There are two broad narratives of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. For the sake of clarity and avoiding clutter, let us overlook the fact that the case actually has three litigants rather than two. The Hindus by and large believe that Mir Baqi, a general of Mughal invader Babar, demolished a Ram temple that stood on the disputed plot and built a mosque in its place that was eventually razed on December 6, 1992. Muslims, on the other hand, claim that idols were introduced into the structure to embolden the Hindu claim. Neither position is historically accurate.

In an interview with historian Koenraad Elst in 2016, published originally in Swarajya, I had inquired about the historical position. Elst was of the view that the Muslim invaders were so ruthless in demolishing every Hindu structure that came their way since the earliest part of the last millennium that it is unlikely they spared a Ram temple in the Awadh region, situated right in the middle of the territory where the invaders established their rule. Therefore, he said (and I paraphrase) that Mir Baqi might not have been the one who demolished a Hindu temple on the land that is a matter of dispute in the highest court of the country.

At the same time, saying that the Hindu claim on the plot is merely by virtue of somebody placing an idol in the disputed structure is equally untrue. There were temples — rather than one temple — on the plot, built in different eras of history by different kings. If one has visited Ellora in Maharashtra, one would know how the area in Ayodhya would be in ancient India. In Ellora for example, one would find Hindu, Jain, as well as Buddhist temples, monasteries and palaces, cohabiting. While in Ayodhya, the excavated structures did not belong to different faiths, they were built by kings of different eras (1000 BC - 300 BC, 100-300 AD, 320-600 AD, 11th to 12th century). Most probably, one on the ruins of another.

Elst believes the plot must go to the Hindus for the simple reason that Hindus alone hold that place as holy whereas, in no part of history, Muslims have been known to treat Ayodhya as a site of pilgrimage. In fact, it had long ceased to be a location for regular offering of salah (namaz).

MyNation reproduces the section of my interview with Elst that is relevant to this discourse. My questions appear highlighted and italicised. The historian's answers appear in the normal font.

Does the genesis of your problem with anti-left historians in India lie in the fact that on the issue of Babri Masjid, if you do not agree with the left, you do not agree with the right wing either?

On Ayodhya, there has never been a conflict with any non-Left historian. To be sure, I have my disagreements on some minor points, but they have never been the object of a controversy. So, no, on Ayodhya, I may have minor and friendly differences of opinion with ‘right-wing’ historians, but no serious quarrel. In that debate, the longstanding quarrel has been with the “eminent historians”, their supporters in media and politics, and their foreign dupes. They were on the wrong side of the history debate all along, and it is time they concede it. [Elst refers sarcastically to Marxist historians as "eminent historians"; he says that is how they prefer to describe themselves.]

In the case of the “eminent historians”, it is also time for the surviving ones to own up to their responsibility for the whole conflict. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was on course towards a peaceful settlement, allotting the site to the Hindus and buying the militant Muslim leadership off with some typically Congressite horse trading. Not too principled, but at least with the virtue of avoiding bloodshed. It is the shrill and mendacious declaration of the “eminent historians” in 1989, amplified by all the vocal secularists, that made the politicians back off.

Not only have they falsely alleged that no Rama temple ever stood on the contentious site, their more fundamental lie was to bring in history at all. Ayodhya belongs to the Hindus not because it was their pilgrimage site a thousand years ago, nor because of ‘revenge’ for a temple destruction effected 800 or 500 years ago, but because it is a Hindu sacred site today. No Muslim ever cares to go to Ayodhya, and in spite of being egged on by the “eminent historians”, enough Muslim leaders have expressed their willingness to leave the site to the Hindus.

This whole controversy was unnecessary, but for the Nehruvians’ pathetic nomination of the Babri Masjid as the last bulwark of secularism.

If all the archaeological findings from Ayodhya are arranged chronologically, what story of the disputed plot of land does one find? Did a temple of Lord Rama stand there, which Babar’s general Mir Baqi demolished to build the mosque? Or, did Mir Baqi find ruins on the spot?

That a Hindu temple was demolished by Muslim invaders is certain, on that we all agree. But there is less consensus around, or even awareness of, the fact that this happened several times: by Salar Masud Ghaznavi in 1030 (the rebuilt Rajput temple after this must be one of the excavated pillar bases), by Qutbuddin Aibak’s troops in 1193, and by Mir Baqi on Babar’s behalf in 1526.

What it was that was replaced by Babar’s mosque is not fully clear. I speculate that in the rough and tumble of the collapsing Delhi Sultanate, Hindus had managed to take over the site and started worship there, even though the building they used was a mosque imposed on the site. That was exactly the situation in 1949-92, and I think it also applied towards 1526.

Babar destroyed a Hindu pilgrimage centre, a Hindu presence at the site, but not the Rajput temple from the 11th century of which the foundations were excavated in 2003. Was the temple’s demolition just an odd event, or was it the necessary materialization of an ideology, repeated many times and in many places? When Mohammed Shahabuddin Ghori and his lieutenants conquered the entire Ganga basin in 1192-94, they destroyed every Hindu temple they could find. Only a few survived, and that is because they lay out of the way of the Muslim armies, in the (then) forest, notably in Khajuraho and in Bodh Gaya. But all the Buddhist universities, all the temples in Varanasi etc were destroyed. Ayodhya became a provincial capital of the Delhi Sultanate, and it is inconceivable that the Sultanate regime would have allowed a major temple to remain standing there.

So, the narrative propagated by the Sangh Parivar, that Babar destroyed the 11th century temple, cannot be true, for that temple was no longer there. When Babar arrived on the scene, Hindus may have worshipped Rama in a makeshift temple, or in a mosque building provisionally used as a temple, but the main temple that used to be there had already been destroyed in 1193. See, Ayodhya’s history becomes more interesting once you discard the lies of the “eminent historians” as well as the naïve version of the Sangh Parivar.

The controversial part lies herein, that the persistence of the temple all through the Sultanate period would have implied a certain tolerance even during the fiercest part of Muslim rule. In reality, the demolition of Rama’s birthplace temple was not an odd and single event, but a repeated event in application of a general theology of iconoclasm imposed by the Prophet.

Was it a temple of Lord Vishnu rather? Or, were they quite a few temples of one or more deities built in different periods by different kings?

In her 2013 book Rama and Ayodhya Prof Meenakshi Jain has detailed all the scholarly evidence and the debate around it, including the embarrassing collapse of the “eminent historian” case once they took the witness stand in Court. She shows that the Rama cult had already left traces more than 2,000 years ago. Attempts to make Rama worship a recent phenomenon were just part of the sabotage attempts by these historians.

Also, the site of Ayodhya, though probably older, is at least beyond doubt since Vikramaditya in the first century BC. All indications are that the disputed site was already visited by pilgrims as Rama’s birthplace well before the Muslim conquest.

So, this was a longstanding pilgrimage site for Rama. Against the utter simplicity of this scenario, anti-Hindu polemicists of various stripes have tried all kinds of diversionary tactics: saying that Rama was born elsewhere, or that the temple belonged to other cults. This Vishnu-but-not-his-incarnation-Rama theory, or the claim of a Shaiva or Buddhist origin, were some of those diversionary tactics; they are totally inauthentic and artificial.

Alright, among historians we can discuss every possible hypothesis. But from the very relevant viewpoint of Islamic iconoclasm, all these distinctions don’t matter: all those sects were false, leading men astray, away from the one true religion, Islam, and therefore they all, and certainly their idols and idol houses, were to be destroyed.

Whatever be the true story, which community do you believe has a greater right of ownership over that disputed site?

The community that holds the site sacred. Muslims go through all this trouble to travel to faraway Mecca, why don’t they go on a cheap and easy pilgrimage to Ayodhya instead? It seems they have made their choice. So let us respect their choice, and also the choice of the Rama worshippers who do care for Ayodhya, by leaving the site to the latter. Case closed.