I Saw at Babri Masjid
By Jeff Penberthy
17 September, 2004
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.
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:
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.
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
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).
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
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