The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, has a past, distinct from the history of the dispute over it. The two are often hitched together to justify a political project. Those who reduced the Babri Masjid to rubble 25 years ago claim that it was built in 1528 after destroying a Ram temple, which had once stood at the site of Lord Ram’s birth in Ayodhya, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. From this perspective, the demolition of the mosque becomes a valiant action undertaken to undo the wrong committed centuries ago.

It is by delinking the history of the dispute over the Babri Masjid from its demolition that we can grasp the consequences of the cataclysmic event India is commemorating today. The demolition comprised a chain of episodes calibrated to spawn the fervour for building a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood. This was impossible to achieve without pulling down the mosque.

A reality check

The inevitably of its demolition was revealed to me because of my experience when Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani undertook the rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya, in September and October of 1990. Beginning his journey on September 25, Advani’s yatra triggered communal tension in the areas he journeyed through. Holding aloft, like Lord Ram, a bow and arrow, he symbolised the militant Hindu eager to go to war. An invisible boundary sprang up between Hindus and Muslims. Riots broke out. Curfew was imposed.

Through Advani’s yatra I was discovering another India, of which I had been oblivious in college, from where I had graduated only four years ago. We were not self-consciously Hindus or Muslims then. No doubt, the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs, and the 1980 Hindu-Muslim riots in Moradabad, sucked us into a vortex of confusion. But it was assumed that it wasn’t the educated middle class that supported or participated in the barbaric violence. We weren’t that type of Hindu or Muslim, those who lived in slums and killed.

Advani’s rath yatra made it a fashion among the middle class to flaunt their Hindu identity, to openly declare their support for a temple in Ayodhya and the BJP, unmindful of the venomous speeches their hotheads delivered against Muslims. It was now hard to predict the choices of your next-door neighbour, not least because four years in journalism had acquainted me with the complicity of neighbours, tacit or otherwise, in the killing of Sikhs in 1984.

This doubt played out one night in 1990 in Delhi.

I lived with cousins then, bachelors all, trying to carve out a career in Delhi. They did not wish to have their identity revealed. I will call them Cousin One and Cousin Two. On that night, a family friend, a Hindu, was over at our place. After dinner, I took to reading a novel in the room where Cousin Two was flipping through a magazine. Cousin One and the friend were chatting in the living room. The time was close to 11 pm.

The night’s silence was rent by a succession of staccato sounds. It resembled an exchange of gunfire. Or was it fire crackers? The night lapsed into silence before the sound returned after an interval, a little closer than before, a little louder as well. A thought arose: “Not far is Mehrauli, which has a substantial Muslim population. Could it be…”

I looked up from the book I was reading and found Cousin Two staring at me. In his taut face were writ questions assailing me as well: Is it gunfire? Has a riot broken out? Instead, he asked, “What is it?”

We stepped out on the balcony: the road was deserted; the night rediscovered its silence. Back in our room, we returned to reading.

Moments later, the rat-a-tat was loud enough to prompt us to our feet. To our room had come Cousin One and the friend, their faces ashen. “What is it?” he asked.

But we four had turned our ears to the car that had braked to a halt below our third-floor apartment. The doors opened, we heard voices we couldn’t decipher, the car’s engine humming.

The friend switched off the lights, and drew the curtains. We stood in darkness, our ears trying to pick up the sound of footsteps climbing the staircase. She shifted a curtain to peep outside the window. “There are men below,” she whispered. Our hearts thumped. We waited.

The sound of the car reversing echoed to us. They were driving away.

“Let us go, let us be together,” said one of us. It implied going over to the home of our uncle, who too lived in the same colony. His flat and ours were separated by about 100 meters.

Gingerly, we stepped out, our footsteps falling silently as we descended the stairwell. We began to walk briskly, breaking out into a run as the rat-a-tat sound returned, accompanied with voices jubilating.

We jabbed at uncle’s doorbell. Were they sleeping? We rang the bell again. On the third attempt, the door opened a crack, the voice behind it asked, “Who?” Seeing us, uncle muttered hoarsely, “The sound?” It wasn’t just our imagination then, we hadn’t needlessly panicked. The rat-a-tat sound was indeed real.

We spent the night together, drawing sustenance from each other. But for a short burst of rat-a-tat, the night was soon enveloped in silence. It was a tragedy: it marked the death of our assumptions and certitudes. Like all deaths, this death too demanded we reconcile to our loss.

The reconciliation became easier because we subsequently read media reports from Uttar Pradesh on a new technique of spawning communal tension. Media reports claimed that militant Hindu groups would play tape-recorded sounds in the vicinity of Muslim colonies – of gunfire, people screaming as if under assault, shuffling footsteps of men and women fleeing.

That night was not imagined then, we said to ourselves. Yet it seemed ridiculous to confirm from our neighbours whether what we had heard were indeed gunshots. Did we need to know the answer? After all, that night had bestowed wisdom on us.

Identity and India

Identity is not a choice in India. We define ourselves as much as we are defined by others. Muslims cannot escape their Muslim-ness, no matter how deracinated they are. That night conveyed to us our instinctive distrust of the state’s neutrality, illustrated to us so many times in the past and, subsequently, in 2002 in Gujarat. Our incomprehension, even our disdain, for educated middle class Muslims who prefer to live in ghettoes, in slummy conditions, melted away.

That darkled night underscored to me why the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was essentially a campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid. Its destruction was meant to convey to Muslims their unequal status, their subservience, regardless of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. For the wrongs of the past, imagined or otherwise, the Muslims of independent India had to be made to pay a price as a token of their repentance. I knew then that the Babri Masjid would eventually be demolished.

When it was indeed reduced to rubble on December 6, 1992, it felt like the death of a relative who had been on a life support system for long. A makeshift temple sprang up at the spot.

Will history repeat itself?

For some, though, it was a traumatic moment. I remember what the late philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and brother of Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, told me a couple of days after the demolition. “About Hindus, it was said that they never kill a saint,” he said. “They killed Mahatma Gandhi. It was said that they never destroy a place of worship. They have demolished the Babri Masjid.”

Frankly, I was relieved at the demolition of the Babri Masjid, believing the Sangh Parivar has been denied the opportunity to keep the temple-mosque dispute simmering for electoral and ideological gains. I then did not know that the Babri Masjid was to have an afterlife.

This was because after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the PV Narasimha Rao government acquired 66.7 acres of land in Ayodhya, including the site of the Babri Masjid, through the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993. Section 4(3) of the Act extinguished all court proceedings over rights to any property in the acquired area. This meant the title dispute over the Babri Masjid – whether Hindus or Muslims owned it – abated.

The Act also stated that status quo before the land acquisition would be maintained. Since the makeshift temple had been built after the Babri Masjid was demolished, the puja of Ram Lalla was to continue.

In 1994, a five-member judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(3) of the Act, thereby reviving the title dispute over the Babri Masjid. But with the majority of 3:2 the Supreme Court accepted most other provisions of the Act, including the continuation of puja at the makeshift temple.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed land in Ayodhya three ways, a relief the disputants in the title case had not asked for. It was a suit to determine who held the title to the Babri Masjid site. The High Court verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court.

In contrast, the trial of those who demolished the Babri Masjid is still in the lower court. We have two parallel cases – one that pertains to the history of the legal dispute over the Babri Masjid and the other that is linked to the history of its demolition.

While the Supreme Court has adjourned the hearing of the title dispute to February 2018, the history of the demolition has been relegated in importance. As Justice MS Liberhan told the Indian Express a few days ago, “The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal in the matter of the Ayodhya title dispute…will adversely affect the demolition suit…If the Hindu side gets it, then the act of demolition becomes seen as ‘justified’ – to reclaim own property.”

Ironically then, on the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, begins our wait to know whether history in India repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second time as its justification.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.