Why We Must Never Forget

Photo: E Mustafa

THE AYODHYA dispute does not matter very much to one section of our society. This set contests that we as a nation have moved on from the communal frenzy the issue generated two decades ago. Ayodhya: The Dark Night ought to be course material for this lot. The book demonstrates how and why this issue came alive after decades to rewrite our politics.

It pieces together a critical part of India’s history: the night of 22 December 1949, when a group of sadhus seized the Babri mosque in Ayodhya at the Hindu Mahasabha’s behest. Instead of doing his duty by the law, the then district magistrate KKK Nair colluded with the violators. He then drove the matter into a legal tangle, to the benefit of the violators. After retiring, Nair won a Lok Sabha election from Bahraich on a Jana Sangh ticket, the political bridge between the Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ayodhya: The Dark Night Krishna Jha, Dhirendra K Jha HarperCollins 192 pp; Rs 499
The Dark Night
Krishna Jha, Dhirendra K Jha
192 pp; Rs 499

Parts of this story are commonly known, but nobody has ever made the effort to piece together several accounts of what happened that night. Until journalists Krishna Jha and Dhirendra Jha got curious in 2010. They tracked down players and witnesses far and wide. Some were back in their villages in Bihar; some had moved to new cities. That they managed to get so many people to talk is remarkable. “It’s more remarkable that nobody had appr oached them before,” says Dhirendra. With months of legwork and research, the duo has put together an impressive book that joins the dots.

The most outstanding feature of the book is how it brings alive those people and their politics. Nair’s lawyer offers details of how the district magistrate used his influence with the Mahasabha to corner land for himself. Ageing relatives give an up-close account of Abhiram Das, the main accused in the criminal case, which disappeared in the drama surrounding the civil case for the possession and title of the land. The authors even traced down a relative, Indushekhar Jha, who accompanied Das to the mosque that night.

The big surprise in the book has to do with Ramchandra Das Paramhans. The then Ayodhya chief of the Mahasabha, he later became a leading figure in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s temple campaign in the 1980s. He always took credit for ‘reclaiming’ the Janmabhoomi. It turns out he wasn’t even there, disappearing at the eleventh hour and showing up three days later.

Several pieces of a very large puzzle are revealed. All the conspirators were either office bearers of the Hindu Mahasabha or were close to it. And this is the book’s central argument: that the Ayodhya conspiracy was the Mahasabha’s revival plan after it had been condemned for the role of its people in the murder of Mohandas K Gandhi in 1948. The lynchpin of the Ayodhya conspiracy was Mahant Digvijai Nath of Gorakhpur; he was also among the main accused in Gandhi’s murder. The conspiracy worked but the revival plan fizzled out, only to be used by the BJP in the 1980s.

The book draws from a wide range of historical sources and archives. The information used appears credible and is referenced. The writing style, though, does not take into account the sensitivity of the matter. In an effort to bring alive the narrative, the authors have resorted to reconstruction, always a perilous device in non-fiction. It adds needless drama. Sections like the one describing the assault on the muezzin taste overcooked.

Another disappointment is the overuse of political jargon — adjectives like communal, secular, conservative, traditionalist — have been used carelessly, in the style of a partisan publication. These terms jar and have no meaning in a charged, polarised debate. It takes away from an otherwise fine work of reportage. The book has entire paragraphs telling the reader how to see the facts, in the manner of TV reporters who make a living out of exaggerated descriptions of what the viewer can see for himself. Such errors blot the copybook of the editors more than the authors.

These irritations, though, cannot ruin a powerful story built on reportage and legwork. Especially not when it sheds new light on a festering, emotive issue that has the power to explode, if not addre s – sed with tact and compassion. Those who claim India has moved on from Ayodhya live in denial. They will serve themselves well to read this book.

Joshi is an independent journalist


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