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One hundred thousand devout Hindus poured into the Indian holy city of Ayodhya on the brisk morning of December 6, 1992. They gathered in front of the Babri Masjid, a mosque that had stood in Ayodhya since the 16th century, ostensibly for a religious ceremony. And yet, anyone witnessing the scene could sense the volatility running through the sea of saffron-clad kar sevaks, or holy volunteers. By 11:30 AM, chants calling for the destruction of the Babri Masjid rang throughout the increasingly restless crowd, and government security forces were losing control of the situation. They erected a barricade around the perimeter of the mosque, but it was clear that they were outnumbered and overpowered.

As the kar sevaks grew more belligerent, a journalist asked an officer, on camera, how they would maintain control of the situation. The officer snapped back in Hindi: “If they don’t cooperate with us, how can we control so many of them?” Shortly before noon, a group of men wearing headbands – some armed with pickaxes – pushed their way to the front of the crowd and broke through the security barrier. The thin line of officers on guard quickly dissipated, and within minutes, thousands of kar sevaks were charging the mosque. By 12:30 pm, a full-out assault on the Babri Masjid was under way.

According to legends, Ram, who is among the most widely worshiped Hindu deities across the subcontinent, was born in Ayodhya, thousands of years ago. Located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the city sits on the banks of the Sarayu River and holds a population of less than 60,000 people, according to the last Indian census taken in 2011. At night, the reflections of the city’s lights, shining from its buildings and temples, glimmer in the river’s waters – the city radiates with bright colors during the Hindu festival season. Given its connection with the life of Ram, Ayodhya is among the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites in India. Millions of people make the trip every year and pack into the small city, praying across the thousands of temples in the area, ritually wading into and bathe in the Sarayu, and paying their respects to local priests.

It had taken only five hours for the saffron mob to render the Babri Masjid, which had towered over Ayodhya for nearly half a millennium, into a pile of rubble. 

Videos captured by news outlets show an endless stream of people clamoring to climb over the barricade and storm the Masjid. After some time, it is difficult to make out parts of its actual structure, which is well-hidden underneath the throngs of kar sevaks. They scale the mosque’s sides with some difficulty, clambering up the two domes, beating the structure with rods, sticks, and hammers. The destruction continued for hours, with the men unbothered by any police or military opposition. Just before 5:00 pm, the final dome collapsed. It had taken only five hours for the saffron mob to render the Babri Masjid, a house of worship that had towered over Ayodhya for nearly half a millennium, into a pile of rubble.

***

India is home to, by far, the largest right-wing movement on the planet. Guided by a Hindu supremacist ideology of Hindutva, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by its charismatic leader Narendra Modi, aims to replace the present framework of the secular Indian nation-state, as defined by the Indian constitution, with a Hindu rashtra, or dominion.

It’s no coincidence that in the years since Modi first took office in 2014, hate crimes and lynchings targeting religious minorities have spiked. The BJP-controlled Parliament, while under Modi’s leadership, has issued numerous bills that explicitly target Muslims. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which set into motion a plan to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship and political rights, a clear violation of the nation’s secular promise. In the months that followed this proposal, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets, occupying public spaces across New Delhi demanding that these bills be withdrawn. After firebrand BJP leaders called on religious activists to break the peaceful occupations, roving squads of Hindu nationalist paramilitaries unleashed brutal attacks on protestors. All told, over fifty people were killed, the vast majority were Muslim. There has been little to no accountability in the last three-and-a-half years, and in fact, those who have faced criminal charges are made up almost exclusively of anti-CAA advocates – some still languish in prison today.

In recent years, the state has even further escalated its crackdowns on popular protest. In response to street protests that followed a BJP politician’s offensive remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, police forces in UP, India’s most populous state, took the unprecedented step of demolishing the home of a Muslim activist family located in the city of Allahabad. This move shocked observers across the nation and world.

The widespread dissemination of social media misinformation has led to an alarming rise in mob lynchings throughout the country. These incidents often stem from cow vigilantism, a breed of Hindutva mob violence where Hindu extremists attack Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups suspected of cow mistreatment. Cows are a sacred animal in Hindu tradition, and these attacks are meant to punish those thought to have slaughtered or abused cows. Muslim men are also the targets of a nationwide conspiracy called “love jihad,” which posits that Muslim men are secretly looking to seduce, marry, and convert Hindu women to Islamize the Indian nation. States and localities across the country now enforce “love jihad” laws, which in practice, give police authorities full license to harass and detain Muslim men without cause – and in some areas, they have even laid the groundwork for prohibiting interfaith marriages.

The BJP has long made it a priority to rewrite history, and among their main objectives is to contest the portrayal of the Muslim empires that reigned in the subcontinent. They aim to simultaneously diminish the role played by Muslims in Indian history, while accentuating the injustices perpetrated by Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb. To litigate history in this way is, in effect, justifying the Hindutva edict that Muslims are fundamentally foreign to the subcontinent, an invader group that has produced nothing but strife over hundreds of years of conquest over an imagined indigenous Hindu race. One other tactic offered by Hindu nationalists has been to rename cities, from Mughal-era names to names more grounded in Hindu culture – for example, in 2018, the BJP changed the name of a prominent north Indian city from Allahabad, named by Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, to Prayagraj. But, as one might imagine, it’s not unusual for these name changes to haphazardly target any Muslim-sounding city or village name, even if it isn’t rooted in Mughal history.

The Hindu nationalist’s world is supplemented by its own history, points of reference, and ultimately, its own edifice of an Indian polity – a Hindu rashtra. Like all reactionary movements globally, it’s an existence characterized by fear and precarity. The resulting worldview justifies the use of violence in defense of a status quo that demands ideological conformity. And although perhaps no single identity category is as uniformly scrutinized as Muslims under this revived Hindu nation, it’s not exclusively Muslims who come under suspicion. Any deviation from the project of a Hindu rashtra is reflexively labeled as “anti-national,” whether it’s Punjabi farmers protesting against the corporate takeover of agriculture, indigenous groups fighting back against multinational mineral extractors, Christian human rights organizers, Dalit activists fighting for the abolition of caste, or anti-Modi dissenters.

The story of the Babri Masjid’s destruction, an insurrection against India’s secular foundations is essential in grasping the total victory of the Hindu rashtra, the New India.

***

There is no historical record of the Hindu deity Ram’s human existence. Descriptions of his life come out of thousands-year old theological texts, which themselves have been subject to countless interpretations across the subcontinent’s scattered Hindu sects, as well as its eclectic cultural and linguistic traditions. These accounts usually diverge significantly from one another, unreliable in providing any consistent narrative – let alone historical context – as to whom Ram, the human, may have been. In a most basic sense, we don’t even know when he was alive.

But there is overwhelming archeological, literary, and historical evidence suggesting that the Ramayana-era and contemporary Ayodhya cities cannot be the same city. According to Hindu astrologers, Ram is said to have lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ancient city of Ayodhya was said to have been a sprawling and developed urban center. But contemporary Ayodhya doesn’t appear to have been settled at all prior to the fifth century BCE, and seems to have only developed into a more major settlement hundreds of years later – nor does today’s Ayodhya match crucial geographic descriptors of the ancient city’s location. The contemporary Ayodhya did not become a significant place for religious pilgrimage until the 18th century, meaning that, for nearly two thousand years or more after the Ramayana was to have been written, the city does not seem to have figured prominently in the cults of Ram devotion or in any broader constellation of Ram worship.

The central claim at the heart of this controversy asserts that, in the 16th century, Mughal forces destroyed a Hindu temple that commemorated the Ram Janmabhoomi, Ram’s birthplace, and then built a mosque, the Babri Masjid, over its ruins. Mughal forces did build this mosque in the 16th century, named after the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur. But the full claim – a Hindu temple marking Ram’s birth existed, and was demolished, in order to build the Babri Masjid – remains unfounded by serious scholars of history.

The Babri Masjid mosque, Ayodhya, India. Photographed by Samuel Bourne in the 19th century.

The notion that Ram had been born in modern-day Ayodhya gained currency over the last few centuries. When writing about the region in the 19th century, British colonial administrators and scholars took notice of this claim, which was likely just a local Ayodhya legend limited to the region, and probably followed from the rise in prominence of Ram cults in the 17th and 18th centuries. But in reproducing this narrative, they effectively canonized it as historical reality, and it would continue to be treated as such in the years to follow. As was often the case with British historiography, there was a strategic end to this sort of story: the tale of a Muslim regime destroying a holy Hindu temple served as another demonstration that native Indian rulers were afflicted by primitive religious fanaticism, and in need of the civilized, guiding hand of the British crown in order to progress as a civilization.

The controversy over the Babri Masjid would grow increasingly salient throughout the 20th century, especially as Hindu nationalist institutions swelled in strength. Hindutva forces relied on the British narrative uncritically, marshaling the story of Muslim dominance over one of the most sacred sites in Hinduism to galvanize millions of Hindus to fight in defense of their precarious faith.

Through the 1980s, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), among the most volatile Hindu nationalist paramilitary organizations, held numerous demonstrations in Ayodhya that called for the destruction of the mosque and the restoration of the Ram temple. These agitations turned out to be wildly successful in cultivating a large base of support throughout the country, and they did so by proliferating rhetoric that Hindus have become dispossessed in India and must fight to reclaim their homeland, a message that resonated with hundreds of millions of religious Hindus. An essay published in a 1988 issue of Organiser, a Hindu nationalist magazine, sums up the grievance coursing through the affronted Hindu conscience: “My temples have been desecrated, destroyed. Their sacred stones are being trampled under the aggressors’ feet. My gods are crying… And do you dare tell me that I have no right to be angry?”

***

In August of 1990, the Prime Minister of India V.P. Singh announced that his government would be instituting policy reforms, which were first put forth by the Mandal Commission over ten years prior. The Mandal Commission was a body formed by the government under the Janata Party, the primarily secular, big-tent party that served as a predecessor to the modern-day BJP, in the late 1970s aimed at ameliorating social disparities found among caste lines. The Commission produced a set of policy recommendations, such as quotas for highly coveted civil service jobs. But these sorts of reforms proved to be a flashpoint for both lower and higher caste communities – the latter saw them as necessary tools, albeit belated and inadequate, to address the caste problem in India, while the latter decisively rebuked these reforms, deeming them unfair and discriminatory. For weeks leading up to and following Singh’s announcement, students on either side of this divide took to the streets in clashes that regularly turned violent.

In the fight over the Babri Masjid, the BJP found an issue that they thought would bring together all Hindus, regardless of cultural identity, caste, or economic status. By 1990, Hindu nationalists had been laying the groundwork for a massive confrontation in Ayodhya for over a decade. And with the agitation generated by the Mandal reforms, Hindu nationalists found themselves with the perfect opportunity to channel the grassroots resentment of millions away from the thorny caste question, instead directing it into the Babri Masjid controversy – and by extension, the place of Islam in India.

Two months after Singh’s announcement, on September 25, 1990, hundreds of Hindu nationalists – largely RSS, VHP, and BJP members – assembled at the Somnath Temple in the west Indian state of Gujarat. They flanked a minibus that had been adorned with elaborate decorations and a fresh coat of bright yellow paint. The minibus was set to resemble a rath, or chariot, harkening back to a traditional ancient Hindu motif: the chariot journey, rath yatra, that leads a divine figure into battle. This was the launch of the Ram Rath Yatra, a month-long procession around India led by the then-president of the BJP, L.K. Advani. The journey was set to culminate at a demonstration in Ayodhya at the Babri Masjid, and the organizers did little to camouflage the bloodlust that clearly animated the procession. Speakers affixed to the bus-cum-chariot boomed slogans such as “Mandir wahin banayenge” (We will build the temple there, and only there) and “Aur ek dhakka do, Babri Masjid tor do” (Give it one more push, the Babri Masjid will fall).

Their trip spanned 10,000 kilometers across western, central, and northern India. And predictably, the Yatra left behind a trail of blood. Religious violence, largely targeting Muslims, tended to follow the Hindu nationalists along their path, with some observers estimating that over five hundred killings resulted from riots related to the procession. On October 23, one week before the scheduled final stop in Ayodhya, Advani was arrested by the state police in the neighboring state of Bihar for inciting public disorder and unrest. One week later, a mob of some 75,000 undeterred Hindu nationalist kar sevaks attempted to charge the Masjid but they were beaten back by tens of thousands of security personnel over the course of three days. At least twenty kar sevaks were killed in the melee. Hindutva leaders would reverently brandish the urns carrying the ashes of those fallen volunteers at subsequent demonstrations, emblems of martyrdom in the struggle to save Hinduism.

Even though the yatra was technically cut short, it still proved to be a massive success. It roused millions by vaulting the Ram Janmabhoomi issue to the forefront of the national conscience, and netted a wave of significant electoral wins for the BJP in both the state and federal elections that took place in 1991, including a victory in the state government of UP. After floundering in many of the preceding fifty years of parliamentary and state elections, the Hindu nationalist bloc had finally broken through, in large part by exploiting the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign.

In October of 1991, the VHP purchased the land surrounding the mosque, and announced their intention to start construction on a Ram Temple. They ultimately decided on December 6, 1992 as the day to inaugurate the project, and in the weeks leading up to that day, upwards of 100,000 kar sevaks poured into Ayodhya. The central government in Delhi had stationed thousands of officers in districts neighboring Ayodhya in preparation for the December 6 event, which was shaping up to be more like a militant confrontation rather than a religious demonstration. But the district police insisted that there was no real need for additional security support, and instead chose to deputize RSS members to keep the peace alongside district officers. The district police department had been under the direction of the BJP-led state government since the party came to power in UP during the previous year’s wave election. While any plan of a premeditated attack to raze the mosque was never definitively confirmed, it’s clear that administrators were preparing for some sort of violent confrontation.

Men wearing saffron headbands smile and pose for the camera as other kar sevaks storm the Babri Masjid. 1992

The surviving video footage from the Babri Masjid demolition comes largely from media cameras that were perched around various vantage points surrounding the mosque, but some journalists were embedded on the ground among the kar sevaks. But it wasn’t rage alone driving this act of unfettered brutality, the spectacle unfolding in Ayodhya that afternoon. Many of the men who mounted the Masjid didn’t even seem to be interested in the destruction surrounding them: some were just looking outward, mesmerized at the vast crowd watching from below; others stood atop the mosque waving their hands and dancing with joy, wide grins filling their faces, as others around them hack and wrench out each individual stone of the mosque. There’s an overtone of celebration and festivity in the air, soundtracked by the cacophonous roar of screams, chants, and cries of tens of thousands of fanatical men. It’s a complete victory, a cathartic moment of divine justice for the Hindu supremacists in Ayodhya and across India to see the Babri Masjid crumble to the earth.

***

The aftermath of December 6 unleashed waves of bloody, retaliatory butcheries as Hindu and Muslim communities turned against one another, leaving thousands dead. This violence reached its peak in a series of riots in Mumbai, whose death toll climbed up to 900 people, mostly Muslims. One of the key culprits in organizing massacres was Shiv Sena, a far-right, Hindu nationalist political party that, along with the BJP, currently leads the governing coalition of the western state of Maharashtra, a critical state that serves as India’s financial and industrial hub.

Multiple streams of litigation trudged through India’s notoriously slow judicial system in the thirty years since the demolition. The most prominent of these cases concerned the disputed land on which the Babri Masjid formerly stood. In November of 2019, the Supreme Court of India handed down a judgment that awarded the 2.77 acres of the Masjid complex to a land trust to build the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. It awarded a five acre parcel to the UP state’s official Islamic land trust to build a mosque complex elsewhere in the state. Another major court challenge involved charges levied against the perpetrators of the demolition, many of them major figures in the BJP. In September of 2020, a special court acquitted all 32 of the (living) accused, including Advani, who last served as India’s deputy Prime Minister from 2002-04.

After the conclusion of legal proceedings, construction plans for the Ram Mandir forged ahead, and on August 5, 2020, Prime Minister Modi laid the temple’s foundational stone in Ayodhya, on the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood. News of the ceremony captured international headlines. But any mention of the mosque, and the carnage that surrounded its demolition, was conspicuously absent among the revelers – it was no longer a detail worth noting.

In the days after the Ram Mandir’s August inauguration, Indian political scientist Suhas Palshikar wrote that the event marked “the officialization of the status of Hindu religion as the basis of the new republic.” And in the two years since its initial ceremony, the Ram Mandir continues to serve a central nationmaking purpose.

This New India makes it crystal clear: if you don’t subscribe to the particular philosophy of Hindutva, you will be beaten into submitting to its norms.

The notion of a “New India” may strike some as overstated, or even conspiratorial, but this is the exact framing that the project’s champions themselves use in defining their objectives. At a recent ceremony at the temple site, Yogi Adityanath, the BJP chief minister of UP, declared the Ram Temple as the “rashtra mandir,” the temple of the nation, and explicitly used the phrase “New India,” in describing the new era of triumphant Hindu supremacy.

And perhaps there’s no better example of the New India and its future, than the figure of Adityanath, who, in his speech at last year’s Ram Mandir ceremony in Ayodhya, thanked the “lakhs of workers associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)” for their role in making the temple possible. Adityanath is so radical that the New York Times editorial board lambasted his appointment as UP’s chief minister in 2017 as “a shocking rebuke to religious minorities.” He’s a militant Hindu cleric and Hindu nationalist, a figure who first gained political prominence for his bloodthirsty rhetoric, including one speech where he proclaimed, “If a single Hindu is killed, we will not go to the authorities, but instead murder 10 people.” UP is home to 200 million people – over 38 million Muslims among them – and despite these flagrantly incendiary attitudes (or more likely, because of them), Adityanath is widely regarded as the heir apparent to Modi and the future of the BJP.

***

Last year, another mosque in UP emerged as the focus of Hindu nationalist ire. There’s more definitive historical evidence that the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism, was built on the ruins of a Hindu temple that was destroyed during Mughal rule (the temple was later rebuilt adjacent to the mosque). This alone makes it a prime target to mobilize Hindu opposition for its existence – but coupled with that is the fact that the mosque stands in the way of the Modi government’s ambitious plans to redevelop Varanasi.

While the mosque has remained a point of tension for several decades, the issue has now escalated to the courts – Hindu groups claim that there exists a shivling inside of the mosque, a living avatar of the Hindu deity Shiva, and that they are now demanding access to the mosque in order to worship it. Legal defendants of the mosque argue that such access would be a breach of a 1991 law that prohibits the conversion of places of worship. The Gyanvapi legal proceedings have become a fixture of the Indian news cycle, most of which has not so subtly pushed the Hindutva line on the shivling’s existence, and the urgency of Hindu access to it. In the meantime, the mosque requires around-the-clock security to ensure it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Babri Masjid – at least, not yet.

Babri Masjid anniversary, 2015 via Two Circles

It’s more than likely that the Gyanvapi episode will resolve in favor of the Hindu nationalists, if not by explicit mob destruction akin to Ayodhya, then by the historical precedent that it set. This new norm permitted Hindutva forces to ignore any inconvenient truths supplied by history, rationality, or reality. Over the decades, Hindu nationalists stacked one tenuous claim atop another – regarding Ram’s existence, his lifespan, the nature of the city of Ayodhya, that there existed a Hindu temple on that very spot that Muslim invaders destroyed. The foundation of their project was so brittle, it couldn’t withstand the weight of even the slightest scrutiny. It’s not any fidelity to history or fact that fastens Hindu nationalist conspiracy claims, but blind faith and misdirection. But ultimately, for the Babri Masjid, and any attempts for meaningful accountability in its demolition, that didn’t matter. The Hindu nationalists built their own edifice of reality, proselytized it, and won. And it’s that edifice, the New India, that now reigns supreme.

To the hundreds of millions of adherents of Hindutva, the grainy footage of thousands of frenzied kar sevaks, packed in and around the Babri Masjid courtyard, howling, rampaging, and thrashing the mosque in Ayodhya, marked the birth of their beloved rashtra.

This New India annihilates the pluralist movement that birthed its independence, valorizing the Hindu nationalist murderer of Mahatma Gandhi instead of nonviolence and democratic expression. The New India tramples on history, amplifying religious myth as historical fact and enshrining such distortions as a matter of state policy. This New India eviscerates any semblance of due process, whether it’s bulldozing the homes and neighborhoods of Muslim citizens as retribution for activism, or throwing journalists into jail on fake charges. This New India makes it crystal clear: if you don’t subscribe to the particular philosophy of Hindutva, you will be beaten into submitting to its norms.

India has the distinction of being recently named a nation at risk of genocide by one of the world’s most prominent genocide watchdogs, a classification that will surely be echoed by many others in the months and years to come. Hindu nationalist elements in politics and society have never enjoyed more power as they do right now, and their ranks of devout Indians are mobilized to ensure this power only grows. The Hindu rashtra has detonated the secular, democratic foundation upon which the Indian nation-state was first created. The question is no longer how to save India from a fascist takeover, but now, what of its founding values will be salvageable from the wreckage?