The Villain Nobody Knows

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The Indian Civil Service officer who helped the Hindu Mahasabha lay claim to the Babri Masjid.
An extract from Krishna Jha and Dhirendra K Jha’s new book Ayodhya, The Dark Night: The Secret History of Rama’s Appearance in Babri Masjid

The idea that eventually changed the politics of India emerged for the first time among three friends—Maharaja Pateshwari Prasad Singh, head of the princely state of Balrampur, Mahant Digvijai Nath, and KKK Nair. The three were united as much by their Hindu communal sentiments as their love for lawn tennis. The maharaja, the youngest among the three, was born on 1 January 1914 and grew up under the guardianship of a retired British officer, Colonel Hanson. Studying at Mayo Prince College, Ajmer, he was trained much in the manner of most royals of the time. By the time he finished his studies in 1935, he had become an excellent horse-rider and a highly skilled lawn tennis player.

Tennis, in fact, ensured that Nair, an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer who had arrived in Gonda in August 1946, became a very good friend of the maharaja. Though Nair was seven years older (he was born on 11 September 1907 in Alleppey, Kerala) than the maharaja, the relationship they developed on the tennis court survived even after he was transferred out of Gonda in July 1947.

Mahant Digvijai Nath was a tall, stocky, broad-shouldered, immensely dignified man with a quiet manner and a gift for diplomacy. He was considerably older than the maharaja (by 20 years) and Nair (by 13 years). Even on the court, his bearing was so dignified that both his tennis mates treated him with a deference due not only to an elder but to a religious head as well.

It was this bond that was on full display when the maharaja organised a grand yajna at Balrampur in early 1947. He invited, besides Mahant Digvijai Nath, many Hindu religious leaders, including Swami Karpatri, a sanyasi who belonged to the Dandis, one of the orders founded by Adi Shankaracharya… On the eve of Independence, he began to display considerable political aspirations, which led him to found, in 1948, a political party—the Ram Rajya Parishad. Apart from the religious leaders, the guests of the maharaja included KKK Nair.

An article published in 1991 in the Hindu Mahasabha’s weekly central organ—Hindu Sabha Varta—refers to the confabulations among Mahant Digvijai Nath, KKK Nair and Swami Karpatri in detail. It describes how they first began giving serious shape to an otherwise vague idea that, once put into motion, eventually shook the nation:

‘On the last day of the yajna, Sri Digvijai Nath—as per the views expressed by Sri Vinayak Damodar Savarkar that the [Hindu] religious places which had been under occupation of foreigners must now be liberated—discussed the idea [of capturing the Babri Masjid] with Karpatriji and Nair. Promising that he would get back to him after considering the proposal seriously, Nair left for the district headquarters of Gonda. The next day, reaching the place of yajna at Balrampur, Nair went straight to Karpatriji and Mahant Digvijai Nath, who welcomed him and asked him to sit next to them. They began discussing the issue once again. When Nair enquired about the detailed plan, the mahant laid before him the strategy to get back Sri Ramjanmabhoomi in Ayodhya, apart from Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi and Sri Krishna janmabhoomi in Mathura. Nair then promised Digvijai Nath that he would sacrifice everything in order to accomplish the task.’

Deputy Commissioner-cum-District Magistrate KKK Nair, had taken charge of Faizabad on 1 June 1949. Guru Datt Singh, the other district official involved in this exercise, was Nair’s fervent supporter. He was the city magistrate of Faizabad and acted as assistant to the deputy commissioner. A Rajput by caste, he considered himself ‘a man of God’ and believed that the ‘very existence of Hinduism’ and his ‘own existence’ were being threatened by the Hindus who dominated the Congress simply because this party had embarked upon a programme designed to secularise Indian society.

Later, their stint in Faizabad proved to be their last years of government service, and they were implicated in the affair as leaders of the Hindu radicals who had planted the idol in the Babri Masjid on the night of 22 December 1949. The official investigation that ensued concluded that Nair and Singh played such a flagrant role in the incident that they must be invited to retire to private life. Following this, KKK Nair was forced to retire from his post together with his assistant Guru Datt Singh.

It was, however, still too early for these officials to gain notoriety when, months before the planting of the idol in the Babri Masjid, they embarked on a mission to get a Rama temple erected on the chabutara through an administrative coup. Their plan was to reverse the six-decade-old status quo by obtaining permission from the state government to construct the temple. This, they thought, would eventually encompass the Babri Masjid.

The first thing they did for the purpose was to forward a request by some local Hindus seeking the construction of a grand temple at the chabutara to the offices of the state government located in Lucknow. In response to this request, the deputy secretary of the Government of United Provinces, Kehar Singh, wrote a letter, dated 20 July 1949, to Nair, for ‘favourable early report and his recommendation in the matter’.

The letter further said:

‘It should also please be stated whether the land on which the temple is proposed is a Nazul/Municipal land. T e report should be forwarded to Government through the Commissioner, Lucknow Division.’

After receiving the letter from the state government, Nair asked his assistant, Guru Datt Singh, to visit the spot and send back a report. In his report sent to Nair on 10 October 1949, eighteen days before the decision was taken at Hanumangarhi to start a navah path at the chabutara to reclaim the janmabhoomi, Guru Datt Singh recommended the construction of a grand temple at the site, saying:

‘As per your orders, I went to the spot and inspected the site and enquired all about it in detail. Mosque and the temple both are situated side by side and both Hindus and Muslims perform their rites and religious ceremonies. Hindu public has put in this application with a view to erect a decent and vishal temple instead of the small one which exists at present. There is nothing on the way and permission can be given as Hindu population is very keen to have a nice temple at the place where Bhagwan Ram Chandra Ji was born. The land where temple is to be erected is of Nazul [government land].’

This report, thus, sought to reverse the judgment passed by Faizabad sub-judge Pandit Hari Kishan Singh, on 24 December 1885 on the petition of the mahant of the chabutara who had requested permission to construct a temple on that spot:

‘This place is not like [any] other place where the owner has got the right to construct any building he likes […] If a temple is constructed on the chabutara at such a place then there will be the sound of bells of the temple and sankh when both Hindus and Muslims pass from the same way and if permission is given to Hindus for constructing a temple then one day or the other a criminal case will be started and thousands of people will be killed.’

In the end, however, Nair and Singh could not pull off the administrative coup they had planned. As the situation in Ayodhya deteriorated following the open advocacy of capturing the janmabhoomi by the Mahasabhaites, along with the local vairagis of Ayodhya, the state government developed cold feet, and the process set into motion by these officials could not proceed further. That, however, did not deter Nair and Singh from pursuing their agenda. They had already made their intentions clear. Even in its failure, the administrative coup they had planned became the talk of the town, giving a major boost to the activities of Hindu communalists. The move by these officials had increased their popularity, particularly among Hindu Mahasabhaites. In a short span of time, Gopal Singh Visharad, head of the Faizabad unit of the Hindu Mahasabha and trusted lieutenant of Mahant Digvijai Nath, had developed a very good rapport with KKK Nair and Guru Datt Singh. In the course of time, Visharad and Nair became family friends as well... Rajendra Singh, Visharad’s son, had this to say about Nair:

“Quite often, Nair used to visit Visharad’s house in his small car, which had been gifted to him by Samthal estate. That car had a history. Before Nair, it had been used by the princess of Samthal. Once, the princess came to Ayodhya in that car and met Nair at Visharad’s house. The two became friends very soon. Perhaps it was she who gifted the car to Nair, because when she left Ayodhya, Nair was seen driving that beautiful car. The development brought Nair closer to Visharad.”

Awadh Kishore Jha (a cousin of Abhiram Das, the man who planted the idol in the temple) … recounted:

“Around five o’clock in the morning [of 23 December 1949] I left the bed and started running like a mad boy. Within a few minutes I reached the Janmabhoomi…”

What Awadh Kishore, who was sixteen at that time, saw then was something unexpected:

“… 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 Rama Lalla in his hands. Beside him were three or four sadhus, as well as Indu Babu [Indushekhar Jha] and Yugal Babu [Yugal Kishore Jha]. At a little distance was Nair. When I moved closer, I heard Nair Saheb telling Abhiram Das: ‘Maharaj, don’t move from here. Don’t leave Rama Lalla alone. Tell everybody to raise the slogan that Rama Lalla is hungry.’ I still remember that scene. Nair Saheb looked firm and serious.”

As Awadh Kishore described the scene in detail, it became clear that by five that morning, KKK Nair was in full control of the mosque. In his interaction with Abhiram Das and other vairagis, he looked like the authority which had to be obeyed—hand on hip, leaning forward, making his point with a belligerent finger. That was significant. The district magistrate of Faizabad was among the first to reach the spot once Abhiram Das finished the operation successfully in the dead of the night. At that time, the masjid only had a handful of people and Ayodhya was asleep. No one would have known about the incident—or people would have come to know so late that no commotion would have been possible—had the district magistrate acted swiftly and removed the idol and images of Hindu deities from the mosque and scratched away the writings, not many in number, from its inner and outer walls. So, he could have easily restored the mosque’s status quo ante without creating any fuss among Hindu believers. That was also expected of any district magistrate anywhere in the country.

But it was not a normal situation, and the district magistrate of Faizabad was not acting innocently; he was more interested in complicating the problem than resolving it. He therefore wanted to delay the official response. For he knew that the official note of the incident would not take much time to go beyond Faizabad and reach Lucknow and even Delhi. But he wanted the news to reach Lucknow officially only after he had ensured the irreversibility of the conversion of the masjid into a temple. He wanted the crowds to swarm into Ayodhya from all around to witness the ‘miraculous appearance’ of Rama Lalla before officially taking note of the incident. The weight of numbers and popular belief, Nair was certain, would act like bulwarks against any attempt by Lucknow or Delhi to reverse what had happened in Ayodhya. It was for this reason that the FIR of the incident was lodged only at nine in the morning though Nair had reached the spot at five. It took the district magistrate an hour-and-a-half more to send a brief radio message to the premier of the United Provinces, Govind Ballabh Pant, as well as to the state’s chief secretary and home secretary. The radio message that was sent at 10.30 that morning said:

‘A few Hindus entered [the] Babri Masjid at night when the Masjid was deserted and installed a deity there. DM [District Magistrate] and SP [Superintendent of Police] and force at spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night but did not apparently act.’

It was a shrewd message which spoke about the dereliction of duty of the ‘police picket of 15 persons’ that was placed much away from the mosque—in fact, outside the complex—but remained silent about the guard who had been on duty at the gate of the inner courtyard of the mosque ever since local Muslims expressed their apprehension about Hindus trying to grab their place of worship. Also, Nair had put the best possible gloss on an incident that had the potential to shake the nation. His message gave the impression—contrary to the reality—that the situation was under control and that senior district officials had reached the spot. That Nair was determined to delay the official response to the problem was clear even in the testimony of Akshay Brahmachari, the secretary of the Faizabad District Congress, who fought against the takeover of the mosque right from the beginning:

‘On the 23rd morning the District Magistrate told me at about 9 am that the image of Ram Chandraji was implanted in the Babari Masjid the preceding night, and that he had learnt of the incident at 6 am from Sri Bhai Lal and that he had gone to see it. It passes all comprehension as to how Bhai Lal could know of the incident so early that morning and could inform the District Magistrate while the police guards of the mosque did not know about it. The District Magistrate did not even care to know as to how Bhai Lal could know all about it so early in the morning. It has to be particularly remembered that the District Magistrate quoted Bhai Lal for many such [pieces of] information.’

Akshay Brahmachari believed that there was no one called Bhai Lal and that he was a fictitious character invented by Nair to carry out his agenda smoothly without getting dragged into any controversy. There is no trace of ‘Bhai Lal’ in official records nor in any interview with the elders of Ayodhya and Faizabad.

KKK Nair presided over Faizabad for nine months and fourteen days, from 1 June 1949 till 14 March 1950 when he was relieved of his job, and in that short period, he made a huge impression—most of them through a series of conspiracies—in the district. The mutilation of the mosque was just one testimony to his conspiracies; almost all others involved his insatiable appetite for amassing huge chunks of land in and around Faizabad for himself.

…Nair did not hesitate to grab even the land donated in the name of God. In this, opium became his weapon and the Ranopali Nanakshahi Temple—one of the oldest temples of the Udaseen sect—his victim.

The Ranopali Nanakshahi Temple, located on the outskirts of Ayodhya, is the main ashram of the Udaseen sect. According to tradition, this sect was founded in the seventeenth century by Shri Chand, the eldest of the two sons of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

 In 1949, the Ranopali Nanakshahi Temple controlled huge tracts of fertile agricultural land that was acquired mostly through donations from the nawabs of Awadh. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daullah (1775–97) had, for example, donated a plot of 1,000 standard bigha, at the centre of which this temple was built. It also controlled thousands of bighas on the other side of the Sarayu in nearby Basti (now part of Gonda district). The mahant of the Udaseen sect at that time was an old sadhu, Keshav Das—considered the most worthy disciple of Narayan Das, the man largely credited with making the order a pan-India phenomenon. Narayan Das died in 1923 and the mantle of authority passed on to Keshav Das.

In the late 1940s, Mahant Keshav Das began using opium and soon became an addict. As the drug was not available readily, he was always on the lookout for it. Partly due to this lack of regular supply of the drug, Keshav Das walked into a trap laid for him by KKK Nair. The mahant’s addiction was an opportunity Nair exploited to rob the Udaseen sect of its possessions in Ayodhya and nearby areas. In the span of a few months in late 1949 and early 1950, Nair established complete control over the mind and body of Keshav Das. Dangling opium in front of him, he left the mahant in such a state that he transferred most of the landholdings of the Ranopali Nanakshahi Temple to Nair’s family members. According to Sadhu Saran Mishra, a Faizabad-based advocate whom Nair hired as his attorney after the case entered the district civil court, Mahant Keshav Das was more a scholar than a sadhu. He led a quiet and simple life. But in his old age, he began taking opium and soon turned into an addict. This proved fatal for him as well as for Ranopali Ashram. Apart from this addiction, Keshav Das had no other weakness. He was not a worldly man and did not realize what he was doing.

This silent expropriation of the temple land did not remain a secret for long. Soon, some of the Udaseen sadhus got to know about the development, and discontentment started brewing against Keshav Das. Baba Damodar Das, Keshav Das’ secretary, took the lead in this rebellion. On 3 December 1951, Keshav Das was forced to leave the abbotship, and Baba Ramgopal Das was made the new mahant of the sect. This is what Sadhu Saran Mishra said about the turn of events:

“In 1953, a civil suit was filed in the court of the civil judge, Faizabad, on behalf of Baba Ramgopal Das. The suit claimed that Keshav Das had transferred all the pattas, not out of his free will, but under pressure and as such they were not legal. The case passed through several ups and downs. First it was won by the ashram, and Nair accepted the Ranopali Temple’s right over the land but later he revived his claim and finally won the case in 1976.”

By this time, however, the land ceiling law was in place, and it rendered Nair’s victory meaningless. His landholdings as well as those of his family members had already crossed the statutory ceiling. It was obvious that the moment this judgment was made effective, the entire land belonging to the Ranopali Temple would be taken over by the government under the ceiling law. On the advice of Sadhu Saran Mishra, he decided to return the land to the Udaseen sect if the latter paid him the expenditure that he had incurred on the case. The issue was thus resolved, and the land grabbed by Nair was restored to the Udaseens.

For Nair, opium was just one of the means. What helped him even more in his quest for land was the nexus that had converted the Babri Masjid into a temple, in particular, his friendship with Mahasabha leaders like Mahant Digvijai Nath and Gopal Singh Visharad, as well as with powerful vairagis in Ayodhya. Many senior residents of Ayodhya, however, argue that the role this group played in providing Nair with huge tracts of land was primarily because this was seen by Mahasabhaites and vairagis as a way to return the favour done to them by the former district magistrate of Faizabad.

Close on the heels of the ‘miracle’ in the Babri Masjid, real estate gifts started pouring in for Nair. Among the most notable was a massive mango orchard, euphemistically called Lakhperwa Bagh. The name was derived from the fact that it had 100,000 trees. A prominent Ramanandi establishment is said to have played a key role in the transfer of this orchard on the Faizabad–Rae Bareli road in the name of Nair.

Equally significant in this context was the role of Mahant Digvijai Nath—whose friendship with zamindars and petty kings in the region was pretty well known—in adding to the land acquisition efforts of Nair. Nair was not the sole benefi ciary of these efforts. Some of his close associates too benefi ted from them, one such being Gopal Singh Visharad. An indication of how Visharad gained from his proximity to Nair and the kind of role Mahant Digvijai Nath played in this land acquisition drive is clear from a letter that Visharad wrote to the mahant on 2 July 1951:

‘Your recent visit brought about a spring in the hearts of Hindus, which alone is our sole inspiration to work for a Hindu Rashtra… Recently I met Nair Saheb. He has asked me to convey to you a message that you please tell the landholder of Khiri Lakhimpur, with whom both you and Nair have already discussed the land deal, to meet Nair Saheb as early as he can. Nair Saheb has also promised to give me 200 bigha from that holding, saying that I don’t have enough land-base. I have never expressed such a wish to him; he is doing this on his own. Such people are very few in this world.’

Nair’s tenure in Faizabad was the most uncertain period for zamindars and small-time rajas. In 1949–50, when Nair was busy in self-aggrandisement, the fiefdoms of the zamindars and petty kings—by-products of the British Raj—had begun to collapse. The Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Bill was introduced in the UP Assembly in July 1949 and passed on 16 January 1951, but could become operational only after the Supreme Court upheld the Act on 5 May 1952. It was also the period when these landlords were being crushed under the pressure of accumulated taxes which were due to the province. This situation led the government to bring, just before the abolition of the zamindari system, an Encumbered Estates Act, which empowered the government to acquire the properties of defaulters. Advocate Sadhu Saran Mishra, the man who looked after Nair’s civil cases in Faizabad, recounted:

“Nair sensed an opportunity for himself in this. In lieu of clearing government dues, he began acquiring huge plots held by different estates in the region. One of the biggest properties he acquired thus belonged originally to the Lorpur Estate. Called Lorpur House, it was situated in the midst of a sprawling campus in the Civil Lines area of Faizabad. For some time it remained Nair’s residence and was later sold off as small residential plots, giving rise to what is now known as ‘Nair Colony’ in the heart of the city.”