Warning: This node contains descriptions of a very violent riot. Please do not read further if you're likely to be upset by such things.
6 December 1992. Ayodhya, northern India. For some days now, fundamentalist Hindus from all over the country have been gathering in vacant land near a four hundred year old mosque, the Babri Masjid. They call themselves kar sevaks, workers for what must be done. Their sole object is to destroy the mosque and raise a temple in its place. They believe it to have been constructed on the ruins of an old temple. The land on which it stands, they say, was the birthplace of Lord Rama. To them, it is an abomination, a desecration of holy land, and it must go.
The three domes of the mosque dully reflect the morning sun. Sadhus in saffron robes wander through the crowd, roaring approval and encouragement. A police barricade separates the increasingly restive crowd from the mosque. A few nervous paramilitary police stand behind the barricade, fingering their weapons. There are nearly 200,000 people in the mob, and they are becoming increasingly aggressive.
All of a sudden, the barrier seems very thin and flimsy.
6 December 1992. At the opposite end of the country in Nagarbhavi, a village in southern India, I wake early. It is a Sunday, and I have no classes today. A few birds chirp sleepily in the early rays of dawn. I step out of my dormitory, and go to the University's mess hall where I eat a light breakfast of idlis - little rice dumplings peculiar to the deep south of India - and steaming hot Indian coffee. No one can make coffee quite like the Tamils and Kannadigas can, I reflect. I walk down the main street of the village, passing the small neighbourhood temple on the way. For the first time in several months, I do not go in. For some reason, I don't feel like it. Instead, I take the bus to Bangalore, the city of which Nagarbhavi is rapidly becoming a suburb. The sun has just risen, and people are only now begining to stir out of their houses.
It is going to be a beautiful day.
Someone pushes against the barrier. The troops step nervously back. They are inexperienced, mostly from villages, not the hardened soldiers the task requires. Someone shouts something. The voice of the mob rises to a roar. Suddenly, thousands are swarming over the barricades towards the mosque. The police step aside in an uncertain panic. One of them raises his rifle hesitantly. A sadhu sprinkles holy water on him. "Do your duty to God first" he says. The rifle drops from the soldier's hand.
With crowbars, sickles, pickaxes and their bare hands, the kar sevaks begin to tear the mosque apart, brick by brick.
I wander aimlessly around Bangalore till late afternoon. Then I go into a small restaurant in the KR Market area, famous for its many cheap eateries. The area is mostly Muslim, and the food they serve is a very spicy, traditional fare unique to the Deccan. I eat a hearty lunch, and then roam around the market. I spot a man selling fresh green coconuts. Coconut water! Perfect. I walk eagerly towards the little stall. It's been a lovely morning. I hum the opening bars of the "Ode to Joy" to myself as I head towards the coconut seller.
Against a mob that size, the mosque stands no chance. In a few hours, the central dome crashes in with a roar. The kar sevaks shout triumphantly.
I wince at the broadness of the Bombay accent in my Hindi as I talk to the coconut seller. I wish I'd bothered to learn some Kannada from my mother. Fortunately, the coconut seller is Muslim, and has an even broader dakkhni accent in his Hindi. Actually, I think to myself, he probably calls it Urdu. It's silly how what is virtually the same language has two different names, depending on which religion you belong to and which script you use to write it. Particularly because most native speakers of the language can't write anyway.
Another man arrives as I stand drinking the sweet water from the coconut. He has a huge streak of vermilion on his forehead, and is obviously returning from a temple. One coconut please, he asks in Kannada. The seller smiles and makes a small joke as he picks a likely looking coconut. He raises his huge cleaver to cut it.
Through the day, the crowd hammers away at the structure. The troops stand mutely by. Later, eyewitnesses will say some doffed their uniforms and joined the crowd. By late afternoon, little remains except for a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust.
There is a sudden commotion. A man is running through the streets, screaming, almost sobbing. His words are indistinct, and there is suddenly a lot of shouting from all around. Then the words come through, clearly. "The Babri Masjid is destroyed! The Hindus have smashed the Babri Masjid. Kill the bastards, kill every one of those bastards."
All three of us around the coconut stall are frozen. Then the coconut seller acts. With a wordless scream, he throws the coconut aside. He raises his knife. Then, in a moment that lasts forever, he brings it down on the skull of the man with the vermilion mark. And again, and again, and again, till his skull splits open. Almost like a coconut. He crumples. A shattered bleeding mass on the ground that only barely looks human.
On the stall, the coconuts are splattered with blood.
The vendor turns and looks at me.
"His features were twisted by hate." I've read the words a thousand times. They're nonsense. They're feeble, empty words. They don't begin to describe what a human being looks like when a cold boiling rage takes hold of him to the extent others cease to be human and become part of a vague undefined Them to be hated and killed. His features aren't twisted. They're terrifying. The look he gives me breeds a dread far worse than the petty fear of dying.
I shut my eyes. I do not expect to open them again.
The kar sevaks stand in the ruins of the mosque shouting triumphant slogans. The news spreads through Ayodhya almost immediately. Angry Muslims leave their houses seeking revenge. Triumphant Hindus leave their houses to complete their victory. Sickles, axes, and knives gleam in the light of the evening. A few torches burn.
In Ayodhya, the sunset will be redder than normal.
I hear a voice saying something. "Didn't you hear what he said? Those Hindu assholes are cutting off the balls of every Muslim they can find, in Rajaji Nagar, in Basavangudi, everywhere. We'll kill every single one of those murdering infidel bastards."
The words filter through dimly. He is speaking to me. Suddenly, the realisation hits me. He thinks I am Muslim. And with it comes a wave of glad relief, so strong that my knees almost buckle.
A mob is running. I am vaguely aware that I am running with them. I do not know where we are going. The mob is roaring in anger. I do not seem to be able to think.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne,
sondern laßt uns angenehmere
anstimmen, und freudenvollere.
Oh friends, not these tones!
Let us raise our voices in more
pleasing and more joyful sounds!
News of the tearing down of the mosque spreads throughout the country. Some Hindus rejoice and plan to teach the Muslims a lesson they will never forget. Some Muslims swear that they cannot let this go unpunished, or no mosque in India will be safe. Blades are taken out of kitchens, toolsheds, farms. Election lists and phonebooks are taken, and lists of names and addresses compiled.
Across India, the mobs are coming calling.
We stop outside a house. "Let's start with these bastards", someone says. They knock on the door. A teenaged boy opens it. Before he can react, he is snatched out of the doorway and dragged onto the street. Kicks and blows rain down on him. A blade rises and falls. Then another. And another. Someone laughs.
A pool of redness begins to collect on the street.
Some people force their way into the house. The mob begins to scatter, to different streets and apartment blocks. There are many to visit. I run. Somewhere. Away. I see one of the huge public dustbins that are typical of India. I jump into it. Someone has thrown away a lot of Hyderabadi Biryani. The smell is almost overpowering. Thankfully overpowering. I hear voices screaming. The men scream once or twice, and their screams stop abruptly. The women scream for longer. Much longer. Shrilly, pleadingy. I burrow deeper into my throne of garbage, but the screams refuse to be shut out.
The smell of fresh and drying blood begins to drown out the stench of half-rotten food. I realise that I am still holding the coconut. I grip it tightly.
Abdul and I have been friends ever since we were seven. On 6 December 1992, he is in the centre of Bombay when the news of the demolition reaches him. He leaves for home immediately. At Dadar, the suburban train in which he is travelling is stopped by a mob searching for Muslims. He escapes somehow, and calls his mother to tell her he will try to take refuge in a mosque. She never hears from him again.
When I return home a month later at the end of term, she and I spend days going to hospitals and morgues looking for some trace of Abdul. We find nothing. The boy who once dreamt of being a star cricket player and wrote poems in three languages is now a statistic. One of hundreds, both Hindu and Muslim, of whom all that remains is a note in the government records. "Missing".
For the next three years, his mother rushes to the morgue every time the body of a riot victim is fished out of a sewer. She never finds him. One day, when I go to visit I find the house empty. She is gone, the neighbours tell me. Nobody knows where.
Time passes. I do not know how long. The sounds fade away and die. New sounds replace them. Vehicles, and the voices of men speaking Kannada. Policemen. "Help", I call out in Kannada. I put the coconut down, carefully, and step out. Bodies are being loaded into a hospital van. I try not to look at them.
If I had spoken Kannada, if my Hindi had had a northern Brahmin accent instead of the more neutral Bombay accent, if I had gone into the temple that morning...
"Nearly three dozen dead", one of the policemen mutters. "Bastards. But we're giving them better than we got. We got over fifty Muslims in Basavangudi and Rajaji Nagar." I stare at him. Are there any Muslim policemen in his detachment, I wonder. I get into his jeep. Wordlessly, I let them take me back to the University.
I get out and go to the halls where I live. Someone comes running up to me and gives me a hug. "Isn't it absolutely brilliant?", he says.
I look at him. "Do you know there are riots going on everywhere?" I ask.
"Bloody good that there are," he snaps back fiercely. "We need to put those foreskinless bastards in their place to save our country. If only I'd been home... I'd have taught them a thing or two."
A thousand thoughts clamour in my mind. But I say nothing. There is nothing I can think of saying. These aren't maniacs I'm dealing with. They're normal people who, tomorrow, will attend the same classes I do and sweat over exams just like I do.
Suddenly, the world stops making sense. I feel weary to the core, weary in my soul. I only want to sleep and wash the day into oblivion. I walk to my dormitory and lie down on my bed. But sleep, oblivion and forgetfullness do not come that night.
They do not come for a very long time.