Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut is being disingenuous in claiming that it took only 17 mins for the Sena to bring down the Babri Masjid just like Bal Thackeray had when he claimed credit for it’s demolition

Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut is simply being disingenuous in claiming that it took only 17 minutes for the Sena to bring down the Babri Masjid.

I have written this in my book, “Samrat: How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever, ” but for those who missed the story, here goes it again. I was a young reporter working for a national wire service then and on Sunday duty on December 6, 1992. My bureau chief had asked me to pay close attention to the news reports from Ayodhya – he was thinking of riots, not the demolition of the Babri Masjid: with lots of Muslims in Faizabad, communal clashes between them and the saffron forces were not to be discounted.

I was standing near the teleprinter machine when the flash arrived, “Babri Masjid demolished by Shiv Sainiks, says BJP leader Sundar Singh Bhandari.”

I wasted no time. I was immediately on the phone to Bal Thackeray. I could sense Thackeray was flummoxed as he fumbled for a reaction and asked me to call him back in 20 minutes as he called Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, to confirm the news. When they did and I called him back, he said “Well, if my Shiv Sainiks have brought down the mosque, I can only be proud of them.”

In my relative inexperience at the time and excitement at getting Thackeray to comment on the event, I forgot to notice the significance of the qualification “if” and failed to ask him to clarify. So that was how his reaction went out – I can only be proud of my Shiv Sainiks if they have brought down the mosque.

Now Thackeray, as was his wont, was claiming credit where it was not his and being disingenuous himself. He was initially flummoxed because he knew no Shiv Sainik was present in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Leaders like Manohar Joshi, Sudhir Joshi and Pramod Navalkar had indeed made their way to Ayodhya. But with a large congregation of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and senior BJP leaders already there, all the accommodation in hotels and guest houses were already taken. They were asked to camp out in tents pitched on some grounds and that they found insulting. They called Thackeray and he ordered them back to Mumbai instantly for he too felt the BJP was not giving his senior party leaders their due and treating them like ordinary workers.

These leaders boarded the next train back to Mumbai and were on a halt in Calcutta that Sunday. It was the era before mobile telephones and Thackeray found it difficult to get through to them. But it did not really matter whether or not they could confirm their absence from Ayodhya for Thackeray had a habit of seizing on issues that he thought would give him electoral benefits even if he had nothing to do with them.

This was the beginning of the rise of Hindutva and Thackeray had already run out of steam on the regional Marathi manoos card he had been playing until then. He knew he needed something more all-encompassing than just the Marathi manoos vote. Hindutva was that “something more”, so he jumped on the opportunity to claim credit for a hand in the demolition of the Babri Masjid knowing it to be patently untrue.

But then there were riots, the Srikrishna Commission was set up to probe them in Mumbai and the Lieberhans commission and the Allahabad High Court summoned Thackeray to ascertain his party’s role in the demolition. Now one thing that Thackeray was afraid of was the judiciary and being thrown into prison again. He had been thrown into jail once before for his party’s involvement in the 1969 anti-South Indian riots in Mumbai and the experience terrified him. He failed to answer the summons and appointed a battery of high profile lawyers to get him out of a personal appearance.

By then I had moved from the United News of India to the Indian Express in Mumbai and as the Srikrishna hearing got underway, I recounted what Thackeray had told me on December 6, 1992. A furious Thackeray called me the next morning to say I had misquoted him.

“No, I have not, Balasaheb,”I told him. “You may not remember me from the time I was a nameless, faceless reporter working for UNI but it was I who called you that evening for your reaction and you asked me to call back in 20 minutes as you ascertained from Saamna if UNI had really put out that flash. They told you PTI had too and then you gave me your reaction. You didn’t deny it the next day so why are you denying it now?”

Thackeray well remembered the events and had the good grace to deny it no further. But he asked me to come over to Matoshree and, when I did, he abused BJP leaders in the most colourful language I had heard until then. ‘They did not have the guts to acknowledge their role in the demolition and blamed it on me. I am afraid of no one or nothing (though he was of the courts) so I accepted the blame. But my Shiv Sainiks never touched that mosque,”

I told him then that he needed to make a more public statement than just to a reporter for the denial to have better impact. Thackeray did precisely that a few weeks later at a rally at Shivaji Park, saying, “That halkat (bastard) Sundar Singh Bhandari did not have the guts to face the consequences so blamed my Shiv Sainiks, etc” and neatly wriggled out of his predicament.

When the Srikrishna commission indicted Thackeray, Mumbai Bajrang Dal president Shankar Gaikar called me to ask why he was getting all the credit for the demolition, “I was on top of the dome and helped to bring down the dhancha with my men. If there was a single Shiv Sainik there, I am willing to give my life for it.” Thus confirming Thackeray’s denial was truer than his original claim.

But now Thackeray is no more and the threat to him from the judiciary is past. Hindutva is on the rise again and the Shiv Sena has run out of issues for the next elections. Therefore, Sanjay Raut is firing a shot in the dark again. Who knows where it might lead his party and the country?

(This column was first published in Lokmat Times and online on The National Herald)