Ayodhya: A saffron sunset in a temple town

The Ram temple is a symbol of the merger of State and religion in India, with the Prime Minister presiding over its consecration. Ishita Mishra finds that the politics that propel the Hindutva movement have taken second place to the basic needs of the people who live in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya?

Updated - June 15, 2024 01:25 pm IST

Published - June 15, 2024 04:45 am IST

Nisha and Shivnath from Mirzapur Mafi village in Faizabad?demolish their house for the widening of the Parikarma marg in Ayodhya.

Nisha and Shivnath from Mirzapur Mafi village in Faizabad?demolish their house for the widening of the Parikarma marg in Ayodhya. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

It’s 8 o’clock on a Tuesday evening. Jyoti Gupta, 21, walks over to the ancient Hanumangarhi, an area with a temple second in popularity only to the Ram Janambhoomi, about 100 metres away from Ayodhya’s still-under-construction landmark. She stares at the selfie point, also constructed as a place of rest for pilgrims, before they make the pilgrimage to the mandir dedicated to Ram’s devotee. Sometimes people ask her to take photos of them as they make their way up the steps to reach the Ram tilak point; mostly, she looks up at the mandir and cries.

“My shop and home used to be here until the government demolished it under the Ram temple project,” she says, of her 30x30 foot space. “My father died in trauma and my mother has never recovered. She has lost everything: her husband, our house, the shop.” It has been two years now, but Jyoti tears up quickly.

She got ?1.95 lakh as compensation from the administration, but that was too small an amount to build a house and a shop, and start afresh. She wonders whether, in the balance of life, a ‘selfie point’ was more important than homes and livelihoods. In the build-up to the inauguration of the Ram temple, 10-15 shops were demolished, to make way for wider roads and ‘beautification’.

The Ram temple, one of the 2014 Lok Sabha poll promises of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a resolution of the Sangh Parivar (RSS) in 1986, was consecrated amidst political pomp by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2024, months before the general elections.

It was followed by a massive outreach of the BJP with the party taking thousands of people from across the country to Ayodhya on special trains and buses. The aim was to keep the noise of the temple ‘triumph’ high, as the party pitched for Ab ki baar 400 paar (This time more than 400 seats [out of 543])”.

When the results were declared, the BJP got only 240 seats countrywide, lost the Faizabad parliamentary constituency under which Ayodhya falls, and came down to 33 seats out of 80 from its previous 62 in Uttar Pradesh that was considered its northern fortress.

Shopkeepers, whose shops were demolished to make way for a park entrance and selfie point near Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya.

Shopkeepers, whose shops were demolished to make way for a park entrance and selfie point near Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Santosh Gupta, 49; Suresh Singh, 50; and Gopalu, 34, and hundreds of shopkeepers in Ayodhya had their shops were demolished for multiple road widening and beautification projects which began across the city in 2020. The Supreme Court in 2019 November ordered the disputed land — where the Babri mosque once stood until 1992 when it was brought down by karsevaksto be handed over to a trust to build the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. The court had also asked the government to allot 5 acres of land for the construction of a mosque, which the Muslim community has not been able to build due to several administrative hurdles.

In the name of Ram

“After trying all that they could, even using the name of lord Ram for political gains, the BJP suffered a most embarrassing defeat in Faizabad. This shows that even lord Ram warned them that they shouldn’t be looting, harassing, and fooling people in his name,” says Sunil Kumar, 42, whose shop was demolished for the construction of Ram Path, a road leading to the temple. Kumar and his family were ardent BJP supporters, but have voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP) this time. He now sets up shop on the pavement and is often evicted by the police. ?

Defeating the BJP’s Lallu Singh, two-time MP in 2014 and 2019, Avdhesh Prasad of the SP is now the new parliamentarian of Faizabad. “Like us, many have either not voted for the BJP or have not voted at all, which caused the party to lose this land of the Ram temple. They wouldn’t have imagined this in their worst nightmares,” says Nandan Sharma, in his 40s, another shopkeeper in Ayodhya who sells cloths with prints of gods and goddess on them.

He says that the district administration assured those whose shops were demolished the allotment of new spaces, but to get those they would have to deposit ?25 lakh. “The administration had said that after 20 years, they would take back that shop. How can poor people like us get 25 lakhs? Even if we take loans, we won’t be able to pay it back in 20 years and by then, we will also lose the shop. This is injustice and poor policy,” Sharma says, still angry.

The site  allotted for a new mosque  at Dhannipur village, 22 km away from the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The site allotted for a new mosque at Dhannipur village, 22 km away from the Ram temple in Ayodhya. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Political pummelling

Faizabad comprises five assembly seats: Dariyabad, Rudauli, Milkipur, Bikapur, and Ayodhya in the eastern-most part of the constituency. In the 2022 assembly polls — the first Uttar Pradesh elections after the 2019 Supreme Court verdict — the BJP won four out of these five seats, while the SP’s Prasad won the Milkipur seat, reserved for Scheduled Castes. This time, Prasad, 77, was declared SP’s Lok Sabha candidate with the slogan, “Na Mathura, na Kashi, ab ki baar Awadhesh Pasi’ (Neither Mathura, nor Kashi; this time it’s Awadhesh Pasi). This was a reaction to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s slogan: “Ayodhya tho sirf jhanki hai; abhi Mathura-Kashi baaki hai (Ayodhya is just a glimpse; Mathura and Kashi are left [to be acquired].

“This slogan worked wonders for the SP, and the saffron party lost the temple town around which they were trying to build their Hindutva bastion,” says Prof. Anil Singh, who teaches Hindi literature at Faizabad’s K.S. Saket P.G. College. He adds that Prasad’s victory is significant, as for the first time since Independence a person from the SC community has contested from a general seat and won it with a significant margin (54,567 votes), defeating the BJP, which is both at the Centre and the State.

Prof. Singh feels the election results in Faizabad are a repeat of 1993, when [SP founder] Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to keep the communal forces out of UP. “After the Babri mosque demolition by right wing forces, he joined hands with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshiram. The famous slogan coined at time was ‘Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram’. The SP-BSP together voted the BJP out of power from State,” he says.

Prof. Singh also believes that Prasad was a terrific candidate choice, considering the caste dynamic in Faizabad. The nine-time MLA and six-time Minister in the UP government holds a law and post-graduate degree. The Faizabad Lok Sabha constituency has an over 50% combined voter-count of SC/STs, Muslim, and OBCs.

Jeetan Ram Pasi, from Milkipur Assembly segment says that the bahujan samaj (the combined population of traditionally subjugated people) felt threatened and unsafe when BJP MP Lallu Singh gave a speech at a public meeting in April this year in Faizabad, saying that for a new Constitution, the party needed a two-third majority. The video of his speech went viral.

“This was the last nail in the BJP’s coffin,” says Pasi, adding that the SC/ST and other members of the bahujan samaj in Faizabad had collectively decided that if all upper-caste people could set their differences aside and vote for the BJP, they could do the same to vote the party out of power.

Prasad, the newly elected MP, who is currently in Delhi, however, feels that in the land of Ram’s birth, Hindutva still survives: “I am also a Hindu. When I have won from here, how can Hindutava lose?” His father was Dukhi Ram, his grandfather Ram Naval, his brother Ram Awadh, and father-in-law Ram Sevak, he says, reiterating his Hindu-ness. “I won only because lord Ram wanted to tell the BJP that the saffron party shouldn’t be perpetuating injustice in his name.”

Difficult days

While the SP cites several reasons for the BJP’s defeat in Ayodhya, Singh, the former MP has stopped attending public events and had organised a booth level meeting on June 17 to understand the reasons for his defeat. His secretary says he is not speaking to the media right now, but the people of his constituency have strong opinions on him.

“He was so arrogant as an MP; he was never there for the people. Whenever we approached him with grievances, he would mistreat us. I still remember when he told me once that the people of Ayodhya had voted for Narendra Modi and not for him, so we should go to Modi with our problems,” says Niranjan Pandey, a middle-aged farmer who owned a plot in Kusmaha village, where there was massive land acquisition to build the Ayodhya airport.

Many in the city recall how Singh refused to meet the delegation of shopkeepers who went to give him a letter regarding inadequate compensation being given to them by the district administration. “Wo kehte the ek-do gaon vote nahi bhi dega to unka kuch nahi jayega, (He used to say that if people of one or two villagers don’t vote for him, it wouldn’t make a difference),” says Sunita Devi, in her late 50s, whose shop was partially demolished for road widening.

Mohd Naiem, in his 40s, who runs a tea shop, is not surprised at the BJP’s defeat. “In the last civic body elections held in 2023, Sultan Ansari had won in Abhiram Das ward,” says Naiem. The ward is named after the religious leader who is said to have placed the idol of lord Ram inside the Babri mosque, and where the Ram temple currently stands. “The victory was a sign that people are tired of the Hindu-Muslim divide created by the BJP,” says Naiem.

While BJP is analysing its defeat in Ayodhya, Raju Das, the chief priest of the Hanumangarhi temple, says that people had no complaints against PM Modi or Chief Minister Yogi; it was instead the fault of the bureaucracy. “Modi and Yogi didn’t realise that the administration in Ayodhya had looted people in the name of beautification. They were shown the best pictures and were never made to meet people,” Das says. He says the BJP hasn’t lost in Ayodhya, but has come out 4,000 votes stronger than 2019; it was the other four assembly constituencies where they lost.

Hate and hard talk

Since the June 4 results, social media is full of videos and hate messages for the people of Ayodhya. People are being asked to stop giving business to local shopkeepers and hoteliers. “Boycott Ayodhya” was trending on X (formerly Twitter). “Jo Ram ko laaye tumne unhe hi dokha dia,” (You have betrayed those who brought Ram home),” a social media post reads. A comment on this says, “History says that people of Ayodhya have always betrayed its king.” The BJP MP from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj expressed shock in a TV interview that Ayodhya had chosen an SP MP.

Prasad is pragmatic: “Those boycotting Ayodhya are not Ram bhakts (devotees). A person who cannot respect democracy and the democratic rights of people can never be a Ram bhakt,” he says.

Krishna Kant Gupta, a lawyer practising in Faizabad feels that the cow, considered a universal mother in Hinduism, was one of the contributing factors for the BJP’s loss. “Farmers were so angry here because the cattle let loose [after their milk dried up], destroying their fields. Even after making tall claims of cow protection, the BJP was never able to manage cattle. The ban on the slaughter of non-milch animals was a problem,” says Gupta.

Nirmala Gautam, in her 50s, who used to sell tea near Saryu Ghat until her shop was torn down, says that many temples and mosques were demolished to make way for a ‘beautiful’ Ayodhya. “The gods have cursed the BJP with defeat,” she says, adding that the city had turned into an ‘undeclared’ curfew zone for residents, with numerous daily VIP visits. “The newspapers are full of reports of deaths when patients got stuck in traffic jams.”

Dilip Tiwari, 35, who use to live in Dharampur village, which was acquired for the airport project, complains about that the compensation he got was lower than circle rates. It’s not only about money though. Tiwari and his family moved to Ashapur village in Varanasi district, where the UP government allotted them land. He says he had to spend over ?20 lakh to construct a new house, whose papers still show that it is government land. There are also social problems: “People like us are not being respected here. They refuse to allow us to use their cremation ritual centres, as we are outsiders for them. The BJP will never know what they have done to us.”

Residents of Dharampur village stand on their acquired land on June 10, 2024. The entire village was relocated due to expansion of Maharishi Valmiki International Airport, Ayodhya Dham.

Residents of Dharampur village stand on their acquired land on June 10, 2024. The entire village was relocated due to expansion of Maharishi Valmiki International Airport, Ayodhya Dham. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

While a shiny new temple has come up on the rubble of a medieval mosque, Prerna and Sachin (names changed), from Mirzapur Mafi village in Faizabad, live in a two-room home. Sachin is a construction worker. “After building homes for others through the day, my husband comes home every evening to demolish our own house. A part of it falls on the Parikrama?marg?(road),” Prerna explains, clearing the debris.

The couple was given a choice to pay the government to break it down or do it themselves. They have no money to give the government.

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