The special CBI court’s verdict in the Babri Masjid demolition case has brought an end to a 28-year-old chapter of my life. I only wish it had been authored differently, and that the end had not left me confused.
As a photojournalist with The Pioneer, I know what I saw on 5 December 1992 in Ayodhya. My Canon (camera) was witness to the rehearsal that was undertaken by the kar sevaks and I had guarded the negatives like my babies, all through the years. I was scared that the slightest of moisture would destroy the negatives wrapped in polythene. My Canon was witness to everything — my pictures proving beyond doubt that the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 was a calculated, meticulously planned exercise.
I was positive on my ‘negatives’
I remember the stinging slap my wife gave me, on a winter day many years ago, when our house was ransacked by robbers. While she had shed tears for the jewellery that the robbers had taken away, I had rushed in to see whether my negatives were safe. That’s how precious they were to me.
All I am left with now, after years of numerous court appearances, is confusion, questions and the dilemma of how to make sense of my depositions in the court of special CBI judge Surendra Kumar Yadav, and my interactions with him.
A day before the verdict
On Tuesday, 29 September 2020, a day before the verdict was to be given, I woke up at 3:30 am to catch an early morning flight to Lucknow with ThePrint’s senior assistant editor Ananya Bhardwaj.
We landed in Lucknow, and headed straight to Surendra Yadav’s chambers, only to be told that the chances of getting an interview with him were between slim and non-existent. His security initially refused to even pass on my visiting card to him, telling us he was busy. He doesn’t have the time to even talk to his wife, let alone answer the phone or entertain pesky journalists, we were told. But I persisted and requested his security to at least hand over my visiting card to the judge. Minutes later, we were ushered in.
Happy to see us, Yadav was gracious enough to give us some exclusive time. He told us how he had been burning the midnight oil, studying the voluminous evidence and writing the judgment.
He also surprised me by producing a business card that I had given him about two years ago when I was working with The Indian Express. He took it out of his wallet to show me. I was humbled to know he remembered me.
The judgment day
The next morning, on 30 September — the day the verdict was to be announced — Yadav gave us some more exclusive time as he called us over to his residence, before leaving for court. We met and chatted with his family, who also told us how hard the judge had been working on the case. We were offered ladoos when Yadav learnt it was my birthday. The family, too, wished me well.
I had the opportunity to click a few pictures of him — the candid brief moments as we followed his car on the way to the court. Memories of the time spent in court appearances flooded my mind. Yadav had presided over the hearings when defence lawyers had gone out of their way to discredit and humiliate me. They had called me a fake photographer who was out to make a quick buck. Yadav had been witness to all those moments and my old visiting card in his wallet was, for me, proof of my professional standing. I had felt validated by that one gesture of him. It had filled me with hope. A hope that India would be redeemed of that 6 December stain, when the composite fabric of our country was shredded by a perilous political campaign.
Minutes later, he announced the judgment, dismissing my pictures, among others, by pointing to a lack of evidence, and ruled that the demolition wasn’t planned, acquitting all 32 accused in the case. My work had not passed muster in the eyes of the judge. My negatives, for all their worth, were consigned to the bin of history by the judgment.
Praveen Jain is the National Photo Editor of ThePrint. He had covered the demolition of the Babri Masjid and was a witness in its criminal case. Views are personal.