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September 30, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/ Archana Masih

Ayodhya internalises the temple, but politicians simply won't let go

The highway to the temple town of Ayodhya is strewn with some gory scenes of death. One crushed cow. Two dogs. Two bandicoots. Even a blood-spattered snake. Also a recently turned-over truck, its spoils of fresh bananas scattered on the busy road. The hordes of cycle riders, matter-of-factly, curve past such remains and move on. Everyday occurrences hardly deserve a second look...

'Welcome to Ayodhya -- the Ram Janambhoomi' reads a board on the narrow road from Faizabad town to Ayodhya. A few steps from the board is the Ram Janambhoomi police chowky. And a few yards down the dirt road, off the Faizabad-Ayodhya road lie the tents of the UP and Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Constables stand guarding one of the iron gates which cordons the large tract of the disputed and controversial land.

'Jai Shri Ram,' screams one of the numerous security personnel opposite the small Ram Janambhoomi temple -- which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has been promising to build into a magnificent mandir some day soon. "We will start work on the temple as soon as the work of chiselling the stone pillars is over," says former Bajrang Dal president and Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Vinay Katiyar.

The man who along with VHP secretary general Ashok Singhal shot into the national limelight with his zealous campaign in the mandir movement, is still exceedingly positive about the construction of the temple. In no way does its absence from the National Democratic Alliance agenda, deter him -- and Katiyar is confident of its temporary nature: "Time will tell. Nothing has changed."

The Ram Janambhoomi for now, and since the last seven years, remains cordoned off. High iron bars, crisscrossed with more iron bars, form a kind of canopy as pilgrims walk in a single file under the watchful gaze of 10,000 security personnel. "We have to be extremely vigilant. We cannot take any chances," says a UP police constable stationed there for over a year.

The queue tediously moves to the point where the small temple comes into full view -- and gets bunched into a stationary mass. "Arrey Ram lalla kahan hai?" asks a despairing devotee looking at the idols within the small tent a few metres from her cordoned self. Reassured after one of the cops identifies Ram, she finally walks on past the many monkeys that are universally present in the entire town.

"Yes, I know the temple will be built. I want it to be built quickly." Sunita Kumari, who comes to see the Ram Janambhoomi and the other important temples in Ayodhya every month from Barabanki, is hopeful. So is Srinarasinha Murthy, a pilgrim from Hyderabad who is visiting the temples in the town with his extended family.

Murthy believes that irrespective of what the BJP says about putting the mandir issue on the backburner, the party has always supported the issue tacitly. "Why else are they allowing pilgrims to come here? Isn't this an act of encouragement?" says the soft-spoken Telugu gent.

Another view held by a section of mahants and local observers is that the BJP -- essentially Katiyar -- has used the temple issue as a means for political gain. Of the three akharas -- Nirvani, Nirmohi and Digambar -- the first two are irate with Katiyar and the BJP.

Bana Gyan Das the mahant at the Hanumangarhi temple "The VHP, RSS, BJP, all of them have drawn their entity from the mandir -- but now they have dumped the real issue in the trash-can. Just as a bird-catcher uses seeds to lure birds to his net, these people have used Ram's name to pursue their political aims. They eventually deserted him after they achieved what they wanted. If they hadn't been so hasty, the Babri Masjid would have fallen on its own. It was so dilapidated. But they wanted to do the politics of bloodshed. Yes, we would like to have a temple too -- but one that is as pure as milk. We don't to build it over the blood of the slain. Moreover, what business do sadhus have in pursuing politics?" fumes Baba Gyan Das, the mahant at the Hanumangarhi temple.

Hanumangarhi ranks among the three most prestigious temples in Ayodhya. The temple was built on a land grant from Nawab Safdar Jung and remains an important landmark. The friendly Baba Gyan Das, with an AK-47 brandishing security guard at the entrance of his home on the temple premises, sits on a wooden plank and is very forthcoming with his views.

"Katiyar is just fooling the people. They have collected over Rs 200 million for the temple and still say the pillars will take another three years for completion!" The Hanuman bhakt is scathing about the Sangh Parivar's politics of 'vote' and 'note', and reveals that he has evoked wide-ranging criticism for his views.

Present at the first meeting on the temple issue at then prime minister V P Singh's home, he says he pulled out of such meetings subsequently -- and has received some threatening letters as well.

"By their style of politics they have vitiated our temple movement. They have spread hatred. Because of the demolition and the events thereafter, 20 temples in the Ram Janambhoomi premises have closed down. There is only one pujari to look after the Ram Janambhoomi, how can he possibly look after all the other temples there? One big murti of Hanumanji was also damaged. You can see the broken foot, it is still there. This kind of fundamentalism is not Hinduism. If there is no humanity, how can you pursue dharma? They will not build the temple. They'll have no issue then. They are just an organisation of dhongis (fakes)," continues Baba Gyan Das

Seven km away in the twin city of Faizabad, electioneering is damp. A few posters of Katiyar -- who lost last year -- and Congress candidate Nirmal Khatri, a passing Vikas Rath with Sonia's picture are the few campaign indicators. Cycle-rickshaws wrestle for space with the two wheelers...and life goes on in the city where Rajiv Gandhi had once asked votes on the promise of ushering in 'Ram Rajya'.

Eighty-plus Haji Kalim lives in the Muslim neighbourhood of Kasabada. In charge of the Tatshah mosque, Haji Kalim is feeble and talks with great difficulty between asthmatic coughs. Apologising profusely for not being able to offer tea in the absence of his wife, the snow-white bearded, achkan attired Haji Kalim confesses that age and health have restricted him from actively following the Babri Masjid issue.

"We will accept whatever is the court verdict. If they agree to the construction of the mandir, we can't do anything. We are helpless. The BJP also will show more commitment to the issue after it has a majority. Presently, even if Vajpayee is not exploiting the issue, certain others in the fray are. I don't think the court too can decide whether a mosque is justified or a temple. We are getting befooled. Common people are fed up. Tired. Only politicians are interested. Na mandir milega, na masjid..." the haji says.

On the other side of Kasabada is a Hindu colony. Ramesh Kumar, a timber merchant, has lived and worked in the area for years. Referring to the divide between the Hindu and Muslim sections as 'India and Pakistan,' Kumar, however, asserts there is no hostility between the two communities. Meanwhile, in a narrow lane to his left, a burqa-clad woman chats with a sindoor- adorned lady. "We have no problem here. She comes to my house every evening," says the latter. Both of them refuse to give their names and seem irritated with the inquiries.

Reportedly, the flowers offered in the temples of Ayodhya are mostly grown by Muslims. They still make garlands used for the deities. According to Creating A Nationality -- The Ram Janambhoomi Movement and the Fear of Self, 'Until some years ago, the making of the crowns of the gods was the near monopoly of Muslim master craftsmen such as Rahmat Sonar and Nannu Sonar.' Baba Gyan Das informs that some of the shops selling incense, flowers and other puja offerings are still owned by Muslims.

"If Ayodhya has six to seven thousand temples, then there are many mosques here as well," says Shahjehan. Explaining that she got married two years before the demolition, she says the Muslims can never forget the demolition. Shahjehan lives in a joint family, a few metres from another cordoned gate which once led to the Babri Masjid. Her mother-in-law switches off the tape belting out popular Hindi film songs and reveals how many Muslims she knew had fled after the incident. "But our faith is strong. We shall not be moved," says Khairunissa through her betel-stained mouth.

Khairunissa's sons are unemployed. Shahjehan is a qualified teacher and has waited for a government job for years, but is sure she won't get one because there is no money to pay a bribe. Living next door is a Muslim lawyer for the Babri Masjid Action Committee. Says Khairunissa: "Even the demolition hasn't soured relations between the two communities."

Ramchandra Paramhans the mahant of the Digambar akhara A contention that Ramchandra Paramhans, the mahant of the Digambar akhara and a fiery leader of the mandir movement agrees with. The 90-year-old mahant with a whacky sense of humour and a perfect set of teeth is an accomplished talker, airing his views from a high wooden plank as he blessed every passing devotee. "I love good food," smiles the mahant, his mouth hidden behind his bushy beard, "I have gone around the entire country on foot thrice -- but the duration of my halts depends on how delicious the food is."

"We are not going to destroy any other mosques. If that was our intention, we would have destroyed the Jama Masjid. If the Muslims want to build a mosque outside Ayodhya, even the sadhus will be willing to do Kar Seva. The Ram Mandir is the sadhus's movement. Some 76 battles have been fought for the Ram Janambhoomi, we destroyed the masjid at the 77th attempt. The mandir will definitely be built. Irrespective of the court, or the political compulsions. It takes time to build, than to destroy..." says Ramchandra Paramhans.

Paramhans -- known for his active involvement in the VHP movement and his support for the BJP, especially during election campaigns -- does not mince words about his role. How he has been invited by almost all prime ministers to Delhi by "aeroplane." How political bigwigs call on him. And how sadhus need to be involved in politics to ensure that good people come into governance. Yet, the sadhu from Bihar -- and before that from Multan in 1947 -- does not fail to add smartly: "If there was no mandir, I wouldn't have a mission -- so I am doing this for my personal satisfaction too."

With two big VHP stickers on his door, Paramhans takes time off to direct every incoming devotee to the lunch hall. Screaming across the courtyard in a powerful voice to announce their arrival to the cooks inside. Another assistant is asked to organise samosas and ladoos for a politician who was to visit him in the evening.

"If you say that the mandir is being used for political mileage, then those who are opposing it are also doing for their propaganda. If the BJP gets a majority then the temple will be built. Moreover, the BJP has never had the temple on its agenda. It is for us to follow this and make it come through. Nothing can stop this from happening. Not even Vajpayee..." continues Paramhans.

Further from the Digambar akhara is the Nirmohi akhara. Run down, with three sadhus at the entrance -- the overgrown courtyard within leads to the verandah where snores Mahant Jaggannath. Deep in his afternoon siesta, the pot-bellied mahant is a light sleeper and sits up on his spartan bed. A rickety fan, a pack of Panama Filters and a Philips radio, the few signs of modernity surrounding him. The mahant, who joined the akhara in 1963 is deeply disturbed by the sidelining of his akhara in the Ram Janambhoomi disupute.

Jaggannath says the disputed land belongs to the Nirmohi akhara, and hence the responsibility of building the temple rests on them. "It belongs to us, but the money for the mandir is being collected by Paramhans and company," he says and stays clear of making any comments about Katiyar or the dilution of the BJP's Hindutva policy. The mahant also reveals that his akhara had fallen on rough times and that was a reason for its reduced membership currently.

"The VHP has projected us as enemies of Hindus. In fact we have been fighting for the mandir for the last 114 years. The VHP/BJP picked it up from us and the Ram Mandir made it possible for the BJP to reach power. It is not possible for the BJP to win or survive without the Mandir."

Seven years after the demolition, the Muslims in Ayodhya-Faizabad seem almost assured that the Mandir-Masjid issue will not see a solution in the near future. Some, like their Hindu counterparts, reveal that they are tired of the controversy and do not think much about the likely outcome. That the business of living is more important than a temple or a mosque. The 4,000 Muslims in Faizabad predominantly work as labourers and in small businesses.

Syed Iqlag Ahmed Latifi, imam of the 400-year-old Alamgiri Masjid at the Ayodhya-Faizabad border, is certain the Hindus are more upset with the BJP than the Muslims. "The BJP had promised them a temple and have failed to fulfill it," says the imam, who lives near an old Muslim graveyard, a stone's throw from another cordoned gate.

"The Mandir has not been an issue in this election because anything that continues for a long period of time loses its relevance. I don't think building a temple is all that easy. Destroying a structure is easier than building one. Power is more important than a temple, the BJP knows that. The Mandir-Masjid case has been dragging in the courts for 40, 45 years. If they did find any proof of the existence of a mandir, it wouldn't have continued so long. If the temple is built, on what issue will the BJP survive on?" laughs the imam.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid and the controversy over the site is a watershed in Indian politics, but the twin cities of Ayodhya and Faizabad have come a long way since.

Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

The Rediff Election Specials

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