In a small, dark three-roomed apartment, the head priest of India’s most controversial temple sits with a lush beard and a careful splash of vermillion on his forehead. “What happened that day shouldn’t have happened. No religion preaches that any religious place should be broken down,” says Satyendra Das in a low, solemn voice, about December 6, 1992.
“We got nothing from it. Ram Lalla now sits under a tarpaulin sheet, and this town has got zero. No public institutions, no jobs, no roads or even drains,” he reflects, “we have lost more than we got back”.
In Ayodhya today, there is religion, but little else. Twenty years after the triple domes of the Babri Masjid were brought down by a frenzied mob of right-wing Hindu activists, this town by the Sarayu river in the heart of Uttar Pradesh stands dilapidated and disabled, seemingly forgotten after playing its part as the epicentre of one of the biggest upheavals in independent India.
It is as if much of Ayodhya — its Muslim population is about five per cent — is holding its collective breath for one perceivable salvation: A temple for the Hindu god Ram on the disputed site. Yet, as history has repeatedly enforced, it is easier said than done. And in the process, Ayodhya has seemingly lost out on India’s celebrated economic growth story, unleashed by the same prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, who sat in office during its darkest hour.
Jobless, not godless
Mohammed Waqar, 35, recalls that December night vividly. In Class X then, Waqar found himself in the eye of the storm; his father, Haji Mahboob, is, as he was then, one of the petitioners in the Ayodhya title suit case. “There were two busloads of Provincial Armed Constabulary troops and even a fire engine, but they did nothing,” he says, “We had thought the ruling government would protect the minorities. That didn’t happen.” Waqar, the first MBA from his family, has now moved back to Ayodhya after a long stint of working in Dubai to support his father. “But I’ll do something in Lucknow, not here,” he adds, “there’s nothing here”.
In the past decade, the Faizabad district has seen its population grow by some 18 per cent. Ayodhya, too, has possibly had just as much. But it lacks the economic vibrancy abound merely seven kilometres away at the eponymous district headquarters: There are none of Faizabad’s dusty ATM signs, air-conditioned automobile showrooms or even garishly labelled clothes shops here. Instead, there are endless hawkers of spirituality — photographs, amulets, brass artefacts — and sweetmeats on the narrow lanes that lead up to the heavily-guarded site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
On the other side of the main street that cuts through the centre of Ayodhya, crumbling mansions and temples stand witness to a town that has always been dominated by religion. The roads are potholed and street corners dotted with piled garbage; the drains open and vile. If this was once an ancient seat of power and glory, it isn’t any more.
In a district with a literacy rate of 70.63 per cent, Ayodhya probably doesn’t need much in the way of basic education. Instead, says Ram Prakash Pandey, a bedraggled middleaged fortune teller on the main lane to the disputed site, this town needs jobs. “ There are no factories here, no mills, so our people have to go out and find jobs. And those who can’t, become daily wage labourers here,” he claims.
Religion has entrenched Ayodhya permanently in India’s history, yet it has been unable to give its people a better life.
Politics of trouble For all that Ayodhya has been through before and after 1992, across the religious divide, the blame for escalating the conflict and deeming it nearly interminable is squarely laid at a single door: Politics. At the decaying courtyard of the Nirmohi Akhara, another petitioner in the Ayodhya title suit, Dinendra Das says certain parties are making money by extending the conflict. “ And, if this stops, they will protest,” he adds.
Waqar father’s Haji Mahboob is more direct. “ I stay in touch with the others and, I would say, 75 per cent of the Mahants ( heads of the Hindu monasteries) want to solve the issue. But there are these 25 per cent who are controlled by political parties,” he reveals. “They are the problem.” Satyendra Das, one of the oldest hands in Ayodhya, and among those who were there as the Babri Masjid was pulled down, doesn’t condone political parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party, either. “ They politicised it because their objective was to rule and they eventually got it,” he says, “they cheated the true devotees of Ram and broke whatever religious harmony existed here. I still feel fear when Ithink about that day”. It was possibly that growing disdain that ensured BJP’s Lallu Singh, Ayodhya’s MLA since 1991, lost to a young Samajwadi Party challenger in this year’s Assembly polls.
Despite all this, for Pandey, the fortune teller, and others who call Ayodhya home, there is a distinct sense of helplessness at what has transpired here since 1992. “Even if we want to, what can the people do,” he asks, “ if the politicians do nothing about this, how can we?”