Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 27, Dated July 11, 2009
He saw each dome of the Babri Masjid
fall one by one. Ayodhya’s sky was all
smoke and fire. A first-hand account
Men of another god Karsewaks demolish the
domes of the Babri Masjid
Photos:PRASHANT PANJIAR/INDIA TODAY
ON DECEMBER 5, 1992, I was in Lucknow
covering LK Advani’s rally. All BJP leaders
had been doing a yatra across UP, and India
Today had asked me to follow him. That
night, after the speeches subsided, all the
journalists dispersed. Something told me to stay. I followed
Advani after the rally and landed up at Kalyan Singh’s house.
I was the only photographer there. They let me in. All the
top BJP leaders — Atal Behari Vajpayee, Murli
Manohar Joshi — were present, meeting inside a
room. I could sense the tension in the air.
When Advani stepped out at midnight, I
casually asked what time he’d leave for Ayodhya the
next day. “Right now,” he replied. Suddenly Vajpayee
emerged, headed for New Delhi. Something wasn’t
as they had expected. I called my reporter colleague
and we rushed out too.
In Ayodhya, we traced Advani
at Mahant Paramhans’
ashram meeting with Vinay
Katiyar from the Bajrang Dal,
Ashok Singhal from the VHP
and HV Seshadri from the RSS.
We learned that the karsewaks
were completely determined
to bring down the mosque.
I followed Advani as he
left the ashram. Along with
other BJP and VHP leaders, he
arrived at the platform facing
the disputed shrine to review
arrangements for symbolic
pujas which were to commence
at 11:30am. Chants of
Jai Shri Ram had begun. 200
meters away, a stage had been
set up on an open terrace in a building called the Ram Katha
Kunj. Advani walked to the dais. I followed. From the edge
of the terrace, diagonally, I could only see the domes of the
Babri Masjid, but nothing beyond and below.
All the Sangh leaders — Uma Bharti, Sadhvi Ritambara,
Vijay Raje Scindia, MM Joshi, Seshadri, Advani, Pramod
Mahajan — were on the stage. Somehow they thought I was
a VHP photographer so they let me stay. Most other photographers
were at the puja tents. Little did they know that RSS
sewaks had already been appointed to stop them from
clicking the moment the demolition began.
Back on the stage, Advani and Seshadri looked nervous.
The pujas began; so did the speeches. At around 11:30am
people started climbing the domes. Photographers started
clicking. The karsewaks pounced on them. They were pushed into a room and locked up. Those who resisted were beaten.
“We’ll break your legs if you try to come out,” they were told.
I was the only photographer who had a clear view of the
domes. Through the lens, I could see men with iron rods
beating on a dome. There was laughter on the stage. Suddenly,
a larger group of people appeared on the top of the
dome, and it looked like the beginnings of a serious attack.
At this point, I turned towards the leaders. I could see the
faces of Advani and Seshadri. They looked disturbed.
A little later, I would see them in front of
the stage wide-eyed, with their mouths gaping
open. Around them, the other leaders on stage
looked pleased with themselves. It seemed that
Advani was trying to signal to the other VHP
leaders – ‘Enough, now call them down.’ But the
others weren’t satisfied and wanted ‘a little more’.
This was when I began to
understand the urgency of the
previous night in Lucknow. I
think the BJP leaders received
information that the karsewaks
weren’t going to listen to
them. Vajpayee rushed to
Delhi to damage control. Advani
rushed to Ayodhya early
and Kalyan Singh stayed in
Lucknow. I think Advani had
been promised by the Ram
Janambhoomi movement that
they’d create a ruckus but
ensure the mosque is not
demolished. But this doesn’t
absolve Advani of culpability.
Meanwhile, the others
were laughing in great delight.
When the first dome
began to crack, there were loud cheers from Uma Bharati,
Sadhvi Ritambara and Scindia. They egged on the karsewaks
with chants of “Ek Dhaka Aur Do, Babri Masjid Tod Do”.
By this time, I received information that most of the other
photographers had been beaten up. I realised that I was the
only one who could photograph the domes falling. I knew I
had to be careful. By mid-day, the domes were being attacked
with full force. I saw people walking away from the
Masjid carrying long pillars on their head.
At one point, I overheard Advani ask Pramod Mahajan
to go ‘check what was going on’. Advani never left the stage,
but all the other leaders were doing trips back and forth.
Mahajan came back, and I overheard again. “Nothing can be
done. They’ve tied ropes from behind. They will pull down
It got hotter by mid-afternoon. I had been there the entire
day without food or water. I remember sitting on a chair at one
point, my head falling in a slump. A swami came up to me and
asked, “Why is your head down? Are you not happy (about the
demolition)?” By 4:30pm, two of the domes were gone. I shot
the sequence. Initially there had been a lot of chaos but as the
operation progressed it seemed to be a systematic demolition,
one dome after the other.
Some of the photographers
who had been
beaten up had managed
to escape and come to
the stage. I borrowed a
longer lens from one of
them. His camera had been smashed and he was too shocked
to shoot. With the longer lens, I shot the last dome as it fell. I
saw it tilt, and remain titled for a second until it smashed on
the ground. A cloud of dust rose to fill the empty air. The sight
of that last dome, titled in mid-air, about to fall, remains a striking
image. There was complete jubilation on the stage. Soon,
I saw the city’s horizon pierced with spirals of smoke. An
acharaya said into the mike, “Look at these Muslims, they are
burning their own homes to malign us.” The karsewaks went
berserk. The killing began. The sky was all smoke and fire.
A young woman police officer came to the Rama Katha
Kunj aghast. She said the entire town was out of control. She
told me about two photographers – Nitin Rai and Pablo
Bartholomew, who the karsewaks were trying to lynch. She
saved them by saying she’s arresting them.
|‘The Muslims are burning their
homes to malign us,’ said an acharya,
and the karsewaks went berserk
When I came down from the stage, all I could see were logs
of wood, road blocks, fire, people brandishing sticks and rods.
By 7:30pm most journalists escaped from Ayodhya. I too
managed to get into a car and head
to Faizabad, where we were staying.
I returned later next day to photograph
the aftermath. The hillock
where the mosque stood was now
covered with pink tents. The karsewaks
had begun constructing the makeshift temple.
Seventeen years after the demolition, it isn’t the falling of
the domes that has left a lasting impression. Rather, it was
the acharya’s words as the smoke spiraled from Muslim
homes that remains the most defining moment. The demolition
of a mosque can be part of the politics of hatred, but
what stopped Advani from walking up to the same microphone?
One appeal from him to stop the killing would have
saved many lives. The lack of that was the most defining
thing for me. It was the complete absence of courage.