With the Supreme Court hearing the final arguments in the Babri Masjid title suit, there is a scramble in Ayodhya to collect donations from Hindu pilgrims for constructing a Ram temple. But the money collected by a large number of temples and priests is apparently going unaccounted.

“This exponential growth in the donation racket here is among the many unintended consequences of the Supreme Court starting final hearing in the case,” claimed Acharya Satyendra Das, chief priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple in the city. “Rumours that the court will deliver its judgement by the end of this year and that the construction of the Ram temple will start soon after has enabled this thriving racket. The rumours are being fuelled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates.”

The Supreme Court started hearing the final arguments from February 8.

Mahant Ram Das, head of Nirmohi Akhara, said, “Several prominent sadhus of Ayodhya have formed their own societies and platforms, each claiming to construct the Ram temple once the Supreme Court delivers judgement. A good many of them are associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.”

Nirmohi Akhara is one of the three main Vaishnav ascetic orders headquartered in Ayodhya, alongside Nirvani Akhara and Digambari Akhara. It is one of the three parties to the title suit among whom the Allahabad High Court had in 2010 divided the disputed site on which the Babri Masjid stood until 1992.

“Since the collection of donations for Ram temple has fallen in the hands of those who pocket whatever they get, we have insulated ourselves from this business,” Ram Das said. “The donation racket is earning sadhus a bad name. The government must intervene and regulate the collection of donations. We are also demanding that in case the Supreme Court orders the construction of the Ram temple, a committee of the heads of all three Vaishnav akharas should be formed to collect any donations and oversee construction work.”

Indeed, the “societies and platforms” mentioned by Ram Das have grown so ubiquitous, it is difficult to determine exactly how many there are. “At least five are prominent and three of them are directly associated with the Sangh Parivar,” claimed Satyendra Das. “The other two are promoted by individual mahants of Ayodhya.”

The former include Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas and Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Nirman Ucchadhikar Samiti, both associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS affiliate leading the Ram temple movement, and Shri Ram Mandir Nirman Sahyog Samiti, which was floated by the RSS affiliate Muslim Rashtriya Manch just a few weeks before the final hearing started. The latter are Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Nirman Nyas led by Janmejay Sharan, who heads Bada Asthan temple, and Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Nirmar Samiti, headed by Mahant Gyan Das, one of the most powerful priests of the Hanumangarhi temple.

Bada Asthan temple has built an annexe to house a replica of the proposed Ram temple. A sadhu named Ghulab Das starts meditating near the replica when pilgrims arrive. “Whatever we collect will be used for constructing the Ram temple,” Ghulab Das said. “We are not like others who pocket all the donations.”

Fierce competition

Pandas, or priests who have been traditionally helping pilgrims perform rites on the banks of the Saryu river, have emerged as the key players in this new economy. “You will sense it the moment you enter any temple that is participating in the donation racket,” claimed Raghunandan Das, head of the Ram-Janaki temple. “But everyone will tell you that it is the others who are pocketing the donations. The fact is that every temple that has hired pandas to ensure regular flow of pilgrims is participating in this racket.”

Kameshwar Shrivastav, a local journalist, explained how the alleged donation racket works. “Earlier pandas would spend most of their time performing rituals by the Saryu,” he said. “Now many of them are busy convincing pilgrims to donate large sums for the Ram temple. Once they succeed, the pilgrims are taken to the temple that has hired the panda and the temple returns 60% of the donation to the panda as commission. That is the prevailing rate. The phenomenon was not so visible before the Supreme Court started the final hearing. Now it is rampant and pandas play a central role in it.”

The competition is so fierce that if a pilgrim loudly expresses a wish to donate for the Ram temple, there is a scramble among pandas to get his attention. “Don’t make your desire to donate for the temple public,” Pradip Narayan, a prominent panda at Naya Ghat, cautioned this reporter. “That is the only way you can get your desire fulfilled. Otherwise, pandas will surround you and you won’t be able to move an inch.”

Then, looking around to ensure no panda was within hearing distance, he said, “If you want that your donation is not wasted and is actually used for the construction of Ram temple, come with me and make your donation at Bada Asthan temple. That is the only genuine place in Ayodhya.”