‘Advani Looked Disturbed… Mouth Gaping Open’

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He saw each dome of the Babri Masjid fall one by one. Ayodhya’s sky was all smoke and fire. A first-hand account

Prashant PanjiarPrashant Panjiar
Photographer

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.

Men of another god Karsewaks demolish the domes of the Babri Masjid in 1992
Men of another god Karsewaks demolish the domes of the Babri Masjid in 1992
Photo: Prashant Panjiar/India Today

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.

‘The Muslims are burning their homes to malign us,’ said an acharya, and the karsewaks went berserk

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 the domes.”

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 4:30 pm, 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.

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.

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