The immediate shock of the unthinkable happening gradually settled down to a kind of numbness. The demolition happened on 6 December 1992, a Sunday. After the devastating weekend, on Monday morning, 7 December, the Council of Ministers was gathered in a crowded ground-floor room at Parliament House.

Understandably, most were at a loss for words, but Madhavrao Scindia broke the ice to say how we all felt for Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. The reaction of the embattled PM took us by surprise when he retorted, “Please spare me your sympathy.”

I do not recall the meeting having lasted long or indeed any substantive further steps being discussed. The Uttar Pradesh government had been dismissed on 6 December itself and a week thereafter, the BJP governments in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were dismissed by the President, as advised by the cabinet.

That decision led to the challenge in the Supreme Court in the SR Bommai case – a bench of nine judges heard the challenge along with other Article 356 matters and upheld the dismissal on the grounds of violation of secularism. As becomes clear in the Ayodhya judgment as well, SR Bommai has become a bulwark against any attempt to encroach upon the territory of secularism in the constitution.

Meanwhile, the Narasimha Rao government gave clear signals of its intention to rebuild the demolished mosque and the attorney general repeated that before the Supreme Court. In due course it would have dawned on them that such a step would rekindle the ambers that were still smouldering. On the other hand, as the minister of state, Ministry of External Affairs, I was dispatched to the West Asian countries to reassure our friends.

Madhav Godbole, an outstanding officer and Union home secretary at the time of the demolition, resigned and subsequently took voluntary retirement after thirty-three years as an IAS officer. In his book The Babri Masjid–Ram Mandir Dilemma, he wrote,

Wherever in an act of communal violence any place of worship of any religion is damaged or destroyed it must be rectified and repaired by the government at its own cost. That is the only way you can give a sense of confidence to the minorities and affected communities that there is a government which will protect your rights...

Such outstanding men of the steel frame of Indian democracy may have faded away and their words become hidden in the dust of the years since 1992, but their memory must remain the cherished sentinel of the future.

Since the legal case began, the course of justice in the Babri Masjid saga has run anything but smooth. Many of the accused enjoyed protection from prosecution under the orders of the court.

In the end, the apex court sent them to face due process of law. Others were protected through their office, such as Kalyan Singh, against whom trial was stopped on his taking oath as governor of Rajasthan. But his relief lasted only as long as his position, and his trial resumed once he demitted office.

In the end, as we know, the accused walked free. Some pre-emptively escaped any final justice by leaving the mortal world behind – Bal Thackeray, Ashok Singhal and Giriraj Kishore, among others. In the extensive trial over 300 witnesses were examined; many of them, too, did not live to see the end of the trial. The record of the matter is significant, encompassing volumes upon volumes of pleadings, statements, orders and reports.

And although the Supreme Court judgment as to the title of the land had no legal effect on the criminal proceedings, at the time it felt there was little purpose left in the criminal proceedings after the judgment in 2019 – the accused must have rejoiced in its light. And as if to put an emphasis on the futility of it all, eventually the accused were let off, found not guilty of any culpability in the destruction.

During the build-up to the D-Day of 6 December 1992, hectic activities to prepare for all eventualities, as indeed to prevent any major incident, were underway in Delhi and Lucknow political circles, not to mention the repeated hearings in the Supreme Court.

The precautionary steps taken turned out to be inadequate and futile, as did the measures taken to seek some sort of resolution for those wronged. What actually happened was that the criminal cases filed against several senior BJP leaders, with a convoluted history of their own, came to an anti-climactic conclusion twenty- seven years later.

Until the day of the demolition, the Supreme Court was constantly engaged in keeping a close watch on the political pot as it neared boiling point. The Supreme Court had consistently passed orders with directions to maintain the law-and-order situation, as late as 1 December, five days before the karsevaks were to congregate in Ayodhya.

Between its orders and the repeated assurances provided by the BJP players, the court seemed confident that the situation was not untenable. Hindsight is 20/20.

The vulnerability of the archaeological edifice was tested once before the final assault of 6 December. Mulayam Singh Yadav, then chief minister of UP, had proclaimed that “parinda par nahi mar sakta” (not a bird can take flight) in his state, without his say-so. In October 1990, the karsevaks were driven back, but not before doing damage to the mosque and in the process suffering casualties to police firing.

Those were the heady days of “Maulana” Mulayam, when human rights were put on the back burner and UP Police let loose to discipline, among others, karsevaks and protesters of the Uttarakhand movement at the Rampur Chouraha.

To date 6 December 1992 is described as a black day. Even for leaders of the BJP it was, avowedly, a sad day. The Supreme Court, which had reposed faith in the solemn assurance given by Kalyan Singh, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, that no harm would come to the Babri Masjid if the karsevaks were allowed to assemble near the site, was shocked. Initially, the court reacted by asking the state to rebuild the destroyed mosque, but on second thought proceeded to order status quo and issue contempt notices to Kalyan Singh and others.

On the night of 6 December, some young ministers, including this author, gathered at the residence of Rajesh Pilot to take stock, and then proceeded together to CK Jaffer Sharief – thus two bold voices in the government were roused. Calls were made to Principal Secretary AN Verma, who suggested that we speak to the PM.

We got through to the PM and suggested to him that Rajesh Pilot be included in the group that was flying to Faizabad. He in turn asked us to speak to AN Verma again, and thus the chase continued for a while, until we were told that the PM would not be available, having turned in for the night.

The urgency was for a senior functionary of the government to intervene before the idols, which had been shifted during the demolition of the mosque, were reinstalled on the site. The reinstallation was eventually done, but when it appeared the next morning that a roof would be placed above the idols, the government moved to disperse the conspicuously reduced crowd of karsevaks.

The dazed Central government of Narasimha Rao reacted by issuing an ordinance acquiring the land around the disputed site and seeking assistance from the Supreme Court through a presidential reference. On Monday morning, after the shattering weekend, the Council of Ministers gathered in a small room in Parliament.

Sunrise Over Ayodhya: Nationhood in our Times

Excerpted with permission from Sunrise Over Ayodhya: Nationhood in our Times, Salman Khurshid, Penguin Books.