On the afternoon of February 10, Samira Ali was alone at home when the doorbell rang. A group of 15 men stood outside her apartment, chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.
Ali (name changed), a 21-year-old student, was taken aback by the size of the group. But she was not surprised. Local members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, had informed her housing colony earlier in February that they would be conducting a door-to-door drive to collect donations for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
The temple is coming up at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 by Hindutva mobs mobilised by the BJP through its Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. In November 2019, the Supreme Court held the demolition was illegal but awarded the disputed site to Hindu litigants. In August 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the temple.
“My father and I had an argument about it just the other day,” Ali recalled. She believes that the temple’s foundations lie on “majoritarian politics of intimidation”.
“I felt that on principle, we should not donate, but he said we would have to, because we have to live in this society.”
Ali’s family is one of just four Muslims living in a building with 35 flats in a town about 180 km north of Mumbai.
When the crowd of men showed up at her door on Thursday, Ali was forced to set aside her principles. “I tried telling them that my parents were not home and that I did not have money on me, but they refused to leave and insisted I would have to pay,” said Ali.
She finally gave them Rs 100 – for which she received a receipt for a “voluntary contribution. She hoped they would leave, but instead they began pasting a sticker depicting the Hindu deity Ram and the proposed Ram Temple outside her door.
“I told them not to do it, that we are Muslims and did not want that sticker,” she said. “But they said ‘sticker toh lagana hi padega’ and put it anyway.”
The men then intimidated Ali even further, asking her to step out and stand with them for a photo. Aghast, Ali told them she was extremely uncomfortable with that, and finally shut the door.
“How dare they ask a young single woman to pose with so many men? It was harrowing,” said Ali, shaken by the experience. “And why did they forcefully mark my house with a sticker? This is ridiculous – it is no less than Nazi Germany.”
For decades, the disputed site in Ayodhya had been a flashpoint in Indian society. But now, with the Supreme Court verdict lending legitimacy to the temple, even the President of India has made a donation for its construction.
The fundraising drive was launched on January 14 by the trust that is building the Ram Mandir. Since then, members of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar have fanned out across villages, towns and cities in India, going door to door to collect donations.
While the Hindutva organisations insist they are merely soliciting voluntary contributions, several people allege they have been intimidated into paying up. A matter of special concern are the stickers being pasted on doors.
‘They are trying to identify people’
In Mumbai, a city that was wracked by communal riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the stickers have created unease in some neighbourhoods.
In the dense working-class area of Cotton Green in central Mumbai, 33-year-old Tejal Shitole claims she was questioned by some neighbours in the first week of February when they noticed she did not have a Ram temple sticker outside her flat.
Shitole lives in a sprawling complex of 18 low-income housing buildings, each with 23 storeys and 12 flats on every floor. On February 1, members of a Hindutva organisation – Shitole is not sure which one – went door-to-door in her housing complex to collect donations for the temple.
“Around five of them came to my house too, asking for money for uplifting the country – for building a Hindu rashtra through a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya,” she recalled.
Shitole, a researcher with a non-profit youth centre in Mumbai, chose not to pay on ideological grounds – she views the temple as a symbol of communalism and the assertion of Hindu religious nationalism. “When I did not donate, they looked at me with suspicion, muttering to each other that I must not be a Hindu if I don’t want to contribute for the good of the nation,” she said.
Shitole said she is disturbed by the stickers that the donation collectors stuck outside the homes of people who had paid. “They are trying to identify people who are ‘pro-Hindu’ and ‘anti-Hindu’. We are turning into a very unhealthy society.”
Shitole’s neighbour, Vijayalaxmi Boga, does not share her ideological convictions. The 54-year-old homemaker said she is happy that the Ram Mandir is “finally” being built.
Yet she is also suspicious of the stickers. “Why are they putting up such stickers? Do they want proof of who has paid? It is wrong.”
Boga’s house was not marked with a sticker because she was not at home when the donation drive took place. Had she been at home, Boga claims she would not have donated: “I don’t understand why they want ordinary people like us to donate – they already have crores donated to them by big organisations. I would have paid if it was for building a hospital or a school.”
Dhanashree Mahadik, another housewife in Shitole’s building, was nonchalant about the Ram Mandir sticker pasted outside her door after she donated Rs 100. “The sticker is just a proof that we have paid – they gave us a receipt too,” said Mahadik, 36, who views her contribution as a kind of dakshina (offering) for Lord Ram.
Like Samira Ali, Mahadik was also asked to pose for a photo with the donation collectors. However, unlike Ali, it was not an intimidating experience. “There was a woman in their group and they requested me to hold up my receipt and pose with her,” said Mahadik, who was happy to comply.
‘They told my friend to frame the receipt’
In North Mumbai’s Powai area, members of the local Bajrang Dal branch went to each house in the urban village of Tunga at the end of January.
“I used to be associated with the local Bajrang Dal earlier but I quit two years ago because I did not like their anti-Muslim views,” said Vishal Patel, 36, a social worker from Tunga. Because of his vocal disagreements with the saffron outfit, Patel believes its local leaders chose not to ask him for any money during the Ram Mandir donation drive.
However, Patel happened to be standing outside his friend’s paan shop when they collected a small sum from his friend. “They told my friend to frame the receipt for his donation and display it in his shop, so that everyone knows that he has contributed,” said Patel, who believes this was meant as a pointed jibe at him.
Patel’s friend, Manoj Shetty, claims he was not pressured into donating, but chose to do so because of bhakti or devotion towards Lord Ram. “They gave me a sticker along with the receipt but I did not stick it outside my shop,” said Shetty, 35. “But later that day I noticed that someone had stuck it on the side of my shop anyway.”
Sandeep Pawar, the deputy secretary of the Bajrang Dal in Tunga village, claimed that the purpose of the stickers was perfectly innocuous. “We put the stickers on people’s doors so that nobody can go to collect donations from the same house again,” said Pawar. “We are getting a very good response from our door-to-door donation drive – people are donating as per their capacity and for Shri Ram, some are giving even beyond their capacity.”
A convenor of the VHP in Telangana told Newsminute that homes that have donated to the temple will be identified through the stickers. A campaign coordinator in Vidarbha in eastern Maharashtra, however, denied there was an intention to identify those who had or hadn’t donated to the temple through the stickers.
At the VHP’s Maharashtra head office in Mumbai, senior functionaries coordinating the donation drive were unavailable for comment. A junior staff member, however, claimed that there has been no force involved in the donation drive. “The stickers are just an image of the mandir, they don’t mean anything and sticking them is entirely optional,” said the staff member. “We also tell people that they should pay only if they want to. There is no force.”
The nationwide door-to-door donation drive, he said, has now been extended up to February 27.
Poor, but paying out of fear
About 300 km east of Mumbai, in the village of Karegaon in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, the donation-collectors were influential men who came in a cavalcade of jeeps. They gave speeches about Lord Ram through a loudspeaker and asked people to donate for the cause of the temple, recalled Arvind Sakat, a 33-year-old social worker who belongs to the village but works in Mumbai.
“I did not want to pay them but they said that if I lived in the village, I would have to pay,” said Sakat. “In the village if you don’t comply, people look at you differently. So my mother told me to pay them Rs 10 or Rs 20. But they said it would not do – they wanted Rs 100 minimum.”
Sakat claims the donation collectors “did not spare anyone” in the village, including poverty-stricken Dalit and Adivasi families who often do not have enough money for food or medicines. “Some of these poor families said they did not have money to donate, but the donation collectors put stickers outside their homes and told them they would have to pay later, at least Rs 100.”
After the donation drive, Sakat claims he asked a few Dalit families whether wanted to make a voluntarily donation. “They said that they never ask the whole village for money when they have an Ambedkarite festival, and that they have nothing to do with the temple in the north,” said Sakat. “But they said they would pay the money out of fear, because they don’t want to be denied water or other facilities in the village.”