Babri Masjid Demolition: A Look Back from Ankara

While posted at Turkey’s capital Ankara, I was playing a few hands of bridge with friends at the Indian embassy residence, a few days after the 6 December, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India. The friends were; head of Turkey’s Foreign policy think tank, Seyfi Tashan and his wife and Prof Okyar and his wife. Prof Okyar’s father Fethi Okyar was close friend and early mentor of Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk. Quite often, diplomats relax playing bridge or golf as in East Asia, where serious business is often transacted. During the 1991 US led coalition war on neighboring Iraq, while posted at Amman, Jordan’s capital, the British Ambassador or someone else would come over for a spot of bridge. Just to take our minds off the tensions.

But in Ankara, after a few hands, I went over to the next room to take up a telephone call. It took me some time to return to the bridge table. I tried to look as normal as possible and continued playing and sipping whiskey, but my friends sensed something was amiss. So I told them that a small bomb placed under the car of my second secretary had exploded. But there were no injuries. The car was parked in front of the block of flats where he resided. I made sure all necessary action had been taken like calls to the police station, the ministry of Foreign affairs and no one was to go near the car. My friends apologized and left expressing their sympathies.

On 6 December itself, as per routine I had switched on CNN and BBC before lunch and felt somewhat uneasy at the huge crowd which had been allowed to collect around the Babri Masjid perimeter in Ayodhya. A few hours later when I switched on the TV again, I was stunned at the news and graphic scenes of the demolition with kersewaks (voluntary workers) having climbed up the mosque, dismantling it brick by brick. And then that empty feeling after the demolition. The TV channels also showed Indian Prime Minister Narsimha Rao, as if he was fiddling and did little to stop the demolition.

The demolition was bound to have repercussions, especially in Muslim countries, although in Turkey being a secular state, Muslim extremists were kept under control. In fact the violence and killings in Turkey were being carried out since 1984, in a rebellion by Abdullah Ocalan led Marxist PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) for autonomy for Kurds in South and East of Turkey, where they are concentrated. The bloody rebellion and counter measures had already cost over 35,000 lives, mostly Kurds but over 5000 soldiers too. Thousands of Kurdish villages had been bombed, destroyed, abandoned or relocated and millions of Kurds were moved or migrated to shanty towns in South, East and West wards.

One-third of Turkish army was tied up in South East, the cost of countering the insurgency amounted to $6 to $8 billion per year. It had shattered the economy of the region and brought charges of police and military brutality and human rights violations in the West to which Turkey is linked through NATO, OECD and associate EU membership. But most of the violence was confined to South and East of Turkey, and sometimes in Istanbul, which because of the migration had a very sizable Kurdish population, next only to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.

Majority of Kurds in Turkey would be satisfied with cultural autonomy but their aspirations were dashed time and again. Till 1986 even to claim to be Kurd was a crime and their language could not be used. Since 2002 some progress has been made. Kurdish is quite different from Turkish and belongs to the Iranian language family. The Kurdish nation totaling over 25 million straddles the mountainous regions of Turkey (14 in 70 million), Iran (8 out of 70 million), Iraq (4 out of 20 million) and with more than half million each in Syria and another half million in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. But Kurds have been abused by the neighbors and exploited by big powers throughout history. Somewhat like the Kashmiris now. Despite everything Kurds remain most well integrated in Turkey and have occupied the highest official positions. Salahaddin remains their greatest medieval hero.

Kurds are an Iranian Aryan people caught up in ethnic upheavals and intermingling of Aryan, Turkic and Semitic races going on since 2nd millennia BC from the Eurasian steppes to the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. But the Kurds have lived in the region since they shifted from the steppes in 2nd millennia and were mentioned as the Kurduchoi who had harassed Xenephon and his Ten Thousand retreating towards the Black Sea from Babylon in 401 BC.

It was difficult to organize serious terror attacks in well policed Ankara. My own assessment was that some extremist Muslim elements had organized the explosion as an expression of anger and a warning. To the best of my knowledge the perpetrators of the bombing were never traced or captured. The government of India did not compensate the officer for the loss of his damaged car. Obviously he had not anticipated any such contingency while insuring his car. This is typical of Indian establishment. Legitimate grievances are not met but crooks get compensation, even pensions as freedom fighters to fraudsters. The concept of rule of law, which evolved in Europe after centuries of warfare and bloodshed, is alien to Brahmanical perspective.

Naturally I went to the Turkish foreign office and we briefed media explaining that the demolition was the work of extremists and cranks and not approved by the majority of India’s population. I also traveled to Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial, cultural and media centre to explain the unfortunate events specially to right wing religious media, which Pakistan exploited. This was the only time in my four years tenure when security forces shadowed me in the city. One morning there was a security flap when without informing the security I went for my morning walk and even dropped at friend nearby for a cup of coffee.

Unlike many Muslim countries after Turkey’s revolution in 1920s and modernization and westernization most educated Turks wear European trousers and jackets. Islamist party leaders and commercial and media supporters are highly educated like President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and others. They are computer savvy.

Ataturk had closed all Sufi and other Tarikas /schools (whirling dervishes now mostly delight tourists), declared Aya Sofia as museum, which was converted from a magnificent Basilica into a mosque when Sultan Fethi the Conqueror took over Constantinople, naming it Istanbul.

Prophet Mohammad’s hair, footprints and other relics, swords of first four Caliphs etc can now be seen in Topkapi (palace) museum in Istanbul. In spite of electoral hints and promises that the Islamist government, which has now ruled Turkey since 2002, would convert back Aya Sofia and some other old churches into mosques, no such attempt has been made in a country which is 99% Muslim.

There is a lesson in it for India specially Hindus.

The matter of the Ayodhya mosque and the Ram Janambhumi temple is now sub-judice. Any way this has at least stopped some in the lunatic fringe of Hindu hardliner family like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to soft pedal demands for handing over the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura and the Gyan Vapi Masjid in Varanasi so that temples could be built on these sites.

That the demolition was not condoned by a majority of Indians was proved when elections were called in four states ruled by Hindu hardliner Bhartiya Janata party (BJP) including in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where Ayodhya is located after their governments were dismissed for the party’s unconstitutional actions. Except for Rajasthan, where, in now accepted dynastic syndrome, too many near relatives of the Congress party chieftains were given tickets, the electorate defeated the BJP in other three states including UP. But the state leaders declined to have Prime Minister Narsimha Rao, for electoral campaigning, his reputation having been tarnished by allowing the demolition under his watch. According to a poll at that time, majority of Hindus expressed unhappiness at the demolition of the mosque.

The demolition was allowed to take place by the BJP Chief Minister of UP Kalyan Singh, after he had given an assurance to the government in Delhi and also to the Supreme Court of India that no harm would be done to the Masjid and the surrounding structure under dispute. BJP leaders like LK Advani, whose chariot rides across India polarized Hindus and Muslims, created communal disharmony and inspired and encouraged the demolition were present and appeared to acquiesce and even actively encourage the demolition. Clearly it was well planned and the leaders were in the know of the conspiracy.

The demolition and the consequent violence in India created a small problem. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and supposed end of the Cold War, I was keen to establish military to military relations between India and Turkey, since Turkish armed forces are protector of secularism. Having met with the Turkish Chief of General Staff a few times at receptions, I wrote to External Affairs ministry to look after him during the technical halt in Bombay on his way to Kuala Lumpur in January 1993. The Turks are fascinated by Bombay’s coastline and glitter as it reminds them of the Bosporus in Istanbul separating Asia from Europe. On his return the General told me laughingly that he could not go to the city as people were throwing stones at each other, an euphemism for the communal carnage following the demolition. (However I did succeed in sending to India his successor Gen Ismail Haqqi Karadai, 3 years later, the first ever visit of a Turkish Chief, who came back impressed and thus began military to military relationship between India and Turkey)

After the demolition, a one man Commission of Enquiry was set up under Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan to submit a report on the events leading to the demolition of the Masjid. However he took 17 years, was given over 40 extensions at a cost of Rs 8 crore (80 Million) and finally produced a 1,029 page report.

Verdicts and inquiry commission reports are lengthy, obscure and very boring. Such commissions are generally a ploy to evade decision making or avoid accountability. They are often granted extensions from a combination of political expediency and pliant judges eager to prolong their sinecures of privilege in retirement. It makes justice convoluted, time-consuming and expensive.

Justice Liberhan was asked to inquire with respect to the following matters:

  1. The sequence of events leading to, and all the facts and circumstances relating to, the occurrences in the Ram Janma Bhoomi-Babri Masjid complex at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 involving the destruction of the Ram Janma Bhoomi-Babri Masjid structure;
  2. The role played by the Chief Minister, Members of the Council of Ministers, officials of the Government of Uttar Pradesh and by the individuals, concerned organizations and agencies in, or in connection with, the destruction of the Ram Janma Bhoomi-Babri Masjid structure;
  3. The deficiencies in security measures and other arrangements as prescribed or operated in practice by Government of Uttar Pradesh which might have contributed to the events that took place in the Ram Janma Bhoomi-Babri Masjid complex, Ayodhya town and Faizabad on 6 December, 1992;
  4. The sequence of events leading to, and all the facts and circumstances relating to, the assault on media persons at Ayodhya on 6 December, 1992; and
  5. Any other matters related to the subject of Inquiry.

Justice Liberhan’s conclusion is unsurprising but unequivocal and bold: the demolition was part of a well-thought out plan — a “joint common enterprise” — hatched by the top leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the last organization correctly described as a “front organization” of the RSS.

Wrote Sidharath Vardrajan in ‘Hindu’ that “Unfortunately, the recommendations which emerge out of his daring excavations are so mousy that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the forthright conclusions which precede them. After having indicted 68 individuals for bringing the country to the brink of communal disaster, Justice Liberhan doesn’t call for the filing of charges against those that have escaped being arraigned so far in the demolition case, nor does he speak of expedited criminal proceedings. This is surprising given his repeated use of the phrase “joint common enterprise” to describe the conspiracy.

Ever since the 1999 Tadic judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, international criminal law has developed the notion of ascribing liability for mass crimes to those who might not have been direct participants but who willingly facilitated the commission of criminal acts through the positions they occupied in the hierarchy of the organization involved.

“Had Justice Liberhan developed the concept in his recommendations and pushed for an end to the pervasive impunity enjoyed by politicians, police officers and bureaucrats, he would have earned the gratitude of the nation. But he has done nothing of the sort. Other than calling for the separation of religion and politics and making some other tepid suggestions, the report steers clear of recommending either short-term steps to ensure justice in the demolition case or long-term measures to protect the country from a repeat of the tragedy

The leakage of the report in the Indian media on November 23, 2009 opened a Pandora’s box with News channels and media carrying on endlessly discussions and talks, with scoring of debating points but without much clarity or accountability.  One thing is clear; the rule of law in India appears to be outside the comprehension of Brahmanical ordained understanding of law.

Poet AK Ramanujam said that Indians don’t seem to have a sense of absolute. They place everything in some context or another. And, depending on the context, what the rest of the world would regard as being wrong in absolute sense becomes quite all right in India.

Thus Indians in general have no sense of rule of law. Show me the man and I will show you the law. All this is even supported by our epics; Ramayana and Mahabharata. Trickery by Lord Rama in killing Bali or the apostle of truth Yudhishter proclaiming the death of Aswathama (elephant) for military gain are lauded, accepted and readily employed in daily life.

Rule of Law or equality of all before the law is a European evolution, alongwith the concept of a modern state and nation, which emerged after centuries of wars between the emperors and kings and the Pope and other religious leaders, barons and common people fighting for equality and rule of law. Kings were guillotined, hanged or killed or expelled in France, Russia, Turkey, China and other countries, before the concept of nation and equality before law emerged and took hold. India has not gone through such a metamorphosis as yet.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.
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