Praveen Jain meets me in the corridor of the Press Club in Delhi. It is a place overrun by bearded, grey-haired men, ripe with opinion and experience. A young face, it seems, would naturally assume the shape of a question mark here. Having just arrived after appearing for an interview with a television channel, Jain appears relaxed, as if he has found home footing. Twenty-six years ago, though he was in unreliable, unpredictable territory.
“I reached Ayodhya on the morning of the 4 December. My editor Vinod Mehta wanted me to get as close as possible to what was happening. We covered the press conferences in the evening that day. But even then, most reporters on the ground thought it was a political gimmick, a stunt to draw attention and nothing more. I knew they were serious,” he says.
On the morning of the 6 December, two days after Jain, then working for the Pioneer newspaper, had stepped on the soil in Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid was demolished and perhaps with it the idea of a secular India.
“On the eve of the demolition the kar sevaks organised a rehearsal. Men with tools like hammers, bars etc had gathered. If you look at some of my photographs, there are masked men orchestrating the training. Clearly, there were engineering or technical brains involved in the process. Not just an assault of manpower, but a well-planned, mapped process that says a lot about the planning involved in it. The masjid could not have been brought down without technical supervision,” Jain says.
Only a couple of photographers, Jain says, were allowed to view the rehearsal up close. He himself was accorded access courtesy a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader. Up until a point, it all seemed a carefully staged spectacle of propaganda – until it got real.
Jain remembers how he and most of his peers suddenly became the focus of everyone’s attention. “When the kar sevaks got out of hand, the first people they tried to attack were the journalists present, especially photographers. We ran, literally ran to save our lives. It was clear they did not want any evidence to survive. The feeling that I had had when I arrived in Ayodhya had come true. Though nobody had believed me at first,” he says.
Of the collusion of the local police Jain says “They were themselves chanting slogans in the name of Ram. Nobody would have helped us. We would have further endangered ourselves had we gone to the local police.” In one of Jain’s photos, a policeman stands alongside kar sevaks armed with hammers and iron bars, his hand raised, unreservedly in support.
A day after he escaped Ayodhya unharmed, Jain returned, this time in a guise. “I wore the saffron band and pretended to be a member of the VHP when I returned on 7 December. I went to the roof of a house opposite the masjid and saw it had been flattened. The dome had come down. Only a technical drill could have brought the huge dome to its knees. It was a humbling sight," he recounts.
In the years since the demolition, a number of cases at various courts have sought photojournalists present on the ground on the 6 of December to depose. While some have receded into oblivion, others have chosen to stay away from the potentially poisonous corners of this political bout. Some, like the Express photographer who accompanied Jain on the tour, have even passed away. There is neither hope, nor the will, Jain says, for a resolution.
“The whole point of Ayodhya is to keep it alive. In the three decades since, half the people who were either witness or could have deposed have passed away. Soon the rest, including the culprits will as well,” he says.
Jain, who has appeared in court a number of times, and not just for the Ayodhya case, is unhesitatingly vocal about the corruption in the system. “Perhaps the other photographers don’t speak because there is a lot of harassment in these cases. It has been done to me on so many occasions. The defence lawyers ask inane questions like where is the proof that I ever travelled to the site, or they discredit my very presence in the place or the fact that I was ever even a photojournalist. All of that despite the fact that I have these photographs with me. After a point it gets to you, the pressure, even the humiliation,” he says.
Is there hope for a resolution or some culprits to be brought to justice? Smiling, Jain says, “As long as there is political mileage in the issue, the rocks in Ayodhya will be carved and given the shape of something meaningful, promising. On the ground, nobody, including the Hindu priests, believes that anything is ever going to happen, inside the courts, or outside it.”
Does it worry Jain to speak so freely yet remain unshaken by the prospect of unknown forces converging on him? “Jo karna hoga karenge. Kya kar sakte hain,” he says, with a smirk that underlines the existential crisis that is now the regular taste of Delhi’s air.
All photos courtesy @ Praveen Jain