ANAND PATWARDHAN – The making of Ram Ke Naam

In 1984 after Sikh bodyguards assassinated India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a revenge pogrom took the lives of over 3000 Sikhs on the streets of Delhi. The members of the then ruling party – Congress had led most of the killer mobs; the RSS and BJP leaders led others. These overlooked facts may have been pushed under the carpet by subsequent governments, but have been widely documented and recorded by newspaper headlines and documentarians of the day.

It was this Sikh massacre that set me on the road to fight communalism with my camera. I spent an entire decade understanding, recording and documenting different instances of the rise of the religious rights in different parts of the country. I have documented diverse movements – from the Khalistani upsurge in Punjab, the glorification of Sati in Rajasthan to the movementsthat took place to replace the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya with a temple to Lord Ram. The Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid issue is what I will be elaborating about in my article.

The material I filmed in this context was complex and diverse. Trying to encompass it all into a single film would have been long and confusing. So I segregated my recordings and eventually three distinct films emerged from the footage shot between 1984 and 1994, all broadly describing the rise of religious fundamentalism and the resistance offered by secular forces in the country.

Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari/ In Memory of Friends, was the first film to get completed, and depictedPunjab in the 1980’s where the Khalistanis and the Indian government were claiming Bhagat Singh as their hero. Unfortunately, only followers of the Left government seemed to remember his teachings through a booklet called “Why I am an Atheist”, which he wrote from his death cell.

The second film was Ram KeNaam/In the Name of God on the rise of Hindu fundamentalism as witnessed in the temple-mosque controversy in Ayodhya, and the third was Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha/Father, Son and Holy War on the connection between religious violence and the male psyche. All three films tackled communalism, but each used a different prism to analyze what was happening.

In Memory of Friends highlighted the writings of Bhagat Singhsuggesting that class solidarity was the antidote to religious division. Father, Son and Holy War looked at the issue from the prism of gender.

For this article, I will concentrate on Ram KeNaam, which became a trilogy on communalism. The film covers the proceedings over a span of two years (1990-92), but the background is in the mid-1980’s when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and sister organizations of the Hindutva family (the sangh parivar) was searching for a way to capture the imagination of the Hindus of India; who at 83%, constitute the real vote bank of this country.

Dharam Sansad (Parliament of Priests) in 1984 (the year Indira Gandhi was killed and the Congress rode to power on a sympathy wave) identified 3000 sites of potential conflict between Hindus and Muslims that could mobilize the sentiments of Hindus and polarize the nation.

The top three sites chosen were at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. The DharamSansad decided to start with the Ram temple/Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Soon began a nationwide, village-to-village campaign to collects bricks and money to build a grand Ram temple in place of Babri Masjid.

The campaign went international, as non-resident Indians chipped in funds and support from distant lands. By design or by remarkable coincidence, India’s state controlled television channel Doordarshan, started to run a never-ending serial on the Hindu epic Ramayana (The story of Lord Ram). In those days there were hardly any other channels/ choices and this got an entire nation hooked on to mythology.

These ingredients were already at play when BJP stalwart L. K. Advani set out on his chariot of fire.
Ram KeNaam follows the ‘rathyatra’ of L.K. Advani who in 1990 traversed the Indian countryside in an air-conditioned Toyota; dressed up by a renowned Bollywood set- designer – to look like a mythological war chariot. The stated objective was to gather Hindu volunteers, or “karsevaks” to demolish a 16th century mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babar in Ayodhya. The master plan would end in building a temple of Lord Ram in its exact location.

The rationale behind this act of destruction and construction was that the Mughal emperor Babar had supposedly built a mosque after demolishing a Lord Rama’s temple that had stood there, earmarking the exact location of his birth. This was justified as an act of historic redress for the many wrongs inflicted by the Muslim invaders (and rulers) on their native Hindu subjects – a premise running through Hindutva discourses like the proverbial inflammatory torch.

I started the film instinctively, shooting the rathyatra when it arrived in Bombay in 1990, and then following it through the various segments of its journey. The rathyatra left blood trails in many places it passed through; where the karsevaks attacked the local Muslims on pretexts and lame excuses like not showing due respect or, just to display their might. The end of its yatra (journey) witnessed the death of 60 and several injured in the name of communalism.

We were a two-members crew – my colleagues who accompanied me on different legs of the shoot and me. I shot on a 16 mm camera. For the leg that eventually reached Ayodhya, Pervez Merwanji recorded sound on our portable Nagra. Pervez was a dear friend and a filmmaker in his own right, having just made his brilliant debut feature, Percy; which went on to win a major award at the Mannhein International Film Festival.

Despite this, he was not too proud to don the mantle of sound engineer on an unheralded independent documentary project like ours. It turned out to be his last film. Pervez contracted severe jaundice, probably during our shoot. He seemed to recover, but relapsed again when his liver failed and passed away prematurely – not being able to see the final edit of our film.

Our actual filmingwas staggered over a year and a half, and we were able to research as well as shoot during this period.  We learnt that contrary to theories propounded by Hindutva propaganda, that claimed that there was a temple underneath the mosque; the artifactsthat the archaeologists had originally found in the vicinity had nothing to do with any temple.

According to historians, the present day Ayodhya was probably the Bussist city of Saket in the 7thcentury AD. The proliferation of Akhadas (military wings attached to temples) in Ayodhya had nothing to do with the long war to liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram that the Hindutva activists claimed. The city owed their origin to the ongoing rivalry between the armed Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects in the middle ages.

Most importantly we learned that in the 16th century, the poet Tulsidas visited Ayodhya many times as he composed his famous Ram Charitra Manas, a text that converted the relatively obscure Sanskrit Ramayana into khadiboli, (a form of Hindi that popularized the story of Lord Ram for the ordinary folk of North India). At no place does Tulsidas mention that Babar demolished a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram.

Till the 16th century, the Rama legend was largely restricted to the few Brahmins who knew Sanskrit. Ram became a popular God for the masses after they found an access to his story through Tulsidas’s Hindi version of the epic. So, it is rather unlikely that there was any Ram temple in the middle of the 16th century when the Babri Mosque was built.

Present day Ayodhya is full of Ram temples. At least twenty of them claim to be built at Ram’s birthplace. The reasons are obvious. Any temple that establishes itself as the birthplace of Ram gets huge donations from their devotees.

For Ram KeNaam the sane voice of the Hindu priest Pujari Laldas played the role that Bhagat Singh’s writings had done in my previous film. The Left antidote to communalism was still present through the Patna speech of CPI’s AB Bardhan, but a liberation theologist in the form of Pujari Laldas now joined it.

Some of findings have been incorporated and spoken about in film, but never explicitly.  I felt the narrative would be more powerful through the logic of events unfolding before the camera in 1990-91; rather than the film looking like a theoretical and didactic treatise. Ideally I, or someone else should have made an accompanying booklet to point out the many footnotes and annotations that such a sensitive and complicated film really needs.

L.K. Advani had declared the date, October 30, 1990 as the targeted day for the “Kar Seva” at the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque site in Ayodhya. So Pervez and I headed to Uttar Pradesh to catch up with the rath at some of its scheduled stops. The trains were already jam-packed with sevaks. We had to squeeze into a third class train compartment where we could barely sit on top of our own luggage.

To make matters worse, we managed to get on to a wrong train, but found it impossible to get out! It turned out to be a stroke of our (good) luck that the train took us to Patna in Bihar, where a Left front and Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav was holding a huge anti-rath rally at the Gandhi Maidan.

A.B. Bardhan of the CPI made a brilliant appeal to preserve India’s syncretic cultureand the chief minister gave a stern warning to Advani to turn back from the brink. A few days later, the chief minister kept his promise. Advani was arrested and the rath yatra finally came to a halt in Bihar.
But the kar sevaks did not stop and used all the modes of transport available to continue their march towards Ayodhya.

We took a train back to Lucknow where we spent almost ten days trying to get permission to enter Ayodhya. The then Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav had vowed to protect the Babri Mosque and claimed that he had turned Ayodhya into an impenetrable fortress where not just kar sevaks but “parinda par na kar payega” (not a bird could fly cross).  As it turned out in the end, the only people who had difficulty getting into Ayodhya were journalists and documentarians like us.

We finally reached Ayodhya on the October 28, 1990, two days before the planned assault on the mosque. Here we met Shastriji, an old Mahant (temple priest) who had been part of the group that had broken into the Babri Mosque at night and installed a Ram idol in the sanctum Santorum in 1949. The site had become a disputed zone since then, as the district magistrate (DM) K.K. Nair refused to have the idols removed.   As Ram Ke Naam points out, after retiring from government service, Nair went on to join the Jan Sangh Party(precursor of the BJP) and became a member of Parliament.

Shastriji, the priest was proud of installing the idols, and a little miffed that everyone had forgotten his role. Hindutva videos, audios and literature had proclaimed that what hadhappened in 1949 was a ‘miracle’ where the god Lord Ram appeared at his birthplace. Shastri was arrested, but was bailed out by Nair. Four decades later, Shastri continues to move around freely, as if none of what he was a part of mattered in the court of law.

We went across the Saryubridge to Ayodhya’s twin city, Faizabad. Here we met the old Imam of the Babri Mosque and his carpenter son who recounted the 1949 story from the Muslim perspective.

Soon after the break-in, the Muslims were reassured by Nair that order would soon be restored; and that by the following Friday they could re-enter their mosque for prayers. As the Imam’s son put it “We are still waiting for that Friday to come”.

As October 30, 1990 dawned and we made our way by foot to the Saryu bridge at Ayodhya; we saw thousands of kar sevaks gathered by the bridge, despite the curfew.

Chief minister, Mulayam Singh’s promise of not letting any soul (not even the birds) in was proving false. There were lathi charges; we saw shoes and footwear scattered all over the bridge, busloads of arrested kar sevaks were arrested and driven away. What we did not notice at the time was that many of these buses would stop at a short distance and the kar sevaks would disembark to rejoin the fray.

By the side of the bridge thousands were chanting at the police “Hindu,hindubhaibhai,beech mein vardi kahan se aayee?”(All Hindus are brothers. Why let a uniform get between us?)”.

As the day progressed it was heartbreaking for those of us who knew that attacks on the mosque would damage the delicate communal fabric of the nation. We had believed Mulayam Singh’s strong rhetoric that he would stop karsevaks long before they reached the mosque. What we saw on the ground was bewildering.

Not only were thousands pouring in despite thecurfew- there was active connivance from the police and paramilitary. There was utter confusion. In the end some karsevaks did break through to attack the mosque but at the very last moment, the police opened fire.

Some karsevaks reached the top of the mosque’s dome and tiedtheir orange Hindutva flag. Other karsevaks broke into the sanctum Santorum where the idols were kept but police firing prevented the larger crowd from demolishing the mosque. In all 29 people, young and old, lost their lives.
Later the BJP and VHP parties’ propaganda claimed that over a thousand had been killed and thrown into the Saryu river. The think tanks of Hindutva then initiated another rath yatra across the country carrying the ashes of their Ayodhya “martyrs”.

On the night of the October 30 1990, all of us in the somber mood that the attack had spawned, we met Pujari Laldas, the court-appointed head priest of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque site. Laldas was an outspoken critic of Hindutva despite being a Hindu priest. He had received death threats. The UP government had provided him with two bodyguards. It is this wonderful interview of one of independent India’s unsung heroes that gives Ram KeNaam its real poignancy.

Laldas spoke out against the VHP, pointing out that they had never even prayed at the site but were using it for political and financial gains. He spoke of the syncretic past ofAyodhya and expressed anguish that Hindu-Muslim unity in the country was being sacrificed by people who were cynically using religion. He predicted a storm of mayhem that would follow but expressed confidence that this too would pass and sanity would return.

Later that month I attended the Berlin Film Festival with Ram Ke Naam. I learned to my horror that Amitabh and Jaya Bacchan, who were also guests at this festival, had told the Festival authorities that should not have selected such an ‘anti-India’ film.

For In Memory of Friends, I had used a prism of class as seen through the writings of Bhagat Singh to speak of the Punjab of today. In reality by the late 1980’s classical Marxist analysis and class solidarity were no longer exclusively effective tools in an India and a world where the ideas of the Left were losing out to consumer capitalism.

The Soviet Union was collapsing, China was embracing state capitalism, the USA was the only super power left in the world and the world itself was fragmenting into its religious and ethnic sub-parts. Yugoslavia disintegrated into internecine warfare. The USA with its ally, Saudi Arabia, stoked Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight communism, which in turn helped Kashmiri militants to take up the gun. In Punjab Sikh militants were rising and in Northern India Hindu militants came into their own.

For Ram KeNaam the sane voice of the Hindu priest Pujari Laldas played the role that Bhagat Singh’s writings had done in my previous film. The Left antidote to communalism was still present through the Patna speech of CPI’s AB Bardhan, but a liberation theologist in the form of Pujari Laldas now joined it.

The violent reaction of upper caste Hindus to the attempt by Prime Minister V.P. Singh to implement a Mandal Commision report granting reservations to backward castes had led to upper caste Hindus embracing Hindutva and the Mandir (Ram temple) movement. This had not yet trickled down the caste order. Wherever we went in UP, Dalits and ‘backward castes’ spoke out against the Ram temple movement. This became the third spoke in the anti-communal wheel.

The film was complete by late 1991. We had some hiccups and delays from the censors but finally cleared this hurdle without cuts. The film went on to win a national award for Best Investigative Documentary as well as a Filmfare Award for Best documentary, at the 1992 Bombay International Documentary Film Festival. Jaya Bacchan was head of the jury.

Ram Ke Naam did not get a mention. Several critics commented that the film was raking up a dead issue as the Babri Mosque was intact and the film would unnecessarily give the country a bad name abroad. Later that month I attended the Berlin Film Festival with Ram Ke Naam. I learned to my horror that Amitabh and Jaya Bacchan, who were also guests at this festival, had told the Festival authorities that should not have selected such an ‘anti-India’ film.

On the strength of our national award I submitted it for telecast on Doordarshan. Any government that actually believed in a secular India would have shown such a film many times over so that our public could realize how religious hatred is manufactured for narrow political and financial gains. Widespread exposure may have undermined the movement to demolish the mosque. The BJP was not yet in power. But Doordarshan refused to telecast the film and I took them to court. Five years later, we won our case and the film was telecast but the damage had long been done.
After the October 30 attack in 1990 and the death of 29 kar sevaks, the BJP,which had been in coalition with VP Singh’s Janata Dal Party government at the Centre, pulled out its support. Chandra Shekhar briefly came to power at the Centre but quickly lost to Narsimha Rao’s Congress in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

In UP Mulayam Singh’s government gave way to a BJP government.One of its first steps was to have Pujari Laldas removed as head priest of the Ram Janmaboomi/Babri Masjid, and then to remove his bodyguards. Conditions were now ripe for the major assault.
On December 6, 1992 with the BJP back in power in UP, and a strangely acquiescent Narsimha Rao-led Congress government at the Centre, the Hindutva brigade finally succeeded in demolishing the Babri Mosque.

Pujari Laldas’s predictions of a large scale violence in the region came true. The old Imam and his son from Faizabad I had interviewed were put to death on  December 7, 1992.

While Muslims were slaughtered across India, in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Hindu minority was targeted and temples destroyed. In March 1993, bomb blasts in Mumbai organized by Muslim members of the mafia killed over 300 Hindus. The chain reaction set into motion since those days has still to abate.

Back in 1991 our documentary’s premiere show was held in UP’s capital, Lucknow. Pujari Laldas came for the screening and asked for several cassettes of the film. When I asked about his safety, he laughed and said he was happy that now his views would circulate more widely. As he put it, if he had been afraid, he would not have spoken out in the first place.

A year later,  a tiny item on the inside pages of the Times of India mentioned “Controversial priest found murdered.” Pujari Laldas had been killed with a country-made revolver. The newspaper article never told us that the real ‘controversy’ was the fact that this brave priest believed in a Hinduism that is the mirror opposite of Hindutva.