Being witness to the Babri Masjid demolition


In the FIR carefully written out in Hindi at Thana Ramjanambhoomi, Ayodhya on December 11, 1992, I mentioned two U-matic tapes, one camera battery, one Hanimex still camera and a still film roll. I was reporting back then on television for a monthly video news magazine, Eyewitness. But writing FIRs was certainly a first for someone two and a half years into the trade. A photocopy remains with me of the ruled sheet — now Exhibit ‘K’-139 in the ‘AP’ (Ayodhya Prakaran) Lucknow Court.

Reporters like me, rushing to capture the beautiful town of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Sarayu, ended up scrambling between recording the social and political tensions that brewed away from the grandeur of the Sarayu and the story that silent Ayodhya told of living with juxtaposed centuries-old truths.

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How I landed the assignment was a question I was asked later. I attribute that to my Executive Producer Karan Thapar’s faith in my fluency in Hindi and familiarity with U.P. then. In addition, I was born to a Hindu-Muslim couple, which meant I was familiar with the customs, traditions and prejudices of both sides. What was clear in our monthly news meetings was that something important was bound to occur on December 6, given that thousands had been allowed to gather there by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led State government headed by Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. There was a court order permitting “symbolic construction” outside the Babri Masjid. The State government gave a sworn assurance to the apex court that no harm would be allowed to fall on the 16th century mosque, the epicentre of massive turmoil whipped up by a countrywide rath yatra two years earlier and campaigns for years preceding it, making it a symbol of hate.

The age of the journalist foregrounding herself was still a few decades away. But as the focussed demolition was captured by cameras and pens, reporters and camerapersons did end up as part of the story. After ensuring that their devices stopped recording the demolition that started taking place shortly before noon, reporters were evicted from the site of the “symbolic kar seva”.

But notebooks, ballpoints and cameras were still to be able to capture what unfolded. Recorders of the event — photographers like Praveen Jain and reporters like Mark Tully, Ramdutt Tripathi and Rakesh Sinha — managed to gather their notes, pictures and wits to tell the tale.

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This reporting assignment lasted a long time. Reporters were turned into witnesses in courts and an inquiry commission always managed to bring the assignment back to life. All ‘ground’ stints are excellent teachers; this one more so. Tracking the story of the nation from then on made the reporter’s notebook a really thick and much thumbed one. The one disturbing question after this week’s Central Bureau of Investigation court order is whether vandals attacking journalists to ensure that no evidence survived of the demolition have won this round.

But the first draft of history was recorded faithfully then and it will hold good against all attempts to rewrite the events of that fateful day. No court judgment can erase or overturn what a bunch of journalists saw, recorded and wrote from Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

Seema Chishti was reporting from Ayodhya for ‘Eyewitness’, HTV’ s video news magazine on December 6, 1992. She is an independent journalist/writer based in Delhi

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