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That Fateful Day

How the Nation Survived

Harbans Mukhia ( taught medieval history at JNU and is editor of the Medieval History Journal.

The Babri Masjid was demolished a quarter century ago but it is evident today when we look back that much more than the demolition of a 16th century building is involved. There is a well-thought-out, fully evolved and hardly concealed plan to deprive India of the heritage that has let it survive tempestuous interventions and retain its pluralist fabric. But then the people are bigger than state power as well as any partial social base.

Six December 1992. The fateful day that brought home the image of the end of the world, at least the end of the nation as we had known it. What else would befall the nation whose very survival now faced a question mark, was the thought that haunted us, reared as we were on the notion of secularism that almost coincided with atheism and of the separation of state and religion. Clouds turned darker when bomb blasts in Bombay (now Mumbai) in March 1993 ripped apart the last and the slimmest hope of pulling together. An edifice of an idea and an ideal built over a lifetime came crashing down.

A few weeks later, a glimmer of hope began to show up when news started filtering in from small towns and remote localities that Hindus and Muslims there had got together to rebuild the mosques and temples that had been destroyed or damaged and had resolved to ensure that no outsider could enter their locality to create communal tension. After the Bombay incidents, riots had begun to subside and social peace remained in place in the absence of large-scale riots over the next decade, until 2002 in Gujarat where the state administration’s abetment has been a living memory.

Another living memory has been the enormous electoral dividends that the demolition of the Babri Masjid had brought to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was after all the immediate object of the disaster-courting rath yatra taken out by L K Advani. Remember his public statement at the height of the frenzy of the yatra “I am a political, not a religious leader?” But did the demolition actually yield the BJP the dividends it was looking for? Assembly elections were held in the Hindi belt in 1993. The party lost in Uttar Pradesh—the home of the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid dispute—in Madhya Pradesh and in Himachal Pradesh and barely survived in Rajasthan, though with a greatly reduced majority, largely because its chief minister, the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had prudently kept aloof from Advani’s yatra. The BJP government at the centre was sworn in not in the aftermath of the demolition but in 1998, six long years after the demolition. The rise of the BJP was owing to several other developments rather than the fruition of the rath yatra and 6 December.

The decade of social peace between 1992 and 2002 and the BJP’s defeat in the 1993 elections has left a very significant lesson. The primary one at least for me is that atheistic secularism could not save the nation from inflicting wounds on itself; it was a notion of culture and world view enriched by history, especially medieval history that brought us back from the brink.

Competing Forms of Worship

Medieval India had brought us face-to-face with two rival notions of god and two competing forms of worship: Hinduism and Islam. In the face of Hinduism’s innumerable gods and goddesses and equally numerous forms of worship, Islam brought the concept of a single god and a single form of worship. The ideal of social set-up that ensued from the two also varied widely. Thus, besides the battles for territory and power and the ensuing bloodshed as well as accommodation within the structure of power and authority, in the religious and social milieu, contact and assimilation prevailed even as tensions too were part of it. It is significant that in the midst of so much bloodshed in the intra- as well as inter-community conflicts at the political plane, there is no record of what we know as communal riots anytime from around 1200 (establishment of the Delhi Sultanate) to the first quarter of the 18th century, when the Mughal state had started to run its downward course. The first communal riot was recorded in 1713–14 in Ahmedabad on the day of Holi revelry, instigated by two rivals in the jewellery business, one Hindu and the other Muslim. This was brought under control within two days (Khan1927–30).Over the entire 18th century there were five such riots of the sort that occur around 500 times a year under the aegis of the independent, secular state (Umar1993).

I believe the driving force of the prolonged social peace in India’s medieval centuries was the evolution of a new religious ideology at the ground level in the vernacular languages, the ideology generically known as the bhakti ideology. It is interesting that even as the Sanskrit binary buddhijīvī and shramjīvī neatly divides society into two halves, each with a clear-cut function, the one ideology, product of buddhi, which ensured the most durable social harmony, was the creation of shramjīvī’s par excellence, illiterate or at best semi-literate people at the lower rungs of society living entirely by their manual labour; it is hard to encounter a sturdier refutation of the binary. Faced with dichotomous denominational religions, Hinduism and Islam, each as the other’s firmest negation, the bhakti movement substituted for it a new dichotomy, one of a single universal god in lieu of competing, almost warring Ishwar and Allah. This concept either stood above both gods or assimilated both in a single unity. In lieu of rituals-filled denominational religions, bhakti created a notion of inclusive universal religiosity. Many bhakti poets propagated this ideology, but Kabir stands out tallest among them. Even as he ridiculed all rituals of both religions, a certain distance between Hindu polytheism and Islamic monotheism (tauhīd) remained. Kabir gave a fascinating new meaning to tauhīd, which was specifically Indian.

Before we review this new meaning, we might note that the great Indian historian and thinker of the 16th century, Abu’l Fazl, calls Kabir a muwāhidd, adherent of tauhīd. He observes that “the hidden meaning had become clear to him (Kabir) and he had given up the obsolete customs (farsūdeh rasmhāi) of the world; much of his poetry in the local (Hindi) language is memorable for searching the Truth” (Fazl1872). His younger contemporary, Abdul Haqq Muhaddis tells the story of his father asking his own father whether Kabir was a Muslim or non-Muslim and being told he was neither; he was instead a muwāhidd. When the son wished to know what that meant, the father told him he would understand it only when he grew up.Both Fazl and Haqq (and his grandfather) knew that Kabir was not a muwāhidd in the accepted sense of an adherent of tauhīd, monotheism, equivalent here to Islam. Among the several meanings of tauhīd and a movement named al-Mohd in the 12th century Morocco founded by Ibn Tumart which led to the short-lived al-Mohd Caliphate and empire and which had sought to return Muslim society to its pristine puritanical state (Encyclopedia of Islam1997), the binding thread was that all these were confined within the fold of Islam, attempting to “purify” Islam of all the “un-Islamic” elements that had crept into it since Muhammad’s time (Siddiqi2012). Kabir broke this barrier and sought to understand tauhīd beyond the established religions, where he could boldly announce that he was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim but a devotee of the one supreme being. Fazl, who created the ideological architecture of Akbar’s empire, premised his notion of sulh-i kul, absolute (or universal) peace, on this notion of universal god, dichotomous with denominational gods. Mirza Ghalib, the great poet, defines himself as a muwāhidd in exactly the same sense: “I am a muwāhhid, my religion is renunciation of customs; when communities are erased, they become parts of the (true) faith” (Dīwān-i Ghālib1999: 85).

A variant of this notion is Gandhiji’s favourite verse ishwar allah terau naam. Its durability is evident in the everyday use of the phrase in India from the highest to the lowest level, “god is One though we might call him by different names.” It creates space for the assertion of one’s own god but also the acceptance of others’ title to worshipping their gods; it is not predicated upon the validity of one’s god and invalidity of others. It is this vision, this world view, which I believe explains why peace prevailed in society for over five out of five and a half medieval Indian centuries. And in the end it was this vision of a universal god that came to the rescue of a beleaguered nation in the aftermath of that fateful day. It is this vision that irks the Sangh Parivar endlessly as it does the Islamic State.

It, however, happens that as a person, I still remain a devout atheist.

Neither Evidence Nor Links

The history of the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid has been written about extensively by now. My own research on the theme based entirely on medieval Indian sources is summarised here. The first and most decisive evidence of the construction of what came to be known as Babri Masjid was inscribed on the outer and the inner walls of the masjid in the form of verses in the Persian language. A S Beveridge, translator of Babur’s massive memoirs into English, has taken note of these verses and given the translation (not her own) of part of the first and the whole of the second set. The first set is

In the name of One who is Omniscient

Creator of the Worlds (but) Himself abode-less

In salutation to the Prophet, beyond all praise

The Chief among prophets of the two worlds

Narrating to the world the story of Babur the recluse

Who has attained to the height of worldly success.

If Beveridge did not give the translation of the whole verse, she still cautioned against “read[ing] any further meaning into it, for the language would not warrant it” (Bābur-Nāma1922).

The second set of verses reads in English translation as follows:

By the command of Emperor Babur

whose justice is an edifice reaching up to

the very height of heavens

The good hearted Mir Baqi

Built this alighting place of angels

May this goodness last forever

The year of construction becomes manifest in saying

May this goodness last forever.

Baqi, a soldier of Babur, unambiguously asserts that he constructed “the alighting place of angels” on the command of Babur. Babur himself records his visit to Ayodhya twice on the same page in his memoirs in 1527–28, the year of the construction of the masjid, and “stayed there a few days” to take some administrative measures and, never one to forget, go for a hunt (Bābur-Nāma1922).1 But he makes no mention of a temple, much less a Ram temple which he ordered destroyed to make place for the masjid erected in his own name. He does not even take cognisance of Baqi’s attribution of its construction to his command here or elsewhere in his memoirs. There is no evidence that Babur even knew anything of it.

We come across the next reference to Ayodhya in Abu’l Fazl’s ‘Ain-i Akbarī, towards the end of the 16th century. “Awadh” (equivalent of Ayodhya), he says,

is among the greatest cities of Hind. It is an esteemed ancient sacred place. Around the enviros of the city, they sift the earth and obtain gold. It was under the protection of Raja Ramchandra who in the Tretā age combined in his own person spiritual supremacy (farmānrawāī-i ma’nawī) and king’s responsibilities. (takht nashīnī)

It is evident that neither in Mir Baqi’s verses on the walls of the mosque, nor in Babur’s memoirs nor in the ‘Ain-i Akbarī is there any reference to a temple at the site where Babri Masjid was constructed. Indeed, except in the verses, there is no mention of the masjid at all in the other medieval sources we have encountered. If Babur fails to mention the masjid, so do all of his descendants down to the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Even the bigoted Aurangzeb, himself responsible for the demolition of several temples and erection of mosques on their foundations, Kashi and Mathura among them, shows no knowledge of the masjid or the temple. If no one else among the Mughal rulers, Aurangzeb would surely have been pleased to record the act by his great predecessor, if he had heard of it. But rulers apart, the numerous historians of every hue, bigoted Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni, friend-turned-foe of the “rationalist” Abu’l Fazl, several historians in-between, Hindu and Parsi historians, poets of Hindi and Persian—all one can hear from them on the issue is silence. So too from the numerous European travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The first concrete evidence of a link between the masjid and Ram Janmasthān comes from a legal document submitted to the Faizabad law court in 1822 by its superintendent, daroghā-i adālat, one Hafizullah, in the Persian language. It reads:

The Jama masjid, constructed by Emperor Babur, is located at the Janma Asthān, that is at the site of the birth of Ram, son of Raja Dasrat (and is) adjacent to the building of Rasoi (kitchen) of Sita, wife of the above mentioned Ram …2

Even as it unambiguously linked the masjid to the precise place of Ram’s birth, it does not refer to any temple, much less a Ram temple giving way to the masjid.

The rest of the 19th century is teeming with a lot of action, including not a little violence and some attempts by the Awadh Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, to resolve the tensions which in some versions were predicated upon the destruction of the Ram temple.3 However, even by the late 1860s, the version had not found universal acceptance. P Carnegy in his Historical Sketch of the Fyzabad District (1870) conjectured about the existence of a temple at the site going by the black stone pillars embedded in the walls but could not decide whether the temple was dedicated to Ram or to the Buddha. However, at another place he did record that the temple was indeed one for Ram and had been built upon for the mosque, though he based the assertion on “locally affirmed” information, that is, popular tradition (Carnegy 1870). Another three decades and a half, by 1905, the story had made its way to the official District Gazetteer of Faizabad, although it still talked vaguely of “an ancient temple” being destroyed (Nevill1905).The final push to the growing assertion was given by Beveridge in an appendix to her magnificent translation of the Bābur-Nāma from the original Turkish (first published in 1922). In Appendix U, in a note she observes,

Presumably the order for building the mosque was given during Babur’s stay in Aud (Ayodhya) in 934 AH [1527–28 AD] at which time he would be impressed by the dignity and sanctity of the ancient Hindu shrine it (at least in part) displaced, and like the obedient follower of Muhammad he was in intolerance of another Faith, would regard the substitution of a temple by a mosque as dutiful and worthy.4

Here was a remarkable sleight of hand. For Beveridge, the demolition of the temple and the construction of the mosque was not a fact but an inference drawn from the one fact of Babur being a Muslim. Sad, because Babur, of all the great Mughal rulers was the most happy-go-lucky person, fond of the good things of life—gardens, music, poetry (himself a landmark poet of Turkish), flowers: women and above all his cup of wine—the very anti-thesis of an icy bigot going around demolishing other people’s places of worship. Beveridge should have known this; she herself records his visit to “other idol houses” in Gwalior in 1529 and “enjoying the sight of these buildings” after he had ordered the demolition of one which had erotic sculptures that offended him.5

It should be obvious to any student of history that a piece of evidence almost precisely 300 years after an event can at best be supportive, not primary evidence. Hafizullah’s document of 1822 does, however, suggest that a popular tradition linking the masjid and the Ram Janmasthān had begun to evolve in the region a while earlier and that this tradition had begun to gain strength with time even as its constitutive elements kept changing. Historians have unfortunately paid little attention to the study of tradition as an indicator of evolving popular cultures and mentalities; however, tradition is a fact of a different genre and cannot suffice as evidence for the occurrence of a particular event.6

Hope Still Lives

As we commemorate the fateful event of a quarter century ago, it is evident that much more than the demolition of a 16th century building is at stake. There is a well-thought-out, fully evolved and hardly concealed plan to deprive India of the heritage that has let it survive often tumultuous interventions and retain its pluralist fabric. The plan is being loudly proclaimed and implemented by a combination of state power and laboriously manufactured social base by recreating an irreconcilable dichotomy of denominational religions and unrelenting hostility between their followers, a dichotomy that had a most authentic and aesthetic Indian resolution. But, then people are bigger than state power as well as any partial social base. Hope still lives, though it cannot live in silence.


1 Bābur-Nāma, p 602.

2 A copy of the document has been reproduced by Kamal al-Din Haidar in his Qaisaral-Tawarikh, Vol II, 1898, Lucknow, p 117.

3 Sushil Srivastava has given a fair account of these in The Disputed Mosque, New Delhi, 1991, pp 43–47.

4 Bābur-Nāma, Appendix U. See also p 656, No 3, where Beveridge, inserts “(marking the birth-place of Rama)” after citing Nevill’s statement that Babur had destroyed the ancient temple.

5 Bābur-Nāma, pp 611–13.

6 For some more details of essentially the same overall argument, see Harbans Mukhia, “The Ram Janmbhoomi–Babari Masjid Dispute: Evidence of Medieval Sources” in his Exploring India’s Medieval Centuries: Essays in History, Society, Culture and Techonolgy, New Delhi, 2010.


Abdul Haqq Muhaddis (nd): Akhbār al-Akhiyār, Deoband, p 306.

Bābur-Nāma (1922): “English Translation by A S Beveridge,” Delhi reprint 1970, first published 1922, Appendix U.

Carnegy, P (1870): Historical Sketch of the Fyzabad Tehsil, Including the Former Capitals of Ayodhya and Fyzabad, Lucknow, pp 21–17.

Dīwān-i Ghālib (1999): “Anjuman-i Taraqqī-i Urdu (Hind),” New Delhi, p 85.

Encyclopedia of Islam (1998): Vol VII, E J Brill, Leiden, s v.

Fazl, Abu’l (1872): Āin-i Akbarī, H Blochmann, ed, Calcutta, Vol I, p 433.

Khan, Ali Muhammad (1927–30): Mirāt-i Ahmadī, 2 Vols, Syed Nawab Ali (ed), Baroda, 1927–30, Vol I, pp 405–12, For a discussion of the event, see Najaf Haider (2005): “A Holi Riot of 1714’: Versions from Ahmedabad and Delhi,” Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy (eds), Living Together and Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics, New Delhi.

Nevill, H R (1905): (ed), District Gazetteer of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Fyzabad, Allahabad, p 173.

Siddiqi, Bakhtiyar Husain (2012): “Ibn Tufail,” A History of Islamic Philosophy, M M Sharif (ed), Vol I, Delhi, pp 526–27. Ibn Tufail was the first great philosopher of this school. “The Muwahidds professed to be Ghazalians, They were noted for their puritanical belief in the unity of God. Anthropomorphic notions were an anathema to them.”

Umar, Muhammd (1993): Islam in Northern India During the Eighteenth Century, New Delhi, p 192.

Updated On : 6th Dec, 2017


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