Ayodhya: 25 Years Later

Mark Tully: The Witness

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Mark Tully, who reported it for the world from ground zero, watched some leaders asking the police to stay away and Sangh volunteers breaching police cordons with ease. Then they began to climb up the domes of the mosque and started hacking away at the mortar

SIR MARK TULLY is as sprightly as ever. He had been unwell recently, but has recovered, exuding a warmth and happiness that is rather contagious. He settles down in his chair with the caveat that 25 years is a long time and he doesn’t remember everything. But as he begins to talk about what happened in Ayodhya on December 6th, 1992, it emerges that he hasn’t forgotten anything, not even the minute details, as a witness to the making of a moment that would alter Indian politics forever.

He doesn’t entirely agree with that statement , though, because he feels that “in India, things don’t happen that way”. Born in Calcutta in 1938 and raised in England as a teen, Tully has spent his best years in India chronicling its political milestones and capturing its myriad charms and endless contradictions. His books India in Slow Motion and No Full Stops in India are proof of his love for the country with all its quirks and uniquenesses.

Tully eschews conclusions of the kind that insist the Emergency or the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya or the Godhra incident steered the course of Indian politics into a cul-de-sac or a particular direction. “In India, it is not like you drive along the road and take either the left or the right. After these three incidents, things went back to normal. Yes, they all had an impact. I think the Emergency has prevented anyone else doing that again. The temple issue had a stunning impact, but thereafter things went back to normal; it was true of Godhra too,” says Tully who doesn’t seem to agree with the typical academic discourse that uses a single event in confirmation of some hypothesis. At the same time, he doesn’t want to underestimate the importance of these historical events in Indian politics either.

Seated comfortably in the living room of his home in Delhi’s Nizamuddin West, with his Labrador making frequent appearances, the 79-year-old journalist says that the rise of the BJP has been part of a long build-up process. “We have to remember that after [the demolition], the BJP didn’t grow suddenly like that. Much of the growth of the party, particularly in the 1980s and the 1990s, was due to the weakness of the Congress, starting from Rajiv Gandhi’s time and later,” he says as his partner Gillian Wright, whom he calls Gilly, breezes past on her way to a meeting. Also an Indophile, Wright has translated several Indian books into English. She had been there with Tully in Ayodhya on the fateful December day of 1992. She is well-versed in Urdu and Hindi and co-wrote India in Slow Motion, a book in which they describe their experience of the day the Babri Masjid fell.

Tully was there at least a day before because he wanted to do some trouble-shooting. BBC World had aired footage of kar sevaks on the Babri Masjid in a brief documentary on the subject, resulting in rumours that the British national broadcaster was spreading falsehoods. Tully worked for BBC Radio at the time, and on his arrival in Ayodhya, he was told by several journalists that the Sangh’s saffron-clad volunteers and leaders were looking out for BBC journalists with the probable intention of either warning them off or taking them to task. Some journalists mistaken for BBC representatives had been threatened by kar sevaks.

The people of Ayodhya are fed up with the whole thing. They want a normal life

That night, Tully looked for Advani to brief him about the antipathy towards the BBC, expecting that he would do something to clear the air. But he couldn’t find him. He did manage to meet and speak to an RSS leader who was then the editor of Panchjanya. The next morning, one of the first leaders he met with his grievance was RSS’s K Sudarshan, whom he met a little distance away from the Babri Masjid where crowds had begun to gather in vast numbers. Sudarshan, who would later become the RSS Sarsanghachalak, was unconcerned, says Tully. “He was not interested in it at all,” he adds.

Sudarshan was probably more interested in what he expected would happen. The 150,000-strong crowd that had been waiting close to the mosque for at least a week had been chanting loud slogans and was highly vocal about its intention to bring down the triple-domed structure claimed to have been built on the remains of a temple by a general of Mughal Emperor Babar.

Tully stayed where he would remain for a long while: atop a building that offered a clear view of the mosque. He wrote about that morning: ‘At what the police hoped would be a safe distance from the mosque, a vast crowd, perhaps 150,000 strong, some of whom had been camping near the mosque for ten days, roared encouragement to speakers who threatened they would pull down the building erected by the Mughal conquerors. Sitting on the VIP’s platform, the former Maharani of Gwalior (Vijaya Raje Scindia), wearing the white sari of a widow, clapped when the mosque was described as a ‘symbol of slavery, an insult to Hinduism’. Besides her, Lal Krishna Advani, the politician who had masterminded the Ayodhya campaign, was strangely silent and disapproving.’

Tully and other journalists there in Ayodhya were well aware of the air of suspicion and hostility towards scribes at the time. The day was clearly different from previous occasions when the VHP and others spearheading the Ram Janmabhoomi movement— to build a temple for Rama in the place where the Babri Masjid stood—had performed symbolic rituals in honour of the proposed temple. According to Tully, the BJP and other organisations had given a commitment to the Government and the courts that it would only be a symbolic start, a religious ceremony, and no damage would be done to the mosque. But everyone knew something was wrong. Leaders such as Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were there along with others, with the probable exception of AB Vajpayee who had seemingly distanced himself from the Ayodhya agitation.

Tully watched some leaders asking the police to stay away and Sangh volunteers breaching police cordons with ease. Then they began to climb up the domes of the mosque and started hacking away at the mortar. Tully had written even earlier that the police had joined the intruding kar sevaks ‘in beating up television journalists, smashing their cameras and trampling on their tape recorders’. He describes the scene in his book India in Slow Motion: ‘Above the raucous slogans and the bellowing of conch shells, we heard a leader of the BJP shout through a microphone, ‘Police, don’t interfere’. He needn’t have worried. The police had no intention of interfering. The last line of defence retreated from the mosque holding their wicker shields above their heads as protection from the stones raining down on them.’

Tully had great difficulty returning to Ayodhya, and when he stepped down from his vehicle, he was stopped by angry crowds. One of them stated, “Yeh saala BBC-wala hai. Iss saale ne khabar di

With policemen abandoning their posts, dust billowing up amid relentless stone-throwing and the domes crumbling as more and more Sangh volunteers began to clamber up the mosque, Tully left the scene to drive 10 km to Faizabad to call up his London office and file the story. When he looked back at the 16th century mosque, he saw a saffron flag hoisted on top of it. “That was the last we saw of what was known as the Babri Masjid,” he notes. He broke the story to the rest of the world at lunch-time, and soon returned.

Tully had great difficulty returning to Ayodhya, and when he stepped down from his vehicle near the spot where the mosque once stood, he was stopped by angry crowds. One of them stated, “Yeh saala BBC-wala hai. Iss saale ne khabar di (This is a BBC man. He is the one who reported)”

The group kept shouting, “Foreign journalists, CIA agents.” Tully remembers that some of them prodded him with tridents and were discussing what to do with him when a young sadhu restrained them from beating him up. He and a few local Hindi journalists who were picked up from the vicinity were taken immediately to a nearby temple where they were locked up in a room. “We spent one to two hours there and so I couldn’t see the last scenes of the fall of Babri Masjid,” recalls Tully.

After a while, his captors offered to free the Indian journalists, saying they had nothing against them, but berated him for allegedly giving out ‘wrong news’. But the local journalists refused to leave without him. The kar sevaks responded, “Okay then, you guys also stay here.” Finally, a local official turned up and warned the saffron-clad volunteers who had detained Tully along with other journalists that they would attract too much negative publicity if these people were beaten up or if something grievous happened to them. The mahant of a nearby temple offered help: he would shift them to his temple until some way was found to take them all to Faizabad closeby.

“We just sat there at the other temple,” says Tully. And then a big police lorry came to take the journalists to safety, away from the frenzied mob. “So we put saffron bands around our heads and drove out to Faizabad,” he says with a grin. They safely reached their hotels, but riots broke out in various parts of the country.

Tully now believes that for a peaceful resolution of the Ayodhya dispute, it is important that the concerns of Muslims also be addressed. He isn’t pleased about the prospect of a temple coming up in Ayodhya without any accommodation of Muslim sentiment. Though RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat has announced that only a temple would be built on the land where the Babri Masjid once stood, Tully is of the view that such acts of triumphalism would have a bad effect on the majority’s relations with the Muslim community, which makes up about 15 per cent of the country’s population. “I feel India is very lucky [that Muslims] have basically been a very peaceful community.... Every effort should be made to ensure that Muslims continue to feel at home in this country,” he says, emphasising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is a votary of this proposition. “If he is true to his words, it is going to be good for communal relations.”

Tully believes that Modi will most likely pursue his goals of development and reforms rather than resort to the appeal of Hindutva, which was part of the General Election campaign that helped the BJP cruise to power in 2014 and perform well in several state elections held since then. “But the big thing was Modi himself [as a moderniser],” Tully says, suggesting that Modi will therefore be keen on meeting his economic promises.

“A united Hindu vote has its benefits, but I think far more important would be the BJP’s performance in governance,” he adds. Comparing the priorities of top BJP leaders, the senior journalist says, “Advani played a major role in building the party. He was the one who did the hard work, while [former Prime Minister] Vajpayee was the face of the party. Advani had a seminal role.”

He goes on, “Modi is a politician with great communication skills. He had a long apprenticeship as Gujarat Chief Minister before he became Prime Minister; Advani has always been a party man until he became Home Minister [and later deputy Prime Minister], but he was always number two. He doesn’t have the charisma that Modi has.”

After the fall of Babri Masjid, Tully, who is fluent in Hindi, returned to Ayodhya a few times and made a series of interesting observations about the Uttar Pradesh town. On one occasion, he visited Ayodhya during the Panch Kosi Parikrama, when pilgrims walk around the boundaries of the city they believe was the birthplace of Rama. By force of habit, he spoke to as many people as he could.

“The people of Ayodhya are fed up with the whole thing. They want a normal life,” he sums up.