In 1992, a large mobilisation of people across north India to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town led to the mosque being demolished by Hindutva mobs. Now, more than two and a half decades later, another mass mobilisation is being attempted, as the Lok Sabha elections loom, in order to construct a temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood.

On Sunday, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organised a “dharma sabha”, religious congregation in Ayodhya town. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had launched the Ram temple movement in the 1980s and is a part of the larger Sangh parivar, the network of organisations centred around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Unlike the mass mobilisations of the 1980s, Sunday’s congregation was modest. However, the demand for a temple at a spot where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad believes the Hindu god Ram was born remained, with calls for the Modi government to bring in an ordinance or a law in order to bypass the judicial process currently underway in the Supreme Court.

Babloo Khan, Ayodhya zila panchayat member from the BJP, clicks selfies with VHP workers coming in for the Dharma Sabha

Tense town

Sunday began with Ayodhya town tense as Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers were brought in buses from different parts of Uttar Pradesh. Road routes into Ayodhya were closed and the town’s Muslim neighbourhoods were barricaded off to general movement. In the Terhi Bazar area, a few kilometres from the proposed spot of the Ram Temple, there was heavy police arrangement with the area’s mostly Muslim residents locking themselves in.

The one exception was Haji Mahboob Ahamad, a petitioner in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi land dispute, who was sitting outside his house dressed grandly in a grey striped suit. “These are just pressure tactics,” said Mahboob. “They want to bring in a law and build the temple. But whatever the court decides is what will hold. Parliament cannot overrule the court.”

A few buildings down, Mohammad Mushtaq’s house was mostly empty as much of his family had moved temporarily out of Ayodhya. “This is only for votes, this happens before every election,” said Mushtaq, who is a tailor by trade. “But still to be safe, we have sent our bahu-betis, daughters and daughters-in-law, out of here.”

The crowd, three hours after the event started

Small turnout

In spite of the tension in the town’s Muslims areas, the actual Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally was modest. Held inside a walled field, at no point during the event was more than half the enclosure full, in spite of the organisation’s claim that 2 lakh to 3 lakh people were in attendance. Religious gurus addressing the crowd focussed on plans to build a Ram temple at the disputed spot, prodding the Modi government to act in the form of a law or ordinance. The speakers also criticised the current judicial process. In October, the Supreme Court had adjourned the hearings of the Ayodhya land dispute till January, making it unlikely that there will be a legal resolution before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Ankit Mehrotra, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad worker from Lucknow, criticised what he saw as unneeded delay in the judicial process. “How can the Supreme Court say that the Ram temple is not a priority?” asked Mehrotra. “Now the only solution is for Modiji to get an ordinance. We have waited for so long, we cannot wait any longer.”

Nineteen-year old Chandan Rathore reached Ayodhya after a five-hour bus journey – organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – from Ghazipur district and was confident that the temple will be constructed soon. “The mosque was demolished even before I was born,” said Rathore. “Our patience is running out.”

Ankit Mehrotra (right) said the only solution to bypass the judicial process is for the Modi government to bring in an ordinance.

Ram mandir ordinance

Tanya Paurwal from Etawah echoed this anger over what she said was an unconscionable wait in building a temple at the site of demolished Babri Masjid. “For so many years both politicians and judges have been delaying the mandir,” Paurwal said. “They keep on making us run in circles. Today there will be this sabha, then another and then another. And then they will hold the elections and everyone will forget about it. We Hindus will have to end this and take matters into our own hands.”

The anger over any lack of movement on the Ram temple, and this sudden flurry as the elections approach, allowed the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to attack the Modi government as “Kumbhakarna”, the mythical character from the Ramayana known for his propensity to sleep for months on end. Thackeray was in Ayodhya on Saturday and prayed at the Ram Janmabhoomi site.

In response to this criticism, one of the religious leaders who spoke at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Dharma Sabha on Sunday said that a decision will be taken on the matter by December 11. “I was told a law will come about for temple construction,” said Rambhadracharya, claiming a senior Union minister had assured him.

Tanya Paurwal said that the Hindutva activists should take matters into their own hands. She is active on social media and goes by the name "Hindu Tanya Paurwal" since "that is who I am first".

SP-BSP alliance

The politics of the Ram temple has taken on a sudden urgency for the Bharatiya Janata Party after talks between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party for an alliance in Uttar Pradesh for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Dharma Sabha was not the only event centred around the religious identity of the god Ram this weekend. On Saturday, the Uttar Pradesh BJP government announced a statue of Ram in Ayodhya. At 221-metre, when completed, it would be the tallest statue in the world. On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged that the Congress was intimidating the judiciary in order to delay the ongoing Ayodhya land dispute case in the Supreme Court. Echoing many in Ayodhya, in Nagpur on Sunday, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat criticised the Supreme Court for “its inability to understand the sentiments of the public” and asked for the government to bring about a law to commence construction.

Clearly then, the BJP and its allies in the Sangh parivar are stepping on the gas when it comes to the Ram mandir as an issue for 2019.

AK Tripathi, who had travelled for the Dharma Sabha from Bahraich, was aware of the politics behind the religious demands for a Ram temple. “Even though I am a worker of the BJP, I realise that everyone only remembers this during the elections,” shrugged Tripathi. “This is the way things are.”

A model of the proposed Ram temple at the VHP Dharma Sabha