It is difficult to believe that a full quarter century has passed since I, just a decade-old journalist at that time, was witness to the most shameful day in Indian democracy — the Babri Masjid demolition at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.
A sub-editor at The Times of India, Lucknow, I was thrilled to get the opportunity of assisting the Voice of America bureau chief Peter Heliene and his team who were going to Ayodhya for coverage. I was all set for the trip when I got a call on December 4. It was Peter telling me that according to his information December 6 was going to be a normal day in Ayodhya so it was likely that he may not go. The VOA technical crew had already left by road for Lucknow with the recording equipment and Peter was to take a flight on December 5. He suggested that I go with the team. I refused, as I was not comfortable handling the ultra-sophisticated equipment.
It was just a couple of hours later when Peter called again. He had changed his mind and would be reaching Lucknow by afternoon and we would leave by road for our destination. The next day by late afternoon we left for Ayodhya. There was another foreign journalist who had flown from Delhi with Peter. The 130 odd kms were spent talking about how this trip would be a damp squib.
It was late evening when we entered Faizabad. Everything looked so normal. In fact, we even encountered a wedding party on the way. While Peter and his friend checked into a hotel, I moved into a relative’s place. We decided to leave early morning for Ayodhya — some 35 km away.
It was almost 9 am when we reached Ayodhya. It was obvious that it was the place of great activity. One could see media, especially international media crews all over. I started talking to the saffron clad sadhus, as I translated from Hindi to English for Peter. I have hazy memories of BJP leaders like L K Advani, Uma Bharti, Ritambhara talking to the crowd about ‘maryadapurshotam’ Ram.
I do not remember exactly when but suddenly, around noon, there was a slight commotion not very far from where we were conducting the interactions. Minutes later the scene became nasty. I got separated from the team. Some journalists beckoned me to climb up on the chabutra and I did so, just in the nick of time because soon I saw Peter, who continued recording live, being attacked on the head and starting to bleed. Soon groups of kar sewaks started scaling the mosque and pulling it down with sharp objects. Media persons were attacked, their cameras and recorders snatched and the photo films destroyed by exposure to the sun. The media persons, taken totally by surprise, started running for life.
The voices on the public address grew louder by the hour. Hysterical appeal to the Hindus to save Ram and take revenge by demolition of the ‘disputed’ structure were made. The kar sewaks came out in swarms, wearing saffron robes, brandishing swords and shouting slogans of Jai Sri Ram.
Like everyone else I too tried to find shelter somewhere. I managed to reach a place where women police constables were standing but they shooed me off away. “Yahan nahi (dont stand here),” was all they said. I managed to climb onto a structure just opposite the dome that kar sewaks were climbing and attacking with a vengeance one never thought human beings were capable of.
Soon I met some senior journalists like Hissam Siddiqui, Qurban Ali, Sharat Pradhan and Rajiv Saabde of Marathi paper Sakaal. As luck would have it, the barricading was done by Marathi kar sewaks. Rajiv ensured that we all passed with him through the human wall of frenzy. We got out of the danger zone. We had to walk on the smelly railway tracks laced with human excreta and on kutcha, uneven roads. I cannot remember how many miles we walked but we were totally exhausted, shaken and shocked. It seemed like an eternity had passed when we heard the sound of a jeep. It was the official vehicle of a Hindi daily that was rushing off to Faizabad with raw footage of the attack. We took a lift and squeezed in.
Reaching Ayodhya, we all trooped into the only decent (now it is super luxury, I am told) hotel Shan-e-Avadh. Some local journalists were there. Soon after Mark Tully, at that time with BBC, reached. He was all ruffled up. He had been locked up by kar sewaks but somehow managed to escape.
Without wasting time Mark got down to reporting his story. At that time I realized why we rely so much on BBC. Those were not days of mobile phones; I wondered where Peter was. I later learnt that he had gashes on his head and was rushed to Delhi by his team. He got 12 stitches.
The four of us managed to reach Lucknow by late evening. It was a different Lucknow that I re-entered. I went straight to The Times of India office. Everyone at home and in office had been worried and was relieved to see me safe. Horror stories of killings and burnings had started pouring in and there was an unprecedented fear all around.
I was shaken to the core. My belief in a secular India was gone. I even questioned my parents decision to have stayed back in India when so many other Muslims chose to go to Pakistan. This India was so alien to the one I had been brought up in.
The journalist in me stood up. I wrote a piece and sent it off to New Delhi. The late Dilip Padgoankar, the then editor, sent a reply that I still have somewhere in my file: “Kulsum, your piece is too volatile. I am sorry I cannot publish it.”
I had mentioned in the article the three-pronged attack on me, because I was a woman, a Muslim and a journalist. The anger in me remained for a long period. I remember telling Kalyan Singh, the then chief minister, a few days later at a press conference, “Should I thank you for making me realize I am a Muslim.” But my anger and my Muslim identity did not stay for long. It is not part of my psyche. I have not had such an upbringing so I cannot carry communal feelings for long.
A month after December 6 I had to leave for Germany. There, at the Press Club, the Indian community invited me to talk about the incident, which I did with tears running down my cheeks. My eyes still moisten whenever I think of December 6. I still cannot give reasons for the madness that prevailed in Ayodhya that day. I was hurt, felt humiliated and unsafe. But it is also true that I and Hissam (I hope he will agree will this) are alive today because two persons — Sharat and Rajiv — choose to risk their own lives to ensure our safety.
Twenty five years after the shameful day I would like to believe what Dileep Padgoankar wrote in his iconic editorial on Ayodhya: “Ten thousand mad people is not India.”