India File

What Ayodhya has lost in temple politics

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on December 31, 2018 Published on December 31, 2018

The town has tried in vain to emerge as anything but a disputed site that divides religious communities

“Send to everyone in your list. Shame on all 90 Cr Hindus. Ayodhya Ram mandir Babri masjid online voting is going on. Supreme court of India have left the decision to the citizens, But till now there are more votes for Babri masjid. So kindly all Hindus vote for Rammandir to be built in Ayodhya.”

A Hindi version of this WhatsApp message, complete with a voting link, made Sachin Agarwal’s phone beep one May morning in 2018. The 30-year-old Faizabad (now Shri Ayodhya) resident read it many times over before he pressed ‘delete’.

Later that evening, at a routine meeting of a local traders’ association, he discovered that the same message had reached many in the town. Like Agarwal, who lives and works with his businessman elder brother, most of his friends and acquaintances chose to delete the message. It was another matter that the link was a fake one — as reported in several news publications.

More than seven months later, the same WhatsApp message has resurfaced. With the cry for Ram Mandir growing louder, the timing seems a calculated affair. However, in Ayodhya, less than 7 km from Faizabad, this appeal for votes has evoked little response or interest.

The town is quietly contemplating the burden the upcoming Lok Sabha elections have placed on its shoulders. It is the plank that might decide the fate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre. But no one can say what it will get in return.

At the centre of communal and polarisation politics since the 1980s, Ayodhya has lost more to the demand of a Ram Mandir than it can recover. From the time the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) started a movement for the building of the temple, with the aggressive support of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Ayodhya has tried in vain to emerge as anything but a disputed site that divides religious communities.

In December 1992, the town watched in silent trepidation as lakhs of saffron-clad kar sevaks trooped in. And when the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, Ayodhya looked as helpless as the police cordon that failed to control the mob at the site. The countrywide riots that followed hit home hard. The name of the town became synonymous with communal strife, despite the fact that Ayodhya hasn’t really voted for religion over development.

Yearning for development

Ayodhya comes under the Lok Sabha constituency of Faizabad, which is currently represented by BJP MP Lallu Singh. Until 1971, the seat had Congress MPs. It then saw a mix of MPs from the Congress, BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP). And CPI candidate Mitrasen Yadav won the seat in 1989, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak.

Even when it chose a BJP candidate, Ayodhya, with a population of close to five lakh, didn’t fall for the mandir-masjid agenda.

“More than anything else, the people of Ayodhya-Faizabad need development — education, healthcare, better roads and housing, employment, so that we have an identity that is new, modern and untainted,” says Sharad Kapoor, owner of Shan-e-Awadh, the oldest hotel in Faizabad. Like his two sons, who have returned to Faizabad after higher education to help run the family business, Kapoor refuses to be swayed by the gaining momentum in the demand for Ram Mandir.

He also recognises the appeasement politics behind initiatives such as the renaming of Faizabad and the lavish Deepotsav, a pre-Diwali festival held in the first week of November. The historic ghats of River Sarayu in Ayodhya were given an expensive facelift, dancers and artistes were flown in from several countries, and over three lakh lamps were lit along the river to create a Guinness World Record.

“When we cast our vote, we think only of the future — with important lessons from the past. We have suffered for letting things happen, we can’t afford a repeat,” Kapoor adds.

Despite Kapoor’s firm belief that a religious structure won’t break Ayodhya’s spirit, the locals are nervously watching the repeated attempts by political parties to hold rallies around or visit the Ram Janmabhoomi. They are also against the fear psychosis that led to some of Faizabad’s Muslim families leaving town during Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s visit in November-end.

Guide Dharmendra Pandey, an Ayodhya resident, doesn’t have an issue with having another temple — his livelihood depends on tourists who pour in to pray at the town’s countless temples. But he is aware that some of his neighbours and former school friends, as trainees in tech companies in Gurugram, Noida and Faridabad, earn twice as much as what he takes home after paying a commission to local travel agencies.

Given a choice, Dharmendra — or his siblings who are also tour guides — won’t visit temples on a daily basis.

But his childhood friend Raja Pandey, employed at a car manufacturing unit in Manesar, Haryana, likes to visit Kanak Mahal and Hanuman Garhi temples whenever he comes home: “I draw my identity from these temples in Ayodhya. Growing up here, we didn’t understand why or how this so-called Ram Mandir is special. If it’s so special, maybe it will solve all our problems, and I can then come and live here again,” Pandey says.

With that hope in heart, he plans to take leave from work in summer 2019, so that he can cast his vote — his first for Lok Sabha.

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Published on December 31, 2018
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