While I was walking the quiet pilgrim trails of the Himalaya, Hindu nationalists were preparing apocalypse - the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. I came down from the mountains to find India in a ferment of communal murder.
December 1992. It was the off-season in Rishikesh. My hotel room cost me two pounds a night. There was an en-suite bathroom with a shower and hot water. The windows had glass in them and they were large and bright. The bed was comfortable and none of the furniture was broken. The sheets were clean and had no holes in them. In the holiday season it would have been out of my league.
After I had showered I went down to the empty restaurant and ordered a paratha and an omelette. Then I went into the street and bought a Times of India. It was the first English-medium newspaper that I had seen since for weeks.
The newspaper was filled with horror and death. People were killing one another all over India. Ninety people had been murdered in Bhopal; hundreds had been killed in Bombay. The old city of Delhi - the Muslim district - was under curfew. Hindu blacksmiths in Gujarat were working round the clock to make the weapons needed for murdering Muslims. Houses had been torched. Rioters in Rajasthan had been fired on by police. People had been burned alive. Hindu temples had been destroyed in England and Pakistan. Women had been publicly raped. Muslims had been made to shout Jai Shri Ram before they died. And so on.
Words that I had not heard since I was in Delhi appeared again and again. Babri Masjid. Kar Sevak. Ayodhya. The story had no beginning, because everyone but me knew it already.
I bought an Indian Express and a Hindustan Times and leafed through them, teasing out the story that everyone else knew.
Long ago, Lord Vishnu was incarnated as Prince Rama in the city of Ayodhya in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In 1528 AD, when the Emperor Babur ruled Moghul India from Agra, the temple that marked Rama’s birthplace was demolished and a mosque was built on its ruins. The mosque was called the Babri Masjid in Babur’s honour.
No contemporary record of either of these events has survived.
Vaisnavites came to Ayodhya and fought with Shaivites and were successful. After all, it was Vishnu's birthplace, not Shiva's.
The story of a temple buried under a mosque took root during the nineteenth century. Vaisnavites and Muslims fought battles around its site. The British eventually mediated a deal that allowed Muslims to use the interior of the mosque while Vaisnavite Hindus worshipped at a platform in its precincts.
Muslims looked at the Babri Masjid and saw themselves
And that was that until 1949, when images of the infant Rama and his consort Sita materialised inside the mosque. The civil authorities had the mosque locked, but allowed Hindus to worship in its precincts. The lock was opened in 1986 on the orders of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The mosque became a de facto temple. Hindus began to agitate for its demolition so that a proper temple could be built in its place, and Muslims filed law suites for its preservation. Muslim Kashmir was drifting towards insurgency by then, and Muslim marriage laws were being challenged by Hindu judges in Indian courts. Muslims looked at the Babri Masjid and saw themselves.
The campaign against the mosque was taken up by a Hindu Nationalist organisation called the RSS - the National Assembly of Volunteers. Natharam Godse - the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi - had once been a member of this Assembly. It has cultivated a kind of brownshirt street-credibility in spite of its high-caste leadership. The campaign against the Babri Masjid gave it a cause that the lower castes could rally to. The campaign also brought new support to the BJP - the parliamentary arm of Hindu nationalism - and in the end it brought down the government.
There were elections. The old order held. Congress took power again. Congress is the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and of the secular, socialist constitution. Never mind that it is also the party of the middle classes, and of government fiat, and of corruption and nepotism. Never mind that Congress workers were in the habit of nurturing religious disputes to confound their enemies and to show their friends which way their bread was buttered.
In the spring and summer of 1992 there were more calls for the mosque to be demolished. Sandals dedicated to Rama were sent all over India, to remind Hindus of their duty. I had seen the sandals arrive in Delhi, in October. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao held talks with Hindus and Muslims, and spoke of secular values, and left the matter in the hands of the courts. “Masterly inactivity,” the newspapers called it.
In the first days of December two hundred thousand Hindu volunteers - kar sevaks - gathered at Ayodhya. There were rumours that elite kar sevaks had been trained in commando tactics at RSS camps in the south. The BJP controlled the state government of Uttar Pradesh, so nobody expected the state police to confront the kar sevaks if they could help it. Twenty five thousand soldiers under the orders of the central government gathered in the countryside around Ayodhya. The BJP leader assured the Prime Minister that the kar seva would be strictly symbolic.
On the morning of 6th December - a Sunday - a handful of kar sevaks broke through the police cordon. Three thousand five hundred men of the Army’s Rapid Action Force moved towards Ayodhya and then turned back at the first barricade of the kar sevaks. The District Magistrate would not allow them to clear it. The kar sevaks threw a grappling hook up to the top of one of the domes of the mosque. Ropes were climbed. Hammers and iron rods and pick-axes appeared. Conches blew. Press photographers were beaten up. Men in saffron swarmed over the mosque. One after another, the domes came tumbling down. Muslim homes near to the mosque began to burn. And then the riots began, all over India.
In London and New York, the newspapers ran pictures of men in saffron headbands standing on the ruins of the mosque with their tridents held high. Germans have made that other Hindu symbol, the swastika, into an emblem of evil. Now Indians were trying to do the same thing for the trident.
“Ayodhya?” said the receptionist in my hotel. “It is the history of India. These people have no self-control. What can be done with such people?”
“And in Rishikesh?”
“There is no problem in this Rishikesh. Good people. No Muslim people.”
I stepped outside. A saffron-clad sadhu was standing in the middle of the road, talking to a woman who was holding four plastic carrier bags. Motor scooters threaded past them. On the far side of the street a black sow was rooting in the gutter beside a skinny hump-backed cow. I could hear hymns being played over a temple loudspeaker.
I washed my hands and face in the Ganga. There was a paved area beside the river, and there was a strand of shingle between it and the water. A woman was standing ten metres out from the shore with her head covered by a golden dupatta, bathing. Three sadhus were sitting cross-legged on the paved concourse. There were stalls nearby that sold plastic containers of various sizes for bottling the holy water of the Ganga.
I walked on until I found a bridge to the left bank. Temples and ashrams were heaped like concrete confectionery between the river and the green hills beyond. I sat for a while in their gardens, and read.
In the morning there were more deaths in the newspaper. Buses and trains had been stopped, and people had been taken off them and killed. Someone had been killed in Hardwar, twenty kilometres down the Ganga from Rishikesh. There was a rumour that trains from Hardwar to Delhi had been cancelled.
“Nothing can be achieved without sacrifice,” said a Hindu leader. “The Muslims must accept this.” He meant exactly what he said. Sacrifice, like the sacrifice of a goat. Not self-sacrifice.
“No travel,” said the receptionist. “You wait. This good place. Peaceful.”
I waited in Rishikesh until the horror had faded, and then I travelled to Delhi and on to Edinburgh. It was nearly Christmas.