NEW DELHI — People say that it is misleading and irrelevant to talk about the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the context of the title suit, which is a property dispute case that predates the destruction of the mosque. In the imagination of millions of Hindus and Muslims in India, however, the two are inextricably linked.
Even Sir William Mark Tully, who was one of the first journalists to report the demolition on 6 December, 1992, says the case is a “political-religious” one and he is looking to the judgment with “fear and trepidation.”
Tully, the former bureau chief for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in New Delhi, witnessed the destruction of the mosque first hand. More than 2,000 people were killed in the bloodshed that followed. Ahead of the verdict, The veteran British journalist recounted 6 December, 1992, especially how the police offered very little resistance to the Hindu mob which had charged the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. “I saw this sight of a police officer pushing his way through his men so that he could run away faster than the men. And the police just deserted,” he said.
The title dispute and the demolition of the Babri Masjid have become inextricably linked for most people. How do you see it?
It’s a political religious case. It’s been made an issue by the BJP in order to promote Hindu nationalism. So whether you call it a property dispute or a land dispute or whatever it is, we all know that fundamentally it’s an issue which has been created for political purposes and there has been a Muslim reaction to it.
You reported on demolition of the Babri Masjid. Are you looking forward to hearing the verdict.
I’m looking forward to it with fear and trepidation. There should be no jhagda between Hindus and Muslims.
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It’s a political religious case. It’s been made an issue by the BJP in order to promote Hindu nationalism.
Were you following the Babri Masjid story before it was destroyed.
We were following it. A colleague of mine went to cover the incident in which Mulayam (Singh Yadav) opened fire on the karsevaks (in 1990). I was there when the mosque was pulled down. I arrived in Ayodhya the day before. I went and saw the enormous camp that was set up by the karsevaks. I discovered there was a lot of anti-press feelings because the BBC had shown a film in a news story of the riots previously, the Mulayam Singh riots. And they did not say archival footage or anything like that. So it looked as if it was rioting going on at the time. And of course, there was no rioting going on at that time. So, there was a lot of ill will against the press, particularly the BBC, and a lot of tension in the air.
That was just a mistake — not putting archival footage.
Yes. It was just a mistake not say to say this is archival film. The feeling against the press was so strong that I decided to do something about it. I tried to find where (L.K.) Advani was. I couldn’t find him because he was in Lucknow. The next best person I could find was one of the RSS people. And I told him that it’s very dangerous how your people are going around threatening the press. It will lead to trouble. That was the day before. I had in my mind something which Advani had said to me. He had said the RSS is a disciplined organisation. We have promised the Supreme Court that nothing will happen. So I was going around thinking that maybe nothing will happen. When I was reporting on the morning of the thing (demolition), I didn’t say all hell was going to break loose.
I had in my mind something which Advani had said to me. He had said the RSS is a disciplined organisation.
What did you see on the day of the demolition.
When I arrived from Faizabad to Ayodhya, I saw the whole thing was starting. I was in a building overlooking where the ceremony was going to take place. And we saw the ceremony starting and in the space below the ceremony, there were a lot of young men with saffron or yellow bands on their heads. They were trying to stop people from coming in but suddenly people broke the barriers and rushed in. We noticed an army of people moving from the left hand side to where we were, moving towards the mosque. We saw them break through the first police barrier. The police did not seem to resist them at all. We saw the last barrier close up, where the police sort of marched off even before the karsevaks arrived there. I saw this sight of a police officer pushing his way through his men so that he could run away faster than the men. And the police just deserted.
The police did not see to resist them at all.
Did you get the sense they were running away because they were told to leave. It could have just been out of fear for their lives. There is little they could have done to stop any army of people.
That’s a good question. All one can say is that there was no resistance put up by the police. There were three police cordons — the outer, middle and inner one. Normally, there would have been some resistance. A police bandobast is not normally there for the police to simply bhaago when the trouble starts.
Then, what happened?
The police ran away. These guys started swarming all over the mosque. There was no telephone wires —- all had been pulled down. The mob was going bananas. They were thrashing the press, breaking people’s cameras and trying to stop the story from getting out. I got in my office car and managed to slip off to Faizabad to file my story over the phone to London, saying, ’They are pulling the mosque down. The police has bhagoed. The situation is completely out of control.”
Where did you find a phone in Faizabad? A PCO?
The post office. I did it on the telephone from there. They had a public phone at the post office.
What happened next?
I did want to get back in again. I came across a man called Shukla, who was the editor of the Jansatta as far as I can recall. His wife and another Indian journalist, we all decided to go back in. I think we went in his car. We were driving down the main road when we saw a convoy of CRPF turning around and going back because they came across a barricade of burning tires.
You made it back to Ayodhya.
When we were getting out of the mosque, very near the mosque, the karsevaks surrounded us and they started shouting at me. Then, there was a sort of discussion on poking me with a trident. Then, there was a discussion on whether to be beat me up. Some of them wanted to beat me up, but the others said — no, he is well known and it would look bad — so they reached a compromise and said isko bandh karo. They took me to the dharmshala part of temple and locked me up in a room there. I heard Shukla and his colleagues talk to these people and they said — we have nothing against you people and you people can go — but Shukla said that they would not go until I was released. So they locked them up as well.
Then, there was a sort of discussion on poking me with a trident. Then, there was a discussion on whether to be beat me up.
How did you get out?
There was one official in the area. All the police were gone. Only one guy stayed there. He was an SDM rank, a UP civil servant. He heard that we were locked up so he went to another temple and told the mahant of that temple — you get these people out. So, the mahant sent a man who told these people — you’ve got to let these people out. We were let out and taken to another temple. Eventually, a huge CRPF lorry did appear, all the press collected and got into this lorry. The press was scattered everywhere, in hiding, and we were all taken out by the CRPF.
You saw the destruction of the mosque before going to Faizabad to file your report.
I saw enough of the destruction to know the situation and they were going to destroy it.
Were you the only foreign journalist in the scene and the first to report on the demolition?
No. There were a lot of foreign journalists. But I was probably — probably, maybe — the first one to report that it had all started and the situation was out of control. That may be true.
It was a radio story?
Why was this important for the BBC to cover?
We were basically a local news service. We knew we had a huge audience in India. My prime job as I saw it was making sure that we covered every important story. We had a program that went out at seven in the morning in India called Radio Newsreel where correspondents reported from all around the world. Seven in the morning was a big India listening time. So we had an ambition to have the story for every Radio Newsreel. We were essentially focused on broadcasting to India. We would have never missed out on a story like Ayodhya. It would have been unthinkable.
So, you felt that you were reporting for an Indian audience, not a foreign or primarily British one.
The BBC has two different focuses. The World Service and the other one — as I call them— was the domestic audience. We, perhaps more than most other bureaus, were particularly focused on the world service.
Do you feel the BBC covers stories like Ayodhya and Kashmir — more than other international networks — because of Britain’s history of colonising India and then the Partition, which to some extent is why these faultlines exist and Hindu-Muslim tensions fester.
Yes. As someone whose family in India stayed back during the first war of independence (1857), I do feel it. Books and books have been written on whether the British created the Hindu-Muslim divide. I think that’s only partly true. Without the British, there may not have been an India as we know now. There was no real evidence of the country becoming one country before the British came. Even under the Mughals, it was never one entirely. I’m not denying of cultural unity, but to some extent, the insistence of India as a political nation, could be seen as part of the colonial thing. And certainly, the division between Hindus and Muslims could be partly blamed on that. The fact is that we also cannot escape blame that the partition was so badly managed. The fact is that we just cut and ran — literally. The awful riots which took place — we just washed our hands.
The fact is that we just cut and ran — literally. The awful riots which took place — we just washed our hands.
Why did you decide to stay back and live in India?
It’s a habit. I believe in god. I believe in fate. I believe I was fated to come here.