It Happened One Night

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Ayodhya, 22-23 December, 1949. This is the untold story of that fateful night, when a small group of religious activists stole into the Babri Masjid to place an idol of Ramlalla under the main dome, the night that shaped India’s modern political history. This is the testimony of the few who survive to tell the tale.

The untold story of the night of 22-23 December 1949, when Rama was planted in Ayodhya. The night that decisively shaped India’s modern political history.


In allowing the idols to remain where they were placed on December 23, 1949, and in placing religious sentiment above the rule of law, the Allahabad high court verdict 60 years later seems to have preferred Nayar’s (KK Nayar, the then Deputy Commissioner of Faizabad) position to that of Nehru.

Though thousands of pages in this verdict have been devoted to quotes from Hindu scriptures, it made little effort to examine the illegality of the 1949 act. The mischief played with the idols, in a bid to convert a masjid into a mandir, was central to the adjudication of the title suits
—MANOJ MITTA in The Times of India


IN A SMALL, two-room tenement in northwest Mumbai, 85-year-old Indushekhar Jha sits on a battered cot with his gods plastered on the wall behind him. He is the last survivor of an event in Ayodhya on the night of 22-23 December 1949 that still echoes disturbingly in the Indian political arena of our times.

He has been seriously ill for the past few months, and has difficulty understanding your questions, but his face reflects both apprehension and pride. The apprehension stems from his fear of the legal consequences of what he might say, the pride from the knowledge that he has been part of an event that has shaped the history of modern India, altering the balance of power in a manner unforeseen by those who framed the Indian Constitution.

“Abhiram Das and Yugal Babu (Indushekhar’s elder brother Yugal Kishore Jha) entered the compound first,” he says. Of the two, Abhiram was the prime mover. Born as Abhinandan Mishra in 1904 in Rarhi village of Darbhanga district in Bihar, Abhiram moved to Ayodhya in 1934 as a sadhu and disciple of Mahant Yamuna Das of the Nirvani Akhara, whose main seat of power had been Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi, a fortified structure in the centre of which stands a lofty temple of Lord Hanuman.

Among Nirvanis, physical prowess has always mattered at least as much as religious knowledge, and Abhiram’s wrestling skills saw him rise rapidly up the Akhara’s hierarchy. In a short while, Abhiram Das’ influence started spreading beyond Hanumangarhi. Several temples soon came under his direct charge, among them the Ramlalla temple at Ramghat in Ayodhya. It was here that his brothers and cousins (about eight or nine of them) used to stay and study. The study circle included, among others, Indushekhar Jha, his brothers Yugal Kishore Jha and Avadh Kishore Jha, and Abhiram Das’ younger brother Upendranath Mishra.

Avadh Kishore, now 80 years old, returned to Rarhi village long ago. Like his elder brother Indushekar, he recalls that night quite clearly: “Around 11 pm (on 22 December 1949), Abhiram Das came to the temple at Ramghat. I had never seen him so tense. He asked Upendranath to hold Yugal’s hand, and said, ‘Listen to me carefully. I am going and may never return. If something happens to me, if I don’t return till morning, Yugal will be my successor and in-charge of this temple.’ After that, Abhiram Das left the temple and walked out. Indushekhar and Yugal Kishore followed him, and all went towards Ramkot [the locality of the Babri Masjid].”

But what Abhiram undertook that night was not on the spur of the moment. In Indushekhar’s testimony, the month leading up to 22 December had been marked by a series of secret meetings between Abhiram and KK Nayar, Ayodhya’s district magistrate and deputy commissioner at the time, whose role in the affair has been under scrutiny ever since; Nayar later became a Lok Sabha member of the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that led the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The episode of 1949 took careful orchestration. This is also clear from both the way the idol was sneaked into the mosque, and its particulars. “It was nothing but a reclamation of the real Ramjanmabhoomi and shifting of the Ramlalla idol from the Chabutara to Babri Masjid,” says Mahant Bhaskar Das of Nirmohi Akhara, which ran the nearby Ramchabutara—the platform outside the Babri Masjid compound that until 22 December 1949 was worshipped as Lord Rama’s birthplace. Given the rivalry between the Nirvani and Nirmohi akharas, however, Bhaskar Das’ assertion appears to have a shrewd motive. By tradition, control over an idol ensures control over its resting place as well. It is, therefore, entirely in the Nirmohi Akhara’s interest to lay claim to the Ramlalla idol at Ramjanmabhoomi.

But the installation was a Nirvani move, and Acharya Satyendra Das, chief priest at Ramjanmabhoomi and a direct disciple of Abhiram Das, dismisses the Nirmohi claim. “The two idols are different,” he says emphatically, “The one at Ramjanmabhoomi is very small, less than six inches in height, showing Ramlalla in a playful mood. The idol at Ramchabutara, on the other hand, was nearly two feet high, depicting Ramlalla in the lap of Mother Kaushalya. In fact, the idol at Ramchabutara continued to remain there as late as 6 December 1992, when kar sevaks went on their rampage, demolishing not just the Babri Masjid but also the tin shed housing the Ramchabutara idol. Later, the idol was removed by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which acted in concert with the BJP, another member of the Sangh Parivar).”

Where then did this small idol now at Ramjanmabhoomi come from? The missing link in the chain of events can be traced to Jamvant Qila, another temple in the vicinity. “It was Balram Das, the then Mahant of Jamvant Qila, who provided the idol of Ramlalla to Abhiram Das before he set out to install it inside Babri Masjid,” discloses Avadharam Das, the present Mahant of Jamvant Qila temple.

The installation itself did face some resistance. According to Indushekhar Jha, as they headed into the Babri Masjid, “The Muslim caretaker in the Masjid pounced on Abhiram Das. He appeared to have come from the rear of the mosque. At one point, he even snatched the idol from the hands of Abhiram Das. But he was quickly overpowered and beaten up badly.” This finds no mention in the first information report (FIR) filed on 23 December 1949, nor in any of the correspondence between district officials and their higher-ups. However, even this story can be corroborated via an independent account of what happened that night. The muezzin of the mosque at the time, Mohammad Ismael, managed to escape. He fled that night to Paharganj Ghosiana, a village of Ghosi Muslims—a Muslim subcaste of cattle-rearers—in Faizabad district that has long since been swamped by Ayodhya’s urban expanse. The elders of this village, in fact, were the first to awaken to the Babri Masjid intrusion when a frantic ‘Ismael saheb’ came knocking at their doors at around 2 am on 23 December 1949. “They might have killed Ismael saheb. But he somehow managed to run away from Babri Masjid,” says 92-year-old Abdur Rahim, a resident of this village. “He reached our village around 2 am, and was badly injured and horror stricken. Some villagers got up, gave him food and warm clothes.” Later, he started working as the village mosque’s muezzin, and dutifully performed this role of sounding the Islamic azaan for prayer five times daily until his death in the early 1980s.

Paharganj Ghosiana was about 7 km away from the Babri Masjid. It must have taken Mohammad Ismael a few hours to reach the relative safety of this place after fleeing the mosque in Ayodhya. The timing of events here matches that of Indushekhar Jha and his brother’s narrative sequence. At the time Mohammed Ismael was making his way to Paharganj Ghosiana, in Jha’s narrative, a man named Gopal Singh Visharad, Faizabad general secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, was sitting in Ayodhya at a press owned by one Brahmdev Shastri, printing pamphlets that were distributed by the organisation the next morning.

Meanwhile, the capture of the mosque was being consolidated. “While Abhiram Das sat with the statue just beneath the central dome of the Babri Masjid,” recounts Indushekhar Jha, “we threw away all the articles, including the urns, mats and belongings of the muezzin. We then erased many Islamic carvings with the help of a khurpi (a sharp edged instrument generally used for gardening) from the inner and outer walls of the mosque, and scribbled ‘Sita’ and ‘Rama’ in saffron and yellow colours on them.”

At a distance, at Ramghat, Avadh Kishore could not sleep a wink after the dramatic departure of Abhiram Das. “Around five o’clock in the morning (of 23 December 1949),” he says, “I reached the Janmabhoomi. It was still dark, but I didn’t have much patience after what Abhiram Das had said at night and the way he had left the Ramghat temple. From the bustle of the previous few days, I could make out that it was something to do with the Babri Masjid, but I did not know exactly what they were up to.” He was to find out soon.

Curiosity led Avadh Kishore to the site. “When I reached, it was quiet everywhere. The flickering light of a lamp was visible inside the mosque. I went closer and saw Abhiram Das sitting on the floor, tightly holding the idol of Ramlalla in his hands. Beside him were three or four sadhus, as well as Indu Babu (Indushekhar) and Yugal Babu. At a slight distance was KK Nayar. When I moved closer, I heard Nayar saheb telling Abhiram Das, ‘Maharaj, don’t move from here. Don’t leave Ramlalla alone. Tell everybody to raise the slogan that Ramlalla is hungry.’ I still remember the scene. Nayar saheb was very cooperative.”

Indeed, it is widely believed that the district magistrate of Faizabad played a critical role in not only getting the Ramlalla idol installed inside the Babri Masjid, but also in thwarting all administrative attempts the next day to have it vacate the mosque. What is significant in Avadh Kishore’s testimony is that Nayar was among the first to reach the spot once Abhiram Das undertook the operation successfully in the dead of night. This is contrary to what you find in the records of the district administration and police, as also in the correspondence of Faizabad’s district magistrate.

What the eyewitnesses of the incident have to say, then, stands in contrast with what is touted officially. Nayar, for example, appears to have been aware of the plan well in advance. Not only that, he seems to have waited for crowds to swarm into Ayodhya from all around to witness this ‘miraculous appearance’ overnight of Ramlalla, before taking any official note of the incident. The weight of numbers and popular belief could be brought to bear on the system, the conspirators’ calculation seems to have been. And so it was.

Even Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru found himself unable to reverse what had happened that night. When the PM asked Bhagwan Sahay, then chief secretary of the United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then known), to restore the status quo ante, Nayar calmly replied that he had failed to find “any Hindu even among Congressmen” ready to support a move by the administration to evict the idol. It was almost a challenge to the Congress.

The police FIR was lodged at 9 o’clock in the morning of 23 December 1949—that is, at least four hours after Nayar reached the spot. The district magistrate took one-and-a-half hours more to send a brief radio message to the then Chief Minister, chief secretary and home secretary of the United Provinces. ‘A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when the Masjid was deserted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and force at spot. Situation under control…’ read Nayar’s message, sent at 10.30 am. Nayar sent the message at least five hours and 30 minutes after he was first spotted in the mosque. He, therefore, had enough time to restore the mosque’s occupancy status without creating any fuss among Hindu believers—that is, if he had wanted to.