When I met Mohammad Hashim Ansari, who until today was the oldest Muslim litigant in the Babri Masjid case, he was sunning himself outside his house in Ayodhya, not far from the disputed site which many Muslims claim as a mosque and many Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Ram.
The sun was a natural remedy for old age, his family members explained, while warning me that the 96-year-old man's health was fading and that he was in a bad mood. "What do you mean whether a temple and mosque can stand together," Ansari shouted, irritated by my questions.
"We had agreed before Independence that a temple would stay a temple, a mosque would stay a mosque, and a pond would stay a pond," he said. "And that is why many Muslims decided to make this country their home instead of leaving. So why did things change after Independence?"
Ansari died today from heart-related ailments, almost 70 years after he claimed to have witnessed the placing of Hindu idols inside the Babri Masjid in 1949, and almost half-a-century after he and five others moved the court of a civil judge in Faizabad against the "illegal encroachment of Masjid by Hindu Mahasabha."
He also witnessed the unlocking of the Babri Masjid in 1985 on the directive of the Rajiv Gandhi government, the destruction of the mosque by kar sevaks on 6 December 1992, which plunged the country into its darkest period of religious violence since Independence, and then, the decision of the Allahabad High Court in 2010 which divided the disputed site three ways.
We had agreed before Independence that a temple would stay a temple, a mosque would stay a mosque, and a pond would stay a pond.
Ansari was among the litigants who challenged the High Court's decision in the Supreme Court, claiming the disputed site in its entirety. In February 2015, however, Ansari met Mahant Gyan Das of Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya and expressed his desire for an out-of-court settlement.
When I met him earlier this year, Ansari told me that he was tired of the legal battle and that this final wish was for Hindus and Muslims to stop fighting over the site, but that he really didn't have a choice but to keep fighting on. "I'm tired of giving testimonies and interviews. But what should I do? Drop it? I can't."
I'm tired of giving testimonies and interviews. But what should I do? Drop it? I can't.
The Babri Masjid is long gone and now Ansari has passed on too, but the dispute is far from dead.
Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party has distanced itself from the dispute and not officially taken it up as an election issue ahead the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing group which shares the BJP's Hindu-nationalist agenda, continues to fan the flames of the dispute.
In fact, the VHP created quite a stir when it resumed making columns for the temple during the winter of 2015, after a four-year gap. Ansari was angry about this. "How can this issue be resolved when the judge, jury, complainant, witness, and executioner are all the same," he said.
How can this issue be resolved when the judge, jury, complainant, witness, and executioner are all the same.
A Lonely Statue
It is hard to imagine that the small statue of Ramlalla is at the centre of all this furore. It sits in a battered tent, surrounded by grim faced security personnel armed with scanners and guns. Pilgrims must cross four checkpoints, walk in a single file while they are boxed in by iron meshes, for a quick peek at the statue before the guards order them to hurry along.
But these restrictions do not dampen the elation of the pilgrims, who break into songs in praise of Lord Ram as they approach the tent, and leave with tears in their eyes.
Some hours before I met Ansari, I ran into Santosh, a 55-year-old pilgrim from Rajasthan, who was screaming at two women trying to jump the queue as it snaked towards the tent. Two decades earlier, her nephew, Mahendar, was among the first of the karsevaks to clamber up one of the three domes of the Babri Masjid, she told me.
In their hometown in Kota in Rajasthan, Santosh said, her family often recounts how Mahendar, now a milkman, did his family proud. "This is the work of dilwale not of darpoks," she said.
Dismissing courts, politicians and compromise, Santosh believes that like Babri mosque's demolition, the birth of the temple will be accomplished by force. "No one wants violence, but what choice is left now? How can we bear that our God has lived in a tent for so long, so lonely," she said.
How can we bear that our God has lived in a tent for so long, so lonely?
'We Know This City'
A palpable religious fervour pervades the streets and the marketplace around the disputed site. On street corners where one can buy statues of Hindu gods, pilgrims can also also watch footage of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, which plays on television sets all over the bazaar.
But the fervour dissipates as one moves away from the disputed site to other parts of Ayodhya town, which is home to over 30 mosques and from where the azaan blares morning and evening, everyday.
Ansari's house is on a street where Hindus and Muslims have lived together for generations. When I met him, interrupting his afternoon siesta, some of his Hindu friends were near his bed, counselling him to relax.
Before dozing off, Ansari talked about how well he gets along with the Hindu police constables, who were assigned by the state government for his protection. "We know this city. There was no problem between Hindus and Muslims, and there is no problem, except for the one that was created by outsiders," he said.
A Hindu constable, vermilion tilak on his forehead, nodded in agreement.
There was no problem between Hindus and Muslims, and there is no problem, except for the one that was created by outsiders
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