On the outer periphery of the site on which the Babri Masjid used to stand, alongside a police barrier, Rajitram Maurya and his younger brother, sew police uniforms in the tailoring shop that they run out of a wooden kiosk. As a boy, Maurya, who is also a Home Guard, had wandered in the fruit orchards around the Babri Masjid in the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya with his siblings and friends. But when his own children had to walk across the same land on their way to school, they needed a pass to clear the police posts on the way.
Twenty six years ago, on December 6, 1992, Maurya was on duty near the Babri Masjid, and described what he did: “I was sitting down like everyone else, my gun was lying in front of me. No one did anything. We just watched the BJP people come and destroy”. Led by senior members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, thousands of Hindutva supporters stormed the 400-year-old mosque that morning, claiming it had been built on the exact spot on which the god Ram had been born. In a few hours, they demolished it. The BJP, in its manifesto for the 2014 election, has promised to build a Ram temple on the site.
The police uniforms Maurya and his brother were sewing were as a consequence of 1992, he said with a smile. Their reputation has grown through word of mouth and they get steady work from the large numbers of police and paramilitary deployed in the town. Before 1992 the family grew flowers on two acres of land. “All the malis of Ayodhya used to take their flowers from here – marigolds, jasmines, roses…” The government acquired one acre of their land for the Ram Janmabhoomi site, paying them a paltry Rs 60,000. The other acre was sold to Gokul Bhavan, the big temple across from their shop for the same price.
“It’s not like we had a choice,” Maurya said. “If we had not sold it, the temple would have just squatted on it. They have their ways and we have to live here.”
A Buddhist challenge
In 1990, before the mosque was demolished, his cousin Vineet Kumar Maurya had worked as wage labour to clear and level the land around the site, after the government demolished the numerous small temples that stood there. Vineet Maurya is hoping to shake up the town and the temple movement. A Dalit activist, he filed a plea in the Supreme Court in July to have Ayodhya declared a Buddhist site, based on reports of the Archeological survey of India. A hearing, along side several other pleas, is set for early next year.
In the Maurya Panchayat mandir, which like many other temples in Ayodhya doubles as a student hostel, Vineet Maurya succeeded in getting a majority vote in favour of removing the Brahmin priest who performed all the pujas and other rituals. Ayodhya has temples built by many caste groups from around the country but, Vineet Maurya said, the priests are still all Brahmin. Ideally he would like the Maurya mandir, where the presiding deities are Rama and Sita, to venerate Buddha.
If that does come to pass, it would not be out of step with Ayodhya’s sacred history. “Ayodhya has always been of spiritual importance,” said Anjani Garg, one of Ayodhya’s bigger businessman, who has a sanitaryware operation and an interest in the Jagdishpur Mandir that his zamindar grandfather built. “Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, many Muslim fakirs …and of course Ram, are all associated with it …perhaps only Christians are not here.”
The town has two prominent Sikh gurdwaras, many Jain temples, while many of the Hindu temples feature a two-fish motif, marking their link with the Awadh Nawabs. There are mosques that serve the small Muslim community and myriad dargahs that are attended by both Muslims and Hindus, who form the vast majority in Ayodhya’s population. At the Naugazia peer’s dargah, Gyandeep Trivedi, who drives a tempo, can be found every day after 4 pm, sweeping the platforms and chatting to regulars. As for Christians, in the late 19th century Baptist and Wesleyan missionaries preached their gospel unmolested during the annual Ram Navami Mela, collecting crowds mostly of the curious, among whom they found the occasional seeker.
A placid town
Ayodhya was by nature a placid place, Garg said, and it worked in its own slow way. “When a tempest comes from outside, things are disturbed for a while and then they return to normal,” he said.
The tempest that Garg spoke of was not whipped up by Vineet Maurya trying to unseat Ram in the Maurya Panchayat temple, but by the Sangh Parivar and other Hindutva organisations using Ayodhya as a stage from which to talk up the Ram Temple issue. Following the events of 1992, when Ayodhya’s residents did for a time believe a big new temple might be the route to economic salvation, the subject has mostly receded from everyday conversations.
“It is only when we have visitors and they bring it up that there might be a discussion,” said Priyanka Yadav, a trainee school teacher. It was also only when there were visitors from outside that most Ayodhya residents interviewed said they went to the makeshift temple at the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi site. Kanak Bhawan, the 19th-century Ram temple built by the Raja of Orcha is the most prominent Ram temple in the town. But it is Hanuman Garhi that draws the largest number of devotees.
Priyanka Yadav and her sister Purnima are regular worshippers at Kanak Mahal. Like many younger people in Ayodhya (apart from those active in Sangh Parivar organisations) who were either not born in 1992 or were too young to remember, they are more than ambivalent about the Ram temple. Priyanka’s older sister Purnima said, “It is best not to build it, there will be strife… now we all live together so peacefully.” Priyanka, quickly interrupted her. “She is not saying it should not be built. But that if it is built, it should be peaceful for everyone.”
A few days earlier, Ayodhya had been in an all too familiar lock-down mode, awaiting the tempest from outside. The Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were in town at the end of November to rake up the Ram temple issue again. More police and security forces were deployed, more road barriers and check posts set up. Most shops were shut, Muslim families living on the main streets locked up and left town, schools were closed, some were turned into camps for the additional security personnel deployed in the town. With the media drumming up expectation of a major announcement there was a sense of foreboding – what if there was a repeat of 1992.
For most of Ayodhya’s ordinary residents of all religions, economic life has always revolved around three annual religious festivals or melas that can bring in upwards of 20 lakhs of pilgrims. Ayodhya’s population stands at a little over 55,000. The last mela of the year was in mid-November. The fear that something might disrupt this calendar weighs heavily on the town. Bagelu Prasad Soni, who has run a jewelry business in the main market since 1980, said after the 1992 movement it took years to draw pilgrims back to Ayodhya’s melas. People were afraid to come. Soni, a former Shiv Sena member who claimed he was among those who planned the demolition, quit the organisation when his own business went down hill after the demolition. Its never quite picked up again, he said. He laughed hollowly, the Ram temple is bad for business. The disruption only profits politicians, not Ayodhya or its residents, said Soni, who professes to still support the Sena.
Vishal Kumar Gaur was about 18 in 1992. He said he was one of a group of 10-12 friends who were among the many men who, armed with rods and shovels helped demolish the Babri Masjid. They had not wanted to demolish it, he said, sitting at his desk in the Craft Museum in the Tulsi Smarak Bhavan. They had just wanted to “break the gumbad [domes] and replace them with shikhar [spires]”.
Measuring his words, he said, “Now I and most of my friends feel we did wrong. We only understood what we had done, after the deed was done. That it was politicians who had turned it into a religious dispute.”
He added: “We hurt our own sentiments...we put Ram Lalla under a tarpaulin.”
A Ram temple, said Gaur, “is not as important to Ayodhya as Hanuman Garhi or Kanak Bhavan, and it never was. I remember that the kirtan at the chabutra [before the demolition] would get started only when they spotted a visitor, and they never had many visitors, except during the melas.” The land around the site – 68 acres – was wasted, he said. The town needs a college, a women’s hospital (the maternity wards in the public hospital are non-functional. “We don’t need such a large temple, money and lives will be wasted building it,” he said.
Echoing many interviewed for this report, Gaur said that the Ram temple issue deflected attention from Ayodhya’s problems and trapped its people in a web of politics created by forces outside their control.
Much has been made of the improvements in Ayodhya focusing on civil works done in the town. A pucca road for the parikrama route when the Bahujan Samaj Party was in power, a sewage system when the Samajwadi Party was in power, underground cables and heritage street light for the main thoroughfare since the BJP formed government. But Dhamendra Singh, economics lecturer at Saket college and a former office bearer of the district unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad, the BJP’s student associate, said that these were just the basics that governments were expected to deliver. Besides, the authorities had done nothing yet to provide toilets during the melas, he said. Pilgrims still defecated in the open gutters and on streets for want of options.
The really big problem was that there were no jobs, save those that serviced the temple economy. Another temple was not going to change that. The most steady work in the town was making or selling sweets that are offered at the temples, or flowers garlands, and for temple guides – who, apart from what they are paid by pilgrims or tourists, get a commission from temples. At the towns oldest and best regarded high school – Mahrajah Inter College – teachers confirmed this, saying their best students leave, the rest if they are lucky get to make ladoos.
Brij Kumar Gupta, the last person to be elected president of the Ayodhya Traders Association, said that most of town’s economy was “kamao-khao”or “earn-eat”. It simply did not allow for saving and hence for investment either in business or in education or training. It was just not possible for a man selling small items essential for a puja to start a business selling TVs or even start a small eatery. He would not have the capital. As most shopkeepers were tenants of rich temples which own most of the property, there was no question of getting loans from banks.
Nitin Kumar, whose small sari business runs from the same shop that his father used as a photographer’s studio and from where his band master grandfather managed his group of musicians, says that zamindari is alive and well in Ayodhya. Tenants have no rights and landlords are loath to allow them to do repairs or even build toilets. The flipside of this is that shopkeepers pay old rents, without which their small turn over seasonal businesses might not be even “kamao-khao”.
The more prosperous businessmen are the ones who have several shops or contracts to supply the temples. It is the temples that everyone selling anything of value looks to for custom. Temples and the mahants who control them, everyone agrees, are the Ayodhya’s wealthiest people in town and also the recipients of the biggest largesse.
The stone carver
A couple of kilometers from the centre of Ayodhya is the Sangh Parivar compound, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-owned Karsewakpuram, that until the early 2000s was often mistaken for another locus of power in the town. It is now a desolate place, and its temple that houses the model of its proposed temple, rarely has visitors. At its workshop, carved pillars and beams lie piled up on all sides – an entire floor’s worth, according to the lone stone mason working there. As he chipped away at a block of stone, he said, if there were more workmen the work would be finished in no time.
But with no fix on whether a temple will be built and what the role of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad might be, giving the impression of temple building activity seems to be the focus. The workshop does get visitors – mostly small groups from out of state, accompanied by a guide who works on commission. Hanuman Yadav the caretaker confirmed that no one from Ayodhya ever comes there. Derisively he said, “They have no interest in the temple”.
Indu Pande and her classmate Karma Srivastava, who study in the only public girls high school in Ayodhya, were quite clear they were not. “It was before we were born,” said Pande. “December 6 had something to do with it. It was a day when there was even more police bandobast than usual.” Srivastava said, “That’s the day they broke it.” Pande said, “Oh?”
Srivastava, it turned out, was well informed. “Some say it was a temple, some say it was a mosque,” she said. “A few days ago, a lot of people came here saying they would build a temple. Nothing happened. Not even a curfew. I don’t think it will be built. End of story.”
Many of Ayodhya’s residents who have experienced at first hand the demolition and its consequences appear to feel a sense of responsibility that “a spark ignited here could start a fire in the country beyond”. Rakesh Kasera, a graduate of political science and now a repairer of old pressure cookers and gas stoves, was firm that a line should not be crossed. “We are a country governed by laws, then how does people’s sentiment trump the law?” he said. “There would be chaos if we let that happen.”
Mohammed Wassim Siddiqui put it a little differently. Like other Muslim families in Ayodhya, his has been closely connected with the temples. His father Rehmatullah was formerly a licensed aatishbaaz (maker of fireworks and firework displays) whose business came mostly from the bigger temples, including Hanuman Garhi, with which he still maintains an association. Annoyed as he was about the tension that the Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad programmes had created in the town, he said, “We don’t want Ayodhya to have a negative impact on the rest of the country, no resident of Ayodhya will allow that. We only lose if that happens.”
Sangh loyalists in Ayodhya, as elsewhere, however, don’t see it quite like this. They still hold out hope that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will deliver them a temple. Among them is Madan Tiwari, who in 2002 had recited a narrative poem he had written to this reporter, describing the excitement that the Ramjanmabhoomi movement had created in Ayodhya and the disappointment, even dejection, on discovering that it was simply a political campaign with an election in sight. Tiwari, side stepped questions about that poem, saying he had written too many to remember. A religious preacher, Rambhadrachari of Chitrakoot, had convinced him to place his faith in Modi.
Tiwari also slipped this reporter a DVD with video footage of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, among other things. A booklet with photos of the demolition and a viewmaster with the same images were popular souvenirs until the early 2000s. The Samajwadi Party government of Mulayam Singh had banned their sale on the grounds that they incited communal hatred. But recently, new stocks of DVDs had arrived in Ayodhya, and Tiwari said that though he may not be able to sell them, he could share them for free. He hoped that young people who were unfamiliar with 1992 would be inspired by the video clips of the demolition. Teachers at Maharaja Inter College fear just this sort of thing.
But there is just the possibility that the likes of Tiwari will have to contend with likes of Vineet Maurya who are challenging residents to question their own certainties and even their gods, and also the likes of Nitin Kumar – the grandson of the band master, who said having wasted his own youth as a foot soldier of the temple movement, he tells his children not to get caught up in such things and to focus on education and finding jobs.