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Eyewitness: Ayodhya mosque destruction

Babri mosque at Ayodhya
The prime minister's advisers said the mosque was safe

Former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully recalls the day Hindu fanatics pulled down the historic Babri mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

All of us journalists, if we are honest, have to admit that we get it wrong sometimes.

And I got it wrong that morning in 1992 when perhaps as many as 150,000 members of the RSS, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Hindu nationalism, had gathered in the north Indian town of Ayodhya.

They intended to start the construction of a temple on the site they believed was the birthplace of the God Rama.

The RSS had given a commitment not to touch the mosque and to restrict construction to a religious ceremony symbolising the laying of the first bricks.

LK Advani, who later became India's deputy prime minister, was in the opposition and the leader of the campaign to pull down the mosque and build a temple. He had given a commitment to the prime minister that there would be no disturbances.

An army of civilian and paramilitary police had been sent to Ayodhya and the prime minister's security advisers had told him he could assure the Supreme Court the mosque was safe.

Ceremony

The RSS prided itself on its reputation for discipline and that reputation was on the line. So I was far from certain that discipline would crack and said as much on the air.

But all too soon it became clear that the ceremony would not be peaceful.

Before it started I took up a position on the roof of a building overlooking the mosque, a building with a telephone so that I could report back to London.

The police, who had strict instructions not to open fire, were swamped by wave after wave of slogan-shouting Hindus

The satellite telephone was still a rarity. I was watching the elaborate Hindu ceremonies wondering whether the word pictures I would paint on radio would come anywhere near the graphic television coverage, when I saw the barriers below collapse and young men wearing yellow headbands charge into the space where the ceremony was to be held.

Television crews were their target. They attacked them with staves, knocked them down, and trampled on their equipment. This seemed to be the signal for a mass assault on the mosque.

The police, who had strict instructions not to open fire, were swamped by wave after wave of slogan-shouting Hindus surging towards the mosque.

Locked up

In almost no time at all, I saw two young men scramble on top of a dome and start to dismantle it.

Hindu protesters in 1990
There were violent scenes at Ayodhya well before its destruction in 1992

That was the last I saw of the Ayodhya mosque. The crowds had torn down the phone lines so I had to rush to the nearby town of Faizabad to file my report.

When I returned to Ayodhya groups of jubilant RSS supporters chanting obscene slogans against Muslims were parading through the narrow lanes.

As I got out of the car, I was surrounded by an angry crowd who locked me up in one of the many temples that already existed in Ayodhya.

And by the time I was released, it was almost dark and the mosque had been razed to the ground.

Denial

During my years in India I have reported many stories that have distressed me. I arrived in Bhopal before all the bodies of those killed by the poison gas had been removed from their shacks in the slums in front of the Union Carbide plant.

This was a man-made disaster which need never have happened and, as usual, the poorest of the poor were the victims.

I was in Pakistan during the trial and execution of the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and sources inside the jail had told me about his courage throughout that ordeal.

It should be an outstanding example of religious pluralism

I was in close contact with one of the judges and so I knew that his execution was a travesty of justice.

Rajiv Gandhi greeted me warmly when he cast his vote, hours before he was assassinated.

Earlier in that election campaign he had spoken to me about the mistakes he had made during his first term of office and asked me to accept that he would be able to push through his plans for modernising India if he won this time.

I witnessed those and many other tragedies often involving people whose names will not be recorded in history, but, asked to recollect one incident I reported for the BBC, I've chosen Ayodhya because it was a denial of something which I regard as quintessentially Indian.

The culture of India is by its very nature accommodating, and for centuries it has allowed all the great religions of the world to make their homes here.

Hindus traditionally accept there are many ways to god and, as one 20th Century Western scholar has put it, "for the dogmatic certainty that has racked the religions of semitic origin Hindus feel nothing but shocked incomprehension."

So India with its Hindu majority should be the last place to find religious fanaticism. It should be an outstanding example of religious pluralism in a world where people of different faiths still so often find it difficult to live with each other.




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