Though more than half of my life has gone by since the fateful events of December 6, 1992, memories of the day are as vivid as it was yesterday. I had climbed up the biggest of the guava trees in our courtyard, and had already consumed one of the fruits and eyeing another ripe one just out of reach when I heard the news wafting over the air, from a radio blaring in a neighbourhood home.
My ears could hear the newsreader saying something about “extensive damage” to one of the domes of the Babri Masjid. It was too stunning, too unbelievable.
Safely ensconced in a neighbourhood that was predominantly Muslim, I was too young to realise the significance of what had transpired. Still, a sudden, indescribable darkness enveloped me. The only other time I experienced a similar darkness was when my father passed away.
Hyderabad, especially the Old City, had in its history seen and withstood communal riots, it had withstood an invasion, and before that a flood that took the life of thousands. But never a threshold such as this had been crossed, never had our faith been crushed, nor had the faith of others trampled, subverted and vanquished the law.
Curiously, nobody ran out on the streets, there was no slogan shouting, there was no outward reaction as such. Perhaps everyone in my locality was too stunned to react. Or perhaps they did not know how to react, since this was something unimaginable, unprecedented and like a bolt from the blue. By dusk, the roads were empty and the only movement was of stray dogs. Every home that had a TV was crowded with neighbours; ears were glued to the radio, hoping to catch any and all news.
At 9 pm that day, Doordarshan repeated what had already been claimed over the radio — “extensive damage to one of the domes of the Babri Masjid”. A dour-looking P.V. Narasimha Rao came on TV, and we heard him promise that the masjid would be rebuilt at that very spot. I remember the words “President’s Rule” being imposed in Uttar Pradesh after Kalyan Singh resigned and his government was dismissed. I remember curfew being imposed the next day. Like all other times curfew was imposed earlier, we vaulted over the wall and onto our neighbour’s terrace where the men used to play dominoes or carrom.
In the days that followed, the discussion invariably was “what next”. In my locality, the Muslim Personal Law Board, and especially the sitting MP from Hyderabad, Sultan Salauddin Owaisi, was declared guilty of failing to protect the masjid. The “guilty” label was ultimately erased when he swore on the Holy Quran after Friday prayers in the Macca Masjid that he was innocent and a victim of circumstances.
P.V. Narasimha Rao was cursed, and was branded a stooge of the RSS. Some even said that under his dhoti, he used to wear the famous RSS knickers. Though many Muslims may not openly say it, Narasimha Rao remains the most reviled of all Congress leaders, years after his death.
Ironically, the Hindu community at large was never blamed; it was only the leaders of the BJP and P.V. Narasimha Rao who were cursed. As days went by, the community began feeling the impact of the aftermath. The Mumbai riots that followed, and the increasingly vitriolic comments by Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, left us shaken. Thackeray’s vitriol ensured that there would be no negotiated settlement vis-a-vis the Babri Masjid, since every Muslim believed that a firm stand alone could stop Hindutva’s onward march.
I remember reading a report by a Muslim columnist how he was shunned at a public meeting. I also remember a columnist, I believe it was Shobhaa De, writing in the Deccan Chronicle how in casual conversations at parties, Muslims were being insinuated as “they” or “them”, as if we were second-class citizens. Till December 6, 1992, despite numerous riots, Muslims in Hyderabad, especially in the Old City, had never felt unsafe. Perhaps it was because the Old City had always been predominantly Muslim, or perhaps because the riots were limited to pockets and it was business as usual after the flare-ups subsided.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid left us, like all Muslims across India, shaken to the core. Our trust in the Constitution, our belief in the system, our conviction in our loyalty to this country, our reliance on the official machinery being our shield, were all razed that day. We began to feel alienated, and for the first time, victimised in our own land. The BJP’s political ascendancy in the days that followed strengthened this feeling.
For the first few days, speeches by Muslim politicians were devoted to claims that they would give their life and ensure that the masjid would be rebuilt at the very spot. Initially, these claims evoked optimism, but gradually, they were taken less and less seriously. Like every other community before us, the sadness faded and was replaced by hope. Hope in the judiciary, in the law and hope that one day, we will get back what is ours. The hope failed to dull our hatred for Advani and Co. Anyone even talking positively about the BJP was mentally branded an enemy, without a second thought. It was this hatred that led to many Muslims rejoicing in Narendra Modi upstaging L.K. Advani and becoming the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, though the former was far more reviled. The hope also failed to stop ghettoism in the Old City. The handful of Hindu families in our neighbourhood moved away to new localities. We tried to persuade them to stay, saying that the worst was past, and they would remain unharmed, but to n
o avail. Similar instances of Muslim families migrating from Hindu neighbourhoods were heard of, and the community at large clucked its collective tongue, expressed sadness and accepted it as a fact of life.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid brought some positives too. More and more Muslim youth in the Old City began to realise the futility of petty business and began to study harder. The elders of the community turned their focus to education, exhorting the youth to study well. Study centres were set up, and some well-off Muslims began to streamline the system using Zakat collections. The overwhelming sense of loss also created a bond of brotherhood, of unity and of tolerance.
In the late 1990s, when N. Chandrababu Naidu first spoke of “equidistance” from both the BJP and the Congress and later offered “outside” support to the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, he immediately became the most despised person, replacing even Mr Advani on the list. This was because Mr Advani, despite his infamy, was someone far away on the horizon while Mr Naidu was a familiar figure and was someone who had gone to great lengths to portray himself as secular. Mr Naidu was to be replaced on top of the list of most hated politicians very soon by Mr Modi in 2002, in the aftermath of the Gujarat genocide.
Interestingly, the rabble-rousers were never reviled; they were always seen as what they were — a nuisance. News of the deaths of the kar sevaks in the Sabarmati Express fire on February 27, 2002 was immediately met with suspicion that it was the handiwork of politicians. While Gujarat was in flames, Muslims everywhere burned.
Some months after the Gujarat riots, the Muslim Personal Law Board organised a mammoth public meeting in Hyderabad, where speaker after speaker vowed justice to the victims. The speakers also made it clear that they were anointing Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi as the undisputed political leader representing the community in the country. The Gujarat riots also saw the community gather its wits, realise that it was time that individuals became one and stand up to face an enemy that brooked no dissent, offered no quarter and had absolutely no sense of humanity.
The dawn of the Narendra Modi era saw Muslims being targeted like never before. While mentally the community was prepared for riots and violence, no Muslim was prepared for being branded “anti-national” and having to prove his or her love for the country at every step. Attempts to defend ourselves by pointing out that we opted to stay on in India and not leave for Pakistan were brushed aside casually and more often than not ridiculed. Anyone standing up for the rights of the community was painted with the same brush of “anti-national” or accused of appeasement.
While these changes took place, one question that no one has attempted to answer remains: To what ends? Hindutvawadis obviously are intelligent enough to realise that they cannot rid the country of at least 30 crore Muslims. This community can be subjugated only so much and not more, since the Constitution empowers it, like it empowers all citizens. Some Muslims with more foresight than others see the situation as an opportunity that will make the community stronger, better and more productive.
American author Lafayette Ronald, in the early 1950s, said: “Man thrives, oddly enough only in the presence of a challenging environment”. For Muslims in India, this is the perhaps the biggest challenge the community has faced. It has been punched, kicked and is down on the ground. There is no place to go but rise and stand firm.
Oddly enough, it was business as usual on Saturday, November 9, when the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the Babri Masjid title dispute. Going by the open shops and traffic on the roads of the Old City, it is clear Muslims had at the back of their minds accepted the verdict and have moved on. The city was bustling as usual....