Public discourse, across generations, is often guided by history, not memory. What is this history? and what is the memory that defined the generations that came before us? Babri Masjid, 25 Years On… is a book that revives and preserves previous generations’ memories, as opposed to an indifferent history.
For my generation, whose knowledge of the past is scant at best, but finds itself thrown into the roaring sea of today’s religious fanaticism, this book makes one pause and ponder our current moment.
A total of 15 narratives – comprising personal accounts by two journalists, six artists and seven activists – give us different perspectives on the single event that fundamentally upset the foundation of Indian democracy. A variety of voices – perpetrators, victims, interveners and spectators – knit together a narrative that gives the reader a holistic picture of what happened in urban India after the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground.
The text, lucidly written, paints a vividly real picture for us from several different perspectives. Some stories, including ones translated from Marathi, focus on how grass-root initiatives such as Citizens for Peace, Mohalla Committee Movement, Save Republic Committee and Moral Rearmament Movement helped forge new relationships and bridge gaps across communities post the riots.
Others, like Anant Bagaitkar’s account, capture how institutions can inadvertently and intentionally stoke conflict and violence within communities. Writing about the effects of institutional apathy, Bagaitkar refers to observations made by Justice V R Krishna Iyer: “It was a pity, he said, that the high court and the Supreme Court do not have the guts to face the issue.” He goes on to say that the judge “also pointed out that it was not the judiciary alone to blame but even the government.” And that the government’s decision to throw its “hands up in despair is a confession of guilt”.
Pratap Asbe’s writing on the other hand is a first person account of being a reporter in Ayodhya when the mosque was demolished. Asbe’s narration includes deposing before the Srikrishna Enquiry Commission, and also being a witness in the demolition case 25 years after it happened. Through his account, we get a different perspective on institutional breakdown and what it looks like when people and institutions blatantly defy constitutional norms.
Speaking about the‘(un)belongingness’ that Muslims feel in India, Shafaat Khan tells us how he used a play about the Partition to facilitate a fruitful dialogue between two Hindu and Muslim communities. These small acts of restoration are what brought calm to Indian cities in the wake of the riots.
Accounts provided by activists give the how and what of riots. A range of perspectives on the fear psychosis at work, large scale plunder & loot, criminalisation of the Bahujans and victimisation of women takes us back to the riots.
In one chapter, Shama Dalwai recalls turning to Gandhi’s ideas to tackle rioting Muslims in her neighbourhood: “A few days before the advent of 1993 there was a rumour that the Muslims would come down from Qureshi Nagar to Chunabhatti masjid in the guise of offering namaz on the Friday of 1, January 1993 and start rioting. This rumour could not go neglected. My sister-in-law Fatima, a colleague at Swadhar (Rekha) and I decided to intervene in the so-called rioting. We recalled an approach that Mahatma Gandhi had adopted during the partition riots. ‘If everyone opposes violence in one’s own area, the riots would stop at that very instant.'”
At one point, social worker Rekha Thakur recounts an incident that drove home the planned nature of rumours: “Another method was to spread rumours; one such widely circulating rumour was that Muslims would attack in truckloads. Another rumour was that Muslims committed atrocities against Hindu women and severed their breasts. I inquired with members of the nurses’ union under Municipal Workers Union. They confirmed that no such incident ever occurred. However, people refused to believe the truth.”
Joy Sengupta, in his writing, draws a clear boundary between the India that existed before the riots and the nation that emerged after them. He says, “The difference between communalism (a divisive political game) and fundamentalism (fanatic religious discourse), is the difference between India before 6 December, 1992 and India after 6 December, 1992.”
The most striking aspect of the book is the lesson that we all become complicit in mob-committed crimes whether we choose to or not. Often, without recognising that we’re doing it, we take sides. By taking on larger identities that don’t distinguish us as individuals, we erase our sense of accountability to ourselves and others. Personal guilt is transformed into a dangerously divisive force.
Despite its emphasis on gathering diverse perspectives, one element that finds little space in the book is Brahminical elitism. This sense of elitism and male entitlement perpetuated by our caste system, is foundational to the form of Hindutva which has shaped Indian society. The book is still undoubtedly a major step forward in the process of re-establishing societal harmony in the country.
Naveen Nagarjuna is an advocate based in Delhi and Bengaluru.
Featured image credit: PTI