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The friendly face of Babri

Hashim Ansari, the oldest litigant in the Babri Masjid case, passed away on July 20. Photo: Special Arrangement

Hashim Ansari, the oldest litigant in the Babri Masjid case, passed away on July 20. Photo: Special Arrangement

In February this year, reports of Hashim Ansari’s demise spread like wildfire on social media and WhatsApp. This was not the first time such a rumour had circulated but there was a particular sense of pessimism this time. At 95, Ansari, the oldest litigant in the Babri Masjid case, was on a pacemaker and had been brought to Lucknow after complaining of chest pain.

I decided to visit him at Lari Cardiology Centre at King George Medical University in Lucknow. At the entrance, an armed policeman was meticulously recording all visits in a book. The intensive care unit in Lucknow’s best-known hospital was overrun by cockroaches. And on the hospital bed lay Ansari, frail and quiet. “Sab theek hai?” he asked in a low yet stable voice when he noticed I was clicking pictures of the room.

“Ji, sab theek (all is well),” I replied, only to realise a few seconds later that I had misunderstood his query. He was not asking about my well-being but his own, anxious about the long line of visitors. The conversation ended on a positive note and everyone in the ward said Ansari would live to be a 100 — something I strongly felt myself. That was the last time I would see him — yet this final meeting did not truly represent the personality that Ansari was. Although he embodied the despair, the long wait and the futility of the Babri Masjid case, he will be best remembered for his tenacity and resolve in trying to secure justice through constitutional means. That is why his voice emerged as the sanest amid all the divisive politics and provocative posturing. One of the last persons to have personal knowledge of the Babri Masjid episode, his inclusive rhetoric and insistence on a peaceful resolution made him the middle ground. With his death, an era ends and a void is created.

Ansari was born to a tailor in Ayodhya. After studying till Class 2, he joined his father in tailoring till the Emergency, when he spent eight months in Bareilly jail. Apart from the usual clothes, Ansari also stitched garments for the gods in nearby temples, a service he offered in return for prasad. After his release from jail, he repaired cycles for a few years.

In 1949, Ansari was among those arrested when idols of Lord Ram were planted inside the 400-year-old mosque. Later, he was sentenced to two years in jail for giving azaan at Babri Masjid. In 1961, when the Sunni Waqf filed a case, he and six others became the main plaintiffs in the ‘Ayodhya title suit’. But why was Ansari picked? For his amiable and persistent nature. In her book, Portraits from Ayodhya, Scharada Dubey writes: “He was perceived as honest, because he didn’t hanker after big money or a high public profile. Instead, he needed only kind words, a small treat in the form of samosas and tea or similar offerings, to keep going faithfully to the courts for every hearing.”

His simplicity and integrity got him wide affection, including that of his opponents. His cordiality with Mahant Paramhans Ramchandra Das, head of Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas in Ayodhya, was hailed as an example of Ayodhya’s composite culture. “They were legal opponents over what is essentially a property dispute… But they were friends too and often travelled by the same car to court where they took on each other,” Dubey writes.

In contrast to the divisive political campaign, those actually involved in the legal battle — Hindus and Muslims — displayed a bonhomie that reflected Awadh’s famed ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’. It was only befitting that prominent Hindu seers, including Acharya Satyendra Das, head priest at Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, were the first to visit Ansari’s house after his death.

Ansari lived in a humble dwelling just off the main road near the Tedhi Bazaar Chauraha, not too far from the disputed site. The words “Suraksha guard se poochkar andar jaye – Hashim Ansari” etched in red Devanagari font on his unassuming door were the only marker of his importance. And the four armed policemen camping outside. The district administration gave him protection in 1992, when he was attacked by a mob of Hindutva activists who tore down the mosque. Ansari was saved by his Hindu neighbours – scores of Muslim residents of Ayodhya lived to tell similar tales.

“Don’t you mistake that I am under threat from the common Hindu or any other person. I am under threat from the administration, the political parties,” he had told me in December 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the Babri demolition. Though he was highly spiteful of the VHP and RSS — despising them for playing “politics over Ram”-- he harboured bitterness for the Congress, and this feeling aggravated after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He held former Prime Minister P.V. Narsimha Rao personally responsible for the demolition and the violence in the aftermath. Yet, in his discussions and criticism, he was a voice of peace, least bit provocative or polarizing. He always propagated a peaceful solution to the long-standing dispute and once wondered, “What fighting over a few acres of land given us.” ‘Even if the case is won, the construction of the mosque will not start till the Hindus gave their support willingly,’ was his common refrain.

His quick humour and politically clever remarks made him a favourite with journalists, who played a role in making him the most recognisable face of the controversy. He used to offer his beedis to visiting journalists. On days of his bad temper, he could scold away a reporter for asking an unintelligent question or putting words in his mouth. Each time the Ram Mandir issue surfaced, or when December 6 approached each year, he was by far the most sought-after man in Ayodhya. Long chats with him gave you a hint of his sharp political wisdom and essential nuggets from the Babri episode.

Last December, while explaining to me the RSS-BJP projection of Dalits and OBCs as frontal faces to target Muslims, he made a jibe at a senior OBC BJP leader known for his role in the Hindutva movement. “Vinay Katiyar kehta hai Ram Mandir banaenge, lekin usse poocho kya woh pujari ban payega kya?” he said with scorn.

Ansari’s integrity and selfless nature came at a cost. He died a pauper, leaving behind a daughter and a son, who runs a tyre repair shop. Those close to him say his family members often criticised him for not making the most of his fame, just like some others associated with the case had. The governments too, did not give him his due. In 2014, when he was seriously ill and referred to Lucknow, his operation could not take place on time as his family did not have enough money.

For most of his life, Ansari hoped for a legal end to the dispute. In his later days, however, he gave in to disenchantment and the word insaaf or justice would get an irritated response from him. He vowed to dedicate his remaining time for maintaining communal harmony, and economic uplift of his community through a demand for reservations. “Justice, if any, should have come a long time ago. By the time the Supreme Court decides anything, I may not live to see it. Hum nahi ladenge yeh ladai, babri masjid ki ladai . Yeh film chalti rahegi .” (The film will go on.)


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Printable version | May 21, 2022 6:44:25 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/The-friendly-face-of-Babri/article14545896.ece