In the night of December 22, 1949 a small statue of Lord Rama miraculously appeared in the centuries-old Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and transformed for ever the national political discourse. In this painstakingly compiled book, the authors demonstrate that far from being a miracle, the appearance of the idol in the mosque was the outcome of a diabolical game of power and pelf. The authors have pieced together the events of that ‘dark night’ through first-hand interviews with surviving eye-witnesses and others associated with the protagonists; and, from archival material, have unearthed details of the larger conspiracy and several sub-plots. Being accomplished journalists, the outcome of the Jhas’ research is a racy story that reads almost like fiction.
While Lord Rama is said to have divinely manifested himself in the Masjid on that fateful December night, ironically, a sadhu lived on in Ayodhya till his death in 1981 with the label of “Ramjanmabhoomi Uddharak” (redeemer of Rama’s birthplace). An immigrant from Bihar in search of livelihood, Abhiram Das opportunistically entered the world of vairagi sadhus and enthusiastically joined in the activities of the All India Hindu Mahasabha. Describing him as “a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered and almost completely illiterate sadhu”, the authors believe that Das was merely a willing pawn of the conspirators in the Mahasabha without a deeper awareness of their nefarious designs. Ayodhya: The Dark Night tells of Abhiram Das insinuating the idol into the mosque and commencing ritual worship there; but the focus of the book is on the larger political conspiracy.
The authors contend that “the surreptitious occupation of the Babri Masjid was an act planned by almost the same set of people” who plotted the assassination of the Mahatma. “In both instances, the conspirators belonged to the Hindu Mahasabha leadership ... their objective this time too was to wrest the political centre stage from the Congress by provoking large-scale Hindu mobilisation in the name of Lord Rama”. Having learned, however, from the massive crackdown and popular outrage following Gandhi’s assassination that had driven Mahasabha leaders into hiding or behind bars, the plotters adopted crafty means this time avoiding direct confrontation with the government.
Evidence to substantiate the charge against the Hindu Mahasabha leadership of conspiring to convert the Babri Masjid into Ram Mandir is, however, regrettably thin. Indeed, the authors admit that “there is scant evidence implicating Savarkar in this conspiracy”, and that the president of the organisation, N.B. Khare, was nothing more than a figurehead. V. G. Deshpande, the vice-president, is alluded to as the mastermind, but again with little to corroborate the charge. The Jhas’ hypothesis seems to have been built on the resolution adopted at the December 1950 session of the Mahasabha stating: “During this year the Hindu Mahasabha undertook the work of regaining the Rama Janma Bhoomi temple at Ayodhya … and the shrine is now in possession of Hindu Mahasabhaites”. The likelihood, however, is that the Mahasabha was attempting to cleverly garner credit for acts perpetrated by unsupervised local functionaries.
Digvijai Nath, the mahant of the famous Gorakhnath temple at nearby Gorakhpur, and an influential leader of the Mahasabha in the United Provinces, was a key element in the Ayodhya drama. Depicted as “a mahant who was more interested in politics than in religion, and who loved tennis as much as he hated Muslims”, Nath had earlier openly exhorted Hindu militants to kill the Mahatma. His political acumen driven by religious militancy conceived the Ram Mandir conspiracy. In this he was aided and abetted by his Malayali civil servant friend K.K.R.Nair, the local district magistrate.
What emboldened Digvijai Nath and his cohort was the fertile ground in Ayodhya for communal mobilisation. Hindu traditionalists in the Congress had received a fillip from the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat and from the overtly communal campaign of the United Provinces Chief Minister G.B. Pant to defeat the socialist Narendra Dev and secure election of a known supporter of the Ramjanmabhoomi demand. The Mahasabhaites, led by Nath, felt they could out-manoeuvre the Congress in communal machinations, while relying on Pant to keep Prime Minister Nehru — who complained helplessly that “communalism has invaded the minds and hearts of those who were pillars of the Congress” — from actively intervening in the events at Ayodhya.
With the government in Lucknow disinclined to curb the communalists and the local administration headed by Nair conniving to deliver the Babri Masjid into the hands of the Mahasabhaites, forewarnings such as a prolonged puja in close proximity to the mosque and desecration of Muslim graves went disregarded. Nair is reported to have participated in meetings of the conspirators and assured them of official inaction. In the aftermath, he succeeded in procuring a judicial injunction restraining removal of the idol from the mosque while permitting its worship. Doubtless, the major players in the Ayodhya drama were motivated by communal sentiment, but equally important was the lure of power, property and wealth as demonstrated by subsequent events.
Ayodhya: The Dark Night is a journalist’s, rather than a historian’s, account of the happenings that changed the course of Indian political history. While the authors have adroitly woven the strands of the story together, they have been unable to eschew the proclivity to sensationalise. There is little in the book, for instance, to merit a chapter titled “Nehru-Patel Stand-off”. Some descriptions too of personalities and events suggest journalistic licence, although they do add to the readability of the book.
(Govindan Nair was formerly a civil servant in Uttar Pradesh)