Ashok Singhal and the Making of Holy War

Dharmayuddha, the 1989 film directed by Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, is set in the times of the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed. The film traces the role played by Hindutva propaganda in creating a bloody sectarianism. In this excerpt from the film, Dewan-Roy contrast the situation in Ayodhya with the non-committal stance of the Centre and the judiciary, and reveal instances when the kar-sevaks publicly flouted both the concerned authorities and the law. Here they narrate the story of the making of the film, Dharmayuddha, and the encounter with Ashok Singhal, whom they had met during its making. Ashok Singhal, the president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), died on 17 November, 2015, which occasioned this reminiscence.

"Ashok Singhal, working president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) died on the 17th of November this year. One of the architects of the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement, Singhal's brand of hate politics extracted a heavy price from India. I wish however to share here a more personal memory related to him.

The year was 1987-88. Babri Masjid that still stood in Ayodhya was increasingly becoming the target of Hindutva groups led by the VHP demanding for the mosque to be demolished to make place for a Ram temple in its place. Fresh out of film school,Rahul [Roy] and I decided to document the communal politics at the core of the Ram Janma Bhoomi/Babri Masjid controversy. With youthful enthusiasm for achieving our goal and misplaced disdain for the means to reach it, we without too many qualms, began contacting Hindutva groups like the VHP and Bajrang Dal by posing as sympathetic video journalists eager to contribute our bit to the cause of Ram Janma Bhoomi. The ploy worked and soon we had various 'uncle jis' like Ashok Singhal, S.C. Dixit and Baikunth Lall Sharma 'Prem' not only inviting us to accompany them on their hate trails across northern India but also ensuring our entry into close-door strategy meetings of the Sangh Parivar which were otherwise out of bounds to the media.

It was at one such meeting in Hardwar that our luck finally ran out. One of the RSS bigwigs present grew suspicious and demanded that we leave behind the tapes we had shot over the two days of the meeting. Singhal and Baikunth Lall Sharma 'Prem', a tad embarrassed by this show of churlishness towards their 'protégés', promised us that the tapes would be returned once the doubting Thomas had checked them for himself. Caught in a bind we did what we had to. Hiding our shooting tapes deep inside our bags we dutifully handed over new blank tapes to our hosts and post haste fled to Delhi.

Several days passed by. Then one day we received a call from Baikunth Lall Sharma 'Prem' inviting us to come to the VHP office in R.K. Puram. His tone was non-committal and he made no mention of the blank tapes. Hoping against hope that Singhal and co. had not checked the tapes and brimming with curiosity about what this call was about both of us presented ourselves at the VHP office. Seated in a row across a vast table was the entire pantheon of our adopted 'uncles', with Ashok Singhal occupying centre seat. The tapes had been checked for what they were worth at Jain Studios and no one was amused. What followed was a long harangue about our duplicity and betrayal of the trust reposed in us and demands that we return all the material we had shot thus far. We sat in silence and listened. I don't recall now exactly who said what but do remember clearly Singhal finally bringing the rant to a close. In chilling tones he announced — We know how to deal with our enemies.

Getting up from our chairs we courteously told Singhal to go ahead and do whatever he and his henchmen wanted. The tapes would not be returned. And then we vanished. We completed Dharmayuddha (Holy War) a year later in 1989."