Residents of Ayodhya remember the years from 1989 to 1992 representing repeated invasions by ‘kar-sevaks’, police firing resulting in deaths, and the final culmination in the awful event of the demolition on December 6, 1992. During the years I lived in Faizabad-Ayodhya, from 2008 to 2011, it became clear to me that the announced activities and events of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had little or no local support. Instead, the same small coterie of supporters was always visible at their events, just as I noticed on the small screen at the recent ‘Shila Poojan.’
Does the ‘shila poojan’ by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, presently heading the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, signify a return to those orchestrated rituals that defined the movement for a temple at Ayodhya? Though a movement of that scale seems unlikely to repeat itself today, there is enough to suggest that preparations for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2017 have begun in earnest. It would help us to look at the ‘shila poojan’ in the context of how Hindutva groups have mobilised people here in the past two years.
In recent years, Durga Puja had emerged as a potential focus of communal tensions. Riots following a Durga Puja procession in 2012 led to nearly a hundred shops and businesses of the minority community being torched in Faizabad chowk, at the centre of the town. This was notwithstanding the fact that the district administration had taken note of the increasing use of Durga Puja pandals for communal mobilisation, and had banned the installation of new pandals all the way back in 2009. The provocation for the riots in 2012 – a minor incident involving a young girl who was part of the procession – only served to precipitate the mood set by prior events involving some by now well-known political actors.The idol at Devkali temple, where Sri Rama and his brothers are said to have had their tonsure or ‘mundan’ ceremony, was stolen some weeks before the festival. Yogi Adityanath, MP from Gorakhpur promptly came to Faizabad and made speeches in which he, while directing the local administration to act with all haste against the culprits, repeatedly implied that it must have been members of the minority community who had stolen the idols. The gang of thieves, later caught on the Indo-Nepal border, were found to be antique-smugglers; all of them Hindus. This factual inconvenience notwithstanding, the 2012 riots in Faizabad succeeded in casting Yogi Adityanath as a fresh icon among groups of young men in the region, especially after the likes of Vinay Katiyar had stopped visiting as often as during the 1990s.
It is these groups who announced the celebration of December 6 as ‘bhagwa diwas’ or saffron day from 2014, and designed a logo for the same. Whatsapp messages were sent to Faizabad residents weeks in advance last year, asking them to raise the saffron flag on their homes and buildings. This was the first anniversary of the Babri demolition that was to be celebrated after the BJP had gained such a big majority, and their supporters probably felt the need for a new image. The BJP leadership however frowned on these efforts and nipped them in the bud last year itself, before they became an established tradition; the state head, Laxmikant Vajpeyi, made official statements disowning the occasion. Rather than any disowning of the ‘saffron’ tag or the iconic triangular flag, this was because December 6 has always been celebrated by the VHP as ‘shauryata diwas’ or valour day after December 1992.
The abortive attempt to establish ‘bhagwa diwas’ in Faizabad-Ayodhya last year can be seen as the inevitable skirmishes between competitive strands of Hindutva over this symbolically rich land. The followers of Yogi Adityanath wanted to stand up and be counted, as do the volunteers of the Hindu Mahasabha, who took out a procession on December 5, 2014 – ostensibly to campaign for the Saket Degree College student body elections but also to shout slogans straight out of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Local residents and Ayodhya old-hands are justifiably skeptical of these repeated instances of Hindutva bravado. “They have to return to their agenda because of what is happening to them election after election,” says senior journalist K.P Singh, a resident of Ayodhya. “The Modi factor seems to be fading, the development lure seems to be finding less takers, in such circumstances the mandir seems the most dependable item to focus on.” After the Bihar election results, such moves were inevitable, he feels. Nritya Gopal Das’s personal desire to be counted as a force for the mandir in his final years, particularly after the passing of Ashok Singhal, is also an important factor to be considered. Singh however does not see this move as something that can lead to any immediate construction efforts.
Locals striving to be heard
Alongside the din of persisting contestation over Ayodhya that is internal to the Hindu right, there are repeated attempts by local residents to have their own voices heard. Some of these take the form of formal litigation. While the title suit of Ayodhya, and its’ oldest litigant Hashim Ansari’s appeal for the government to take stern action against the ‘shila poojan’ are well known, there are other, lesser known cases that are in many ways equally significant. “The case my father Hari Dayal Mishra and other petitioners have filed against the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas in 2003 is still being heard in Faizabad court,” says Nitin Mishra, an advocate who practices in Lucknow and Faizabad. “We had asked for the Nyas to give an account of all the money spent on stones and construction materials from the crores of rupees collected from people all over the country. Further, the case also demands the dismissal of the office bearers of the Nyas if financial irregularities in the disbursal of the funds are found. And finally, it demands for the dissolution of the Nyas as a body whose objectives have become redundant in the light of the court orders and constitutional provisions.” It is clear that there is local discontent with the overarching Hindutva agenda of a Ram mandir, which perhaps predictably, is rarely reflected in newspaper headlines.
Local opponents of the Hindutva agenda have however been more successful in other parts of UP. Richa Singh, the first woman Student Union President of the 128 year old Allahabad University, elected as an independent, recently went on a hunger strike in protest against plans for Yogi Adityanath to speak at the university. These plans were drawn up by the other office members of the student union, all members of the ABVP. Her actions prompted Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to intervene, and the speech was cancelled by the local administration. This has, in turn, had an impact on the region as a whole. For instance, regardless of the posturing of the Hindu Mahasabha in last year’s student elections in Faizabad, no student wings of Hindutva organisations have come forward to make any pro-mandir statements following the ‘shila poojan’. “They are justifiably nervous after what happened at Allahabad,” says Vineet Maurya, a social activist. “They know they cannot hijack student politics for their ends at will.”Of course, symbolic gestures from both sides are often what feed the communal cauldron, and these are not lacking at the local level in Ayodhya too. After the ‘shila poojan’, the ‘barah wafaat’ procession through Faizabad on December 23, 2015 on the eve of Eid Milad-un-Nabi saw an exceptionally large outpouring of women. “Not only was the presence of women modelled on the Durga Puja processions of recent years, many of the processionists carried picture placards showing the Babri Masjid – something that they have avoided doing for years,” says Vineet.
In the midst of heated contestations within the Hindutva establishment and their attempts at communal polarisation, nothing is changing in Faizabad-Ayodhya. Physical conditions remain as gruelling in winter – for humans, cows and the legions of monkeys around the temples. The sewer line being laid between the twin towns is of 10” wide pipes. Symptomatic of an anaemic approach to serious issues of health and well-being, these are not likely to bear the load even for a few years, let alone decades. As for the political sabre-rattling? Things are not changing at the level of physical reality, but the exchange of symbolic messages is continuing – and is being watched and registered by both Hindus and Muslims in the region.
Scharada Dubey is author of Portraits from Ayodhya: Living India’s Contradictions (2012)