By Prem Ayyathurai:
In the 1991 documentary Raam ke Naam by noted documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, the then Mahant of the Ramjanmabhoomi temple is being interviewed. In spite of the overwhelming controversy around the Babri Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi issue at that time, the unshakeable faith evident in his views instills hope in our heart. He says in the film, ‘not only in Ayodhya but all over India, people should oppose this. We should never hurt the religious sentiments of others and break their hearts. Our religion doesn’t permit this. Ram’s political ideal was prosperity for all… Like when we eat, all parts of our body get fed, so all the people are our own, none are big or small.’
Laldas was appointed by a court of law as the chief priest in the Ramjanmabhoomi temple in the year 1983 and continued in this position until the year 1992. Before being appointed as the priest, he used to oversee the work of the Ramjanmabhoomi Seva Samiti.
Throughout the years when he held this critical position in the very heart of the storm that was gathering around the Babri Masjid, he was a vocal opponent of the work of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad — he vehemently demanded Lal Krishna Advani to halt his rath yatra and at the same time declared that Muslims from outside Ayodhya and Faizabad should also not politicize the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. ‘The Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya and Faizabad can resolve the issue themselves,’ he insisted. His fearless intervention must be understood in its context; in an interview to Madhu Kishwar in 1992, he pointed out that 50-60 mahants had been murdered all over Ayodhya. “I wonder how a person like me is still alive”, he said in that conversation.
All his attempts to resolve the situation peacefully failed. On March 1, 1992, he was removed from his position by the Kalyan Singh government. On December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid was destroyed. In these months, Laldas feared for his life and is reported to have approached the local administration in Faizabad seeking protection, but his request went unheeded.
In the night of November 16, 1993, he was shot dead under suspicious circumstances.
Why does the memory of this forgotten, lone voice become relevant to us today?
Going back to the interview in the film Raam ke Naam, a question that echoes almost verbatim the sort of question many Indians are asking today about the recent elections is put forward by the interviewer. He refers to the increasing support for the campaign to demolish the mosque in Ayodhya and asks Mahant Laldas, ‘Today there seems to be a wave in our country… where those who speak of hatred… get a bigger following than those like you who speak of love.’
Mahant Laldas responds calmly, ‘It’s not like that. When a flood comes, when there’s a cyclone, all the trees and buildings fall down… There’s a verse written in the Aranya chapter of Ramayana: When the rains are heavy, the grass grows so tall that it’s difficult to find the right path. But the rainy season is short. Afterwards, people regain their ability to reason. So today the kind of things people do, it’s a kind of frenzy. But when they’re faced with the truth, when they realize how they were misled, they’ll boycott their leaders.’
You can watch Raam Ke Naam, the documentary by Anand Patwardhan here:
M. Kishwar, I Wonder How I am Still Alive, Manushi (79) 10 (Nov-Dec 1993)
T. Setalvad, Murder Mysteries, Sabrang
Politics of Communalism and Secularism: Keeping Indians Divided 274 (N.S. Gehlot ed., 1995),
C. Jaffrelot The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics 452 (1993)
S. Trivedi, The Murder of Baba Lal Das Manushi (79) 2 (Nov-Dec 1993)