Haji Abdul Gaffar was the last imam of the Babri Masjid, till one night in 1949 an idol of Ram Lalla was secretly placed under its central dome and the district administration allowed a priest to perform his daily puja.
“Ayodhya means a place without war, but I knew that this act would lead to bloodshed not just here but across the entire Awadh region, which we consider Ram’s Janmabhoomi, and even outside,” Imam Haji Abdul Gaffar had told me a few months before the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 by thousands of freshly-minted Ram bhakts, who called themselves karsevaks.
Mobilised by organisations owing allegiance to the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the karsevaks claimed the 16th-century mosque was built by Mir Baqi, a general in Mughal emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babar’s army, after razing a Vaishnav temple. It was not just any temple, but one that they believed marked the precise spot where Ram was born.
The following year, the Narasimha Rao government acquired 67 acres of land surrounding the disputed site, including the 2.77 acres on which the Babri Masjid had stood, turning the heart of Ayodhya into a heavily armed fortress.
Now, 70 years after Haji Abdul Gaffar was locked out of the Babri Masjid following Ram Lalla’s ‘miraculous’ appearance inside its premises, the Supreme Court will give the final verdict on the title claims, which will determine whether a temple, a mosque, or both will be built on the contested 2.77 acres of land.
‘No redressal or sympathy’
Since the return of the BJP to power at the Centre in 2014 and in the state in 2017, Nritya Gopal Das, president of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas that was set up in 1993 to oversee the construction of the proposed Ram Mandir, has been convinced that the mandir’s time has come. This has made Shahid, the grandson of Haji Abdul Gaffar, even more anxious as the judgement day approaches.
“My grandfather died a broken man, but Allah was kind to take him away a few days before the Babri Masjid was demolished. But two of his sons, my father Mohammed Shabir and my uncle Mohammed Nazeer, were not so fortunate. They were chased and hacked to death by a mob of triumphant karsevaks the same night, right outside our house on the main Faizabad-Ayodhya road,” Shahid, who was 22-years old then, said.
The house and the family-owned sawmill were burnt down. Nearly three decades later, the scraps of rusted metal peeking through the wild grass and piles of brick and rotting wood are still visible.
“We lost timber and machinery worth Rs 10-15 lakh but received just Rs 2 lakh as compensation for the death of my father,” says Shahid who is the eldest of the eight siblings in the family. Over the years, he repeatedly tried to restart the sawmill, but the state forest department refused to issue a new license: they wanted proof of ownership, which was destroyed in the arson.
“Our papers permitting the purchase of wood, income and sales tax receipts, registration documents were all reduced to ashes, but there was no redressal or sympathy,” says Shahid. In desperation, Shahid, the scion of one of Ayodhya’s most educated, prosperous and old families, turned to driving auto-rickshaws and e-cycles on the roads of Ayodhya and Faizabad to make a living. Today, it’s his only source of income.
“Sixteen Muslims were killed in Ayodhya in the aftermath of the demolition. The police conducted their post-mortem and the administration arranged for their burial. But till today, there has been no investigation into the violence, no one was ever questioned or booked, not even when the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, accused by the BJP of being pro-Muslim, were in power,” recalls Sheetla Singh, former editor of the local daily Jan Morcha.
Shahid wants justice for his father, uncle and grandfather. “If we give up our claim, it will be a betrayal of his (grandfather’s) memory and our faith. Had the demolition not been accompanied by hatred and violence, maybe I would have felt less victimised,” he says.
‘The fear never leaves us’
And that is the real tragedy of Awadh – the historical name of the region where Ayodhya is located. Many Hindu shrines are built on the land donated by Muslim aristocrats, like Hanumangarhi, Ayodhya’s biggest temple. Or the Sundar Bhavan, which was built by a royal family from the neighbouring district of Basti, but managed by Munnu Mia, a devout Shia, till his death.
It was this same syncretic culture that underlined the friendship between Hashim Ansari, the original Muslim litigant in the Ramjanmabhoomi title suit, and Ramchandra Paramhans, the flamboyant head of the Digambar Akhara who led the temple movement till his death in 2003. Bitter adversaries in court, they forgot their differences outside.
But Shahid sends his wife and children to stay with relatives in the neighbouring district of Gonda whenever there is a scent of trouble in Ayodhya. “Every year on 6 December, karsevaks pass through our area raising slogans against Muslims, asking us to go to Pakistan; the fear never leaves us,” he says.
‘We grew distant, something was lost’
But 78-year-old Waliullah Khan or Lala tailor, as he is popularly known, is not going anywhere.
Waliullah’s shop-cum-residence – four half-built rooms with a tin roof – stands adjacent to the disputed site. Raised from the ashes, after everything he owned was looted and burnt in the mayhem that followed the demolition.
It was also the first time I had met him, on the morning of 7 December 1992, as he stood helplessly, eyes fixed on the flames greedily licking his home. Waliullah and his family survived the attack only because a Hindu neighbour gave them shelter. “I always enjoyed a good relationship with the Hindus of Ayodhya. They got their clothes stitched from me, I purchased my groceries from their shops. We felt safe with each other. But the religious and political leaders who came from outside, riding their raths and brandishing their trishuls created such a vicious atmosphere that it came to this,” Waliullah had said at the time.
The father of six, who has lived in Ayodhya all his life, felt insecure for the first time in 1986, when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered unlocking of the gates of the Babri Masjid for public darshan to counter charges of Muslim appeasement by the Congress party’s high-caste Hindu constituency. Ram Lalla was, with one swift stroke, thrust into the nation’s political consciousness, setting the stage for the rise of Hindutva and the start of the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation. In October 1990, thousands of karsevaks for the first time descended on the temple town along the banks of the Sarayu river, seeking to destroy the Babri Masjid — 16 were killed in police firing.
“Till then, there was hardly any security presence in Ayodhya, but overnight it began to resemble a conflict zone,” recalls Waliullah. In the following decades, as Ayodhya got used to the new normal, the temples continued to depend on local Muslims for Ram’s needs, the flowers offered in his puja and the dresses he wore – but the two communities stopped trusting each other.
“We grew distant, even though I still have several Hindu customers,” he once told me. “No one is openly hostile, but when people start avoiding you, it becomes clear how they feel. Something was lost, just like the gentler, age-old greeting of ‘Jai Siya Ram’, which was replaced by the more strident cry of ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” he had said.
‘Everyone here feels suffocated’
Meanwhile, as change swept India, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Ayodhya remained trapped in the Mandir-Masjid conflict.
Its residents have been forced to live with broken roads, choked sewers and lack of doctors. No government in Lucknow has attempted to develop Ram’s janmabhoomi, while the dispute has dragged on in court.
But not once in the past 27 years has Waliullah ever said that he wants to move out of the town where he was born, even though it feels like a prison. “There is a barrier in every street. No one can walk in Ayodhya with their heads held high. The police will raise the barrier only for VIPs, we are always bending down. Everyone here feels suffocated,” he says.
Still hard at work on his sewing machine, he admits his body is tiring, his eyes are becoming weak and he would like nothing more than to see the old ghosts of history being laid to rest. To him, any solution is acceptable as long as it brings peace.
But the wise tailor of Ayodhya also knows that no decision can be made in haste. “Even if a nail drops in Ayodhya, its sound reverberates across India,” he says.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.