At 80, Syed Ikhlaq Latifi’s face is lined and leathery, with a stark white beard. But he’s still able to scramble up three flights of stairs to his roof to describe what he watched from there, in horror, nearly 30 years ago.
On Dec. 6, 1992, a mob broke through barricades around the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in Latifi’s hometown of Ayodhya in northern India. He points to where the mosque’s three massive stone domes used to be. It’s now an open, dusty lot, as wide as a football field, lined with barbed wire.
The mosque was built when India was ruled by the Mughals — Muslim emperors. They built thousands of mosques, forts and other landmarks all over northern India, including the country’s most famous: the Taj Mahal, which houses the tomb of the emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife.
On that terrible day in 1992, Latifi couldn’t recognize the men in the mob. They were mostly strangers from out of town, he says.
“They climbed on top of the domes and tombs. They were carrying hammers and these three-pronged spears from Hindu scripture. They started hacking at the mosque,” Latifi recalls. “By night, it was destroyed, and they set fire to nearby houses.”
Latifi watched as flames lit up the night sky. Then he and his family fled for their lives.
In riots that followed, thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were killed across India. When Latifi returned to his neighborhood about six weeks after he fled, he found his home — along with an adjacent small mosque and Islamic community center — vandalized and burned. He managed to salvage the small mosque’s damaged minarets from the rubble and rebuild.
To watch the Babri mosque’s destruction, Latifi says, was shocking. But he also says he wasn’t surprised.