside the mosque for the last couple of weeks had not been very reassuring. For a few moments, the muezzin waited, standing still in a dark corner of the mosque, studying the shadows the way a child stares at the box-front illustration of a jigsaw puzzle before trying to join the pieces together.

Never before had he seen such a dark cloud hovering over the mosque. He had not felt as frightened even in 1934, when the masjid was attacked and its domes damaged severely, one of them even developing a large hole. The mosque had then been rebuilt and renovated by the government. That time, it had been a mad crowd, enraged by rumours of the slaughter of a cow in the village of Shahjahanpur near Ayodhya on the occasion of Bakr-Id. This time, though the intruders were not as large in number, they looked much more ominous than the crowd fifteen years ago.

As the trespassers walked towards the mosque, the muezzin— short, stout and dark-complexioned, wearing his usual long kurta and a lungi— jumped out of the darkness. Before the adversaries could discover his presence, he dashed straight towards Abhiram Das, the vairagi who was holding the idol in his hands and leading the group of intruders. He grabbed Abhiram Das from behind and almost snatched the idol from him. But the sadhu quickly freed himself and, together with his friends, retaliated fiercely. Heavy blows began raining from all directions. Soon, the muezzin realized that he was no match for the men and that he alone would not be able to stop them.

Muhammad Ismael then faded back into the darkness as unobtrusively as he had entered. Quietly, he managed to reach the outer courtyard and began running. He ran out of the mosque and kept running without thinking where he was going. Though he stumbled and hurt himself even more, the muezzin was unable to feel the pain that was seeping in through the bruises. Soon, he was soaked in blood that dripped at every move he made. He was too stunned to think of anything but the past, and simply did not know what to do, how to save the masjid, where to run. There was a time when he used to think that the vairagis who had tried to capture the graveyard and who had participated in the navah paath and kirtan thereafter had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history, and that good sense would prevail once the distrust between Hindus and Muslims— which had been heightened during Partition— got healed. That was what he thought during the entire build-up outside the Babri Masjid ever since the beginning of the navah paath on 22 November, and that was why he never really believed the rumour that the real purpose of the entire show in and around the Ramachabutara was to capture the mosque.

Muhammad Ismael had always had cordial relations with the priests of the Ramachabutara. The animosity that history had bequeathed them had never come in the way of their day-to-day interactions and the mutual help they extended to each other. Bhaskar Das— who was a junior priest of the small temple at the Ramachabutara in those days and who later became the mahant of the Nirmohi Akhara— also confirmed this.

Before 22 December 1949, my guru Mahant Baldev Das had assigned my duty at the chabutara. I used to keep my essential clothes and utensils with me there. In the night and during afternoon, I used to sleep inside the Babri Masjid. The muezzin had asked me to remove my belongings during the time of namaz, and the rest of the time the mosque used to be our home.

While the chabutara used to get offerings, enough for the sustenance of the priest there, the muezzin usually always faced a crisis as the contribution from his community for his upkeep was highly irregular. Often, vairagis, particularly the priest at the chabutara, would feed the muezzin. It was like a single community living inside a religious complex. Communalists on both sides differentiated between the two, but, for the muezzin they were all one.

But it was not so once the vairagis entered the mosque that night. The trust that he had placed in them, he now tended to think, had never been anything but his foolish assumption. It had never been there at all. In a moment, the smokescreen of the benevolence of the vairagis had vanished. The muezzin seemed to have experienced an awakening in the middle of that cold night. His new, revised way of thinking told him that the men who had entered the Babri Masjid in the cover of darkness holding the idol of Rama Lalla had no mistaken vision of history. Indeed, these men had no vision of any kind; what they had done was a crime of the first order, and what they were trying to accomplish was simply disastrous.

Despite his waning strength, Muhammad Ismael trudged along for over two hours and stopped only at Paharganj Ghosiana, a village of Ghosi Muslims— a Muslim sub-caste of traditional cattle-rearers— in the outskirts of Faizabad. The residents of this village, in fact, were the first to awaken to the fact that the Babri Masjid had been breached when a frantic ‘Ismael Saheb’ came knocking on their doors at around 2 a.m. on 23 December 1949. Abdur Rahim, a regular at the mosque before it was defiled, had this to say:

They might have killed Ismael saheb. But he somehow managed to flee from the Babri Masjid. He reached our village around 2 a.m. He was badly injured and completely shaken by the developments. Some villagers got up, gave him food and warm clothes. Later, he began working as a muezzin in the village mosque, and sincerely performed his role of cleaning the mosque and sounding azan for prayer five times a day until his death in the early 1980s.

In Paharganj Ghosiana, Muhammad Ismael lived like a hermit. He could neither forget the horror of that night, nor overcome the shock that broke his heart. He was among the few witnesses to one of the most crucial moments in independent India’s history, and the first victim to resist the act. Spending the rest of his life in anonymity, he appeared immersed deep in his own thoughts, mumbling, though rarely, mostly about ‘those days’. Life for the trusting muezzin could never be the same.

Th at was it, then: after over four centuries of being in existence, the Babri Masjid, the three-domed marvel of Ayodhya, had fallen into the hands of a small band of intruders, and Hindu communalists of all shades had conspired to achieve this carefully woven key aspect of the Mahasabha’s Ayodhya strategy. Th e involvement of K.K.K. Nair and Guru Dutt Singh, in particular, proved to be critical. For in those days, district magistrates used to be powerful fi gures in local administration, and city magistrates were among their more formidable administrative adjuncts.

With the two most signifi cant offi cials in the district administration openly working for the conversion of the mosque into a temple, it was only to be expected that the offi cials under them would help the Hindu Mahasabha in whatever manner they could. Th e government enquiry that followed the surreptitious planting of the idol in the masjid ratifi es this hypothesis. Th ough never made public for many reasons, the enquiry report revealed that the followers of K.K.K. Nair and Guru Dutt Singh used the authority which these two men commanded to persuade the police guarding the mosque to look the other way while Abhiram Das led his band of intruders carrying the idol of Rama.

Th at the policeman guarding the Babri Masjid did play this role in seeing the conspiracy through was also hinted at by Bhaskar Das, the junior priest in the temple of Rama Lalla at the chabutara in 1949:

At that time a guard was posted at the gate [of the Babri Masjid] because the Muslims had complained that the Hindus would try to capture the mosque. Th is complaint had been fi led after the large-scale defi ling of graves in the vicinity of the Babri Masjid. Th e police used to encourage us to capture the mosque and install the idol there …

Th at being the mood of the police, it would not have been too diffi cult for the Hindu communalists to take the guard into confi dence— and there were various ways to do that— and persuade him to look the other way. On being asked as to what kind of help the guard provided to the intruders, Mahant Bhaskar Das laughed and said, ‘It was all God’s miracle. Till the time He wished to stay at the chabutara, He remained there, and when He decided to shift inside the mosque, He did that.’

Yet the miracle, before it could happen, had to be adjusted with the duty hours of the guard who had been won over. It was for this reason that the idol of Rama had to be smuggled in before twelve in the night on 22 December 1949. For a Muslim guard— Abul Barkat— was to take charge after that. Abul Barkat, in a sense, was himself a victim of the police conspiracy hatched to ensure the success of the Mahasabha’s plan. By the time Barkat resumed his duty at midnight that fateful night, the intruders had already gone inside with the idol of Ram Lalla along with a silver throne for the deity, the photographs of some other deities as well as various materials used for pooja and aarti. By twelve o’clock, the mosque had already been captured and the sole resistance capitulated after being brutally dealt with. For a few hours after capturing the mosque, Abhiram Das and his gang lay low, not doing anything loud enough to make Abul Barkat suspicious. He was totally ignorant of the developments that had taken place behind his back. Recounted Indushekhar Jha:

Abhiram Das sat just beneath the central dome of [the] Babri Masjid fi rmly holding the idol in his hands and we got active. We threw away all the articles [of previous possessors], including their urns, mats as well as clothes and utensils of the muezzin. We then erased many Islamic carvings with the help of a khurpi [a sharpedged instrument generally used for gardening purposes] from the inner and outer walls of the mosque, and scribbled Sita and Rama in saff ron and yellow colours on them.

Around four in the morning, while it was still pitch dark, the intruders, following the script fi nalized in Jambwant Quila the day before, lit the lamp and started doing aarti. Th is must have frightened Abul Barkat who was completely unaware of the developments of the previous night, for it would now be impossible for him to explain as to what he was doing when the vairagis sneaked into the mosque. Dozing off or being away from the spot— even if he was not— while on his job to guard such a sensitive structure was an utmost dereliction of duty. Abul Barkat, therefore, must have been in a fi x, and what he saw inside the mosque must have numbed him to the core. Th is predicament explains not just his inability to do anything that night but also his statement much later.

In the charge sheet fi led on 1 February 1950, based on the FIR registered in the morning of 23 December 1949 against Abhiram Das and others for intruding into the mosque and defi ling it, Abul Barkat was named as one of the nine prosecution witnesses. What he said in his statement to the magistrate elated the Hindu communalists, but any sane person could easily see through it. Justice Deoki Nandan in his ‘Sri Rama Janma Bhumi: Historical and Legal Perspective’ has cited a ‘concise translation’ of Abdul Barkat’s statement:

He [Abul Barkat] was on duty at the Police Outpost Rama Janma Bhumi on the night between December 22nd and 23rd, 1949. While on duty that night, he saw a fl ash of Divine Light inside the Babari Masjid. Gradually that light became golden and in that he saw the fi gure of a very beautiful godlike child of four or fi ve years the like of which he had never before seen in his life. Th e sight sent him into a trance, and when he recovered his senses he found that the lock on the main gate (of the mosque) was lying broken and a huge crowd of Hindus had entered the building and were performing the aarti of the Idol placed on a Singhasan and reciting: Bhaye prakat kripala Deen Dayala [God has manifested himself].

Th e Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organizations immediately lapped up Abul Barkat’s statement as a proof of the ‘miracle’ that had happened on that fateful night when Lord Rama himself ‘reclaimed’ his ‘original’ place of birth. Decades later, however, even those who had propagated the miracle theory in order to prove their point were found laughing at it. Bhaskar Das, for example, said, ‘What else could Abul Barkat say? When such an incident happened while he was on duty, he had no other option but to say what he was told to say in order to save himself.’

Acharya Satyendra Das, one of the disciples of Abhiram Das who later became the chief priest of Ramajanmabhoomi, was no less straight in his observations:

Abhiram Das and others had taken the idol of Rama Lalla inside the mosque well before twelve o’clock that night when the shift at the gate changed and Abul Barkat resumed his duty. And when after midnight and before dawn the beating of ghanta-gharial began along with the aarti he woke up and saw that scene. In his statement, he said what he saw thereafter.

Abul Barkat could never explain his position. Perhaps the pressure of the district administration that had already gone communal and his own desperation to save his job at any cost never allowed him to come out of the darkness of that night.

(Krishna Jha is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and biographer of SA Dange, one of the founding fathers of the Indian communist movement. Dhirendra K Jha is a political journalist with Open magazine in Delhi.)