On December 6, 1992 a large crowd numbering in thousands thronged around the Babri Masjid in modern day Ayodhya. As a police force of around 20,000 looked on, the crowd fell upon the mosque with sickles, axes, shovels and bare hands in the midst of militant slogans. The demolition of the Babri Masjid that immediately led to communal riots breaking out all across India would soon go on to determine the course of Indian politics for the next twenty-five years.
But for almost a decade before the mosque was demolished, Ayodhya had become a site of intense debate regarding what should be considered the truest history of the place. The radical Hindu Right led by the VHP, BJP, RSS and Shiv Sena laid out two firm claims to the site of Ayodhya; first that it was the sacred spot of the birth of Lord Ram and second that a temple dedicated to Ram had been demolished in order to build the Babri Masjid in the sixteenth century under the commands of Mughal Emperor Babur. Ayodhya’s history from the point of view of the Hindu fundamentalists became the basis for calling for the demolition of the mosque and construction of a temple dedicated to Ram in its place. The Right wing’s interpretation of Ayodhya’s history was soon contradicted by Left wing historians, who were of the opinion that the fundamentalist understanding of the history of Ayodhya was incorrect, politically motivated and dangerous for the future of the country’s secularism.
Ayodhya’s history from the Right
From the mid 1980s on, there emerged a trend of promoting a new history of Ayodhya. This new way of history writing, made its appearance in places in and around Lucknow, Allahabad and other areas producing Hindi literature. As noted by historian Gyanendra Pandey, “the right-wing Hindu movement had done all it can to promote an alternative account of the history of Ayodhya and its association with Ram.” Further, both historians Vinay Lal and Pandey noted that this new history of Ayodhya as seen by the radical right was put across in a way that made it appear as the real and incontrovertible truth about the region.
Pratap Narain Mishra’s “Kya kahati hain saryu dhara? Sri Ramjanmabhumi ki kahani (What says the river Saryu? The story of Ramjanmabhoomi),” which appeared in 1985 was the first work of its kind that appealed on the basis of historical evidence that Ayodhya was indeed the birthplace of Lord Ram. Examples of other such works include “Shri Ram janmabhumi sachitra, pramanik itihasa (An illustrated and authoritative history of Shri Ram janmabhoomi),” Shri Ram janmabhoomi ka pramanik itihasa (The authoritative and authentic history of Shri Ram janmabhoomi), and Mukti yagya, Shri Ram janmabhoomi ka sampurna itihasa (Sacrifice for liberation, The entire history of Shri Ram janmabhoomi).
All these works, and several others mostly published in the “Organiser”, the organ of the RSS, said with firm conviction that a temple dedicated to Lord Ram existed at the very site where the deity was born and that it had been demolished by the local Mughal authorities to build a mosque. Further, as Gyanendra Pandey notes, “all of it comes to be represented in a ‘scientific’ precision- of numbers, of dates, of geographical location- testifying to the literal truth of this ‘history’.”
Chronologically, the history of Ayodhya as explained by these works begins with the birth of Ram 9,00,000 years back, followed by years of Greek and Kushana rule ending in the liberation of Ramjanmabhoomi. Then, in the sixteenth century under Babar’s reign, the temple dedicated to Ram at his birth site is known to be destroyed and a mosque constructed in its place. The history of Ayodhya ends in 1986, as per the history writers, with the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid. “Through the many recensions of the Hindu history of Ayodhya, it is the story of ‘foreign’ aggression and native valour, of eternal Hindu activism and sacrifice,” writes Pandey.
In terms of archaeological evidence to prove the existence of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri masjid, archaeologist B.B. Lal came out with his report in the end of 1990 to claim that certain brick bases he had excavated in the 1970s supposedly pointed to the existence of a temple like structure in the south of the Babri masjid. It is worthy to note that when Lal had come out with his report in the 1970s, there was no mention of any such possibility.
Ayodhya’s history from the Left
Responding to the Hindu fundamentalists’, historian S. Gopal along with 20 other scholars from the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) brought out a pamphlet titled, “The political abuse of history: Babri Masjid- Rama Janmabhumi debate.” “When communal forces make claims to ‘historical evidence’ for the purposes of communal politics, then the historian has to intervene,” said the historians in the pamphlet. Soon after another report titled, “Ramjanmabhumi Baburi Masjid- a historian’s report to the nation,” was published by four other scholars, each of whom corroborated with the previous pamphlet. In the ensuing years, a number of other scholars came out with works opposing the Hindu fundamentalist approach to Ayodhya’s history.
As per the view from the Left, the Ayodhya as mentioned in the Ramayana and present day Ayodhya is not the same place. Going by the dates mentioned in Valmiki’s Ramayana, the time period at which Ram is supposed to have been born is much before period when present day Ayodhya came to be inhabited for the first time. Accordingly, the earliest settlements in Ayodhya can be traced back to 8th century BC. Further, present day Ayodhya, as per this group of historians, was previously known as Saketa and the name change happened under the Gupta kings who were trying to derive authority from the text of the Ramayana.
Further, they stated that as per archaeological evidence, the site of Ayodhya was considered sacred by several other religious communities, including the Jains and the Buddhists. The place acquired popularity among the worshippers of Ram only from the thirteenth century and it is only from the eighteenth century that temples dedicated to Ram started getting built in the place.
Further, as Vinay Lal noted in his work, excavations at Ayodhya had yielded Islamic glazed ware pottery pieces, that can be dated to a period between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. “The archaeological evidence, in other words, indicates not a temple but rather the distinct possibility of a Muslim settlement at or in the proximity of the mosque from the thirteenth century onwards,” wrote Lal.