What I Saw at Babri Masjid
By Jeff Penberthy
17 September, 2004
Railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has called upon the Liberhan Commission to summon two former Time journalists, Jeff Penberthy and Anita Pratap, who were eyewitnesses to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, to testify on the role played by BJP leaders L.K. Advani
and Uma Bharti.
Jeff Penberthy, who was then Time’s bureau chief in New Delhi, writes from Melbourne – where he now lives – that while “I would have no objection to sharing the account of what we saw with your honourable commission, I doubt whether any insights I could offer would justify a trip from my home in Melbourne.”
This is his story of December 6, 1992:
Almost simultaneously with the moment that the surging crowd of karsevaks breached the wire link fence protecting the Babri Masjid, a cry went up patrakar murdabad (kill the journalists), and sections of the crowd who appeared to be from the Bajrang Dal – the youthful Army of the Monkey God – broke off to attack and pursue the many Indian and foreign journalists present with iron bars, driving them from the scene. From memory, I think about 20 were injured.
The circumstances in which I – conspicuous as the only foreigner on the crowded roof of the Manas Bhavan building in front of the mosque – was spared that ordeal is a slightly amusing sidelight to an otherwise grim scene. Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav is a little astray in saying that we were disguised as kar sevaks: that is not so, as I will later explain.
At the time, I was the recently-arrived New Delhi bureau chief for Time. Anita Pratap was then our Delhi contract correspondent. Anita had travelled south to observe Mr L.K. Advani’s rathyatra as it progressed towards Ayodhya, and I drove there from Lucknow on the Friday. (December 6, 1992 was a Sunday). This trip was impeded along the way by an excited scene at a roadblock, where former Prime Minister V.P. Singh (on whose watch the 1991 assault on the mosque occurred) was being taken into protective custody. From memory this was either by the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary or officers of the CRPF – I am no longer sure which.
I arrived at the hotel in Faizabad where most foreign journalists were staying early in the evening. I can no longer recall whether it was at a group dinner there, or later, that I learned that there was considerable hostility towards the foreign press as a result of a Mark Tully BBC broadcast which described the kar sevaks as “zealots” or “fanatics.” In any event, there had been speeches outside the Masjid condemning the broadcast, and a German television crew, I believe, had been attacked during the afternoon, suffering some injuries.
I went into Ayodhya that night to take a first (and second last) look at the 464-year-old Babri Masjid. I soon sensed not all was right. At a stall near the mosque I was looking at some of the brightly-coloured metallic plates of Lord Ram to buy for my small son Jun, then 6, and much taken with the Mahabharata comic books. Back at Friends Colony West (in New Delhi) he had established a small shrine in his bedroom. Someone reached over and took the picture from my hand, and put it back on the stall. Something told me it was time to leave.
Walking back to my car along the dark lane across the fields behind the Masjid, I found a group of young men following me. They called: “Hello. Hello. Are you from the BBC?” When I had first arrived in Delhi to take up the Time posting, our office manager Deepak Puri had given me some good advice. “Sir,” he said, “in India just give a smile, and people will do anything for you.” I stopped and chatted to them in a friendly way, and they went off. I have sometimes wondered how that might have gone differently.
The next day, December 6, we got to see the destruction of the Babri Masjid because we had started early. Anita and I took up our positions on the roof of the Manas Bhavan facing the Masjid at 10 am. There was a third independent eyewitness there with us too, a man from India Today (but not a journalist) as we looked over the mosque compound.
Finally, Mr Advani arrived, and began to speak at noon as the vast crowd gathered. I do not speak Hindi, and remember nothing remarkable about the snatches of his speech that I was given. In any event, other things were happening: the crowd of young men cramming the lane to left of the
Masjid shaking the tall chain link fence, which began to sag. Along with several others, a very powerfully-built sadhu in saffron robes – who I think was well known, perhaps as a wrestler – tried to urge them back, and then moved to the circle of men beginning to protect Mr Advani. In my memory, the BJP leader looked distressed, and as the first young men with iron bars broke through the fence and were sprinting towards the mosque, he was pleading into his microphone “Please don’t do this,” before he was hustled away.
One thing that I have never seen published is that just before the fence went down, a man in a suit jacket waded into the crowd below us and fired a pistol held high above his head – like a signal. I know of no one else who saw this, although I mentioned it to Anita at the time – but things were beginning to happen everywhere just then. The cry “patrakar murdabad” had gone up, and gangs were seeking out the journalists.
In the mosque compound below me, the Voice of America’s Peter Heinlein was felled by a blow to the head from an iron bar, and his friend Ed Gargan of the New York Times rushed in to assist him. A rock had disabled the camera of Sipa photographer Dieter Ludwig, on assignment for Time, and he wisely hightailed it. Chris Kremmer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation fled down the lane behind the mosque towards the river, passing formations of the PAC, whom he said later were sitting in the fields “looking terrified.”
A woman freelance photographer representing Newsweek rushed into the outskirts of Faizabad, where she said she was sheltered by a Muslim family who rolled her in a carpet. Stefan Wagstyl of the Financial Times hid in a hutment.
The reason I was spared any of this, I believe, was because of cricket. Earlier, on the roof, the suspicious young Bajrang Dal men around me asked the usual questions. “Who are you? Where do you come from?” (Australia). They frisked me several times for a camera, made me chant Jai Shri Ram and wear one of their red bandanas for a while. But India is India, the wait was long, and the talk soon turned to cricket. And I immediately ingratiated myself by having picked up early on the potential of an emerging young Indian batsman named Sachin Tendhulkar, the new Don Bradman. I was made – and immediately labelled Allan Border, to whom I bear a slight physical resemblance (this story was told in the Publisher’s Letter in Time’s December 31 Ayodhya cover edition).
Below me, many journalists had been herded into a protected compound behind the Sita Rasoi Temple, adjacent to the mosque: the distinctive pate of venerable Delhi photographer Baldev, and handsome Rakesh Kumar among them. On the roof of that temple, as the old mosque crumbled, senior officers of the PAC, and their wives, were lounging under shamiana, like senators and their consorts watching a Roman spectacle.
There were roughly 300,000 people at Ayodhya. As the demolition went on, thousands of saffron-clad women sat in neat rows on the plain behind chanting hymns from the Bhagvad Gita. Silhouetted behind them, pilgrims made their way up the Kuber Tila, a high knoll, to make votive offerings to an idol under a makeshift canopy. The lilting Song of the Blessed One, with its key line rising and ebbing… O Man, do not take rest… washed over the kar sevaks on their demolition business.
Ms Uma Bharti was there. Still new to India, I did not know much about her at the time, only that she was called the “sexy sadhu.” But from a distant sound stage on the plain her voice shouted, again and again, over the loudspeakers: “See the power of the Hindus!” (in translation). The end of meekness, and subjugation.” I asked Anita how she felt. She said: “Ashamed.”
I only left the Manas Bhavan roof once, in mid-afternoon – down crowded stairs aromatic with ripe paan juice spittings – to see injured kar sevaks being treated in a temple opposite. Then I walked up the lane to look into the dusty cauldron of the collapsing domes. On the road an agitated middle-aged man rushed up and shouted in my face: “Are you a Hindu?,” and kept it up as a crowd gathered. Once again, good luck and cricket saved me. A young man also down from the roof recognised “Allan Border,” and hustled me back to the shelter of the Manas Bhavan building.
At about 4 pm, rumours swept the rooftop that Central troops were arriving in Faizabad, and the pace of work below intensified to frenzy. The burly priest who had initially tried to stop the crowd at the collapsing link fence now seemed to be directing things – both rescue efforts for injured, and parts of the destruction! The third and last dome crumbled sadly sometime between 5 pm and 6 pm. By then, a huge red orb was sinking behind the Kuber Tila and the Faizabad skyline, from which columns of black smoke were already rising.
We heard later that at 7 Race Course Road the cautious, elderly Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, had been taking an afternoon nap when the demolition started, and that aides had been reluctant to wake him. His credo in life, as I once reported, was finestre lente, to hasten slowly. For a month, the subcontinent was plunged into another communal bloodbath, which took around 1,500 lives, with worse aftershocks to follow, in Mumbai and elsewhere.
I left India, and Time magazine, to return home to Australia in June 1995. I think this encapsulates most of what I can remember of Ayodhya – or could offer the Liberhan Commission. I doubt if it would take their deliberations any further.