By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
The road from Faizabad to Ayodhya is thick with bikes, cars, horses, rickshaws, and vegetable stalls. Goats graze in the roadside mud.
Ayodhya itself bears few of the hallmarks of the economic expansion that has transformed other Indian towns and cities. The streets are wide, lined with two- or three-story houses of green, blue and yellow. Narrow lanes lead to ashrams: compounds behind walls where the faithful congregate.
There is no noticeable business development or new construction because, locals say, of the Babri Masjid controversy and the heavy security presence in town. Rather, there is an air of history and decrepit permanence. The tops of temples form the skyline.
“We want schools, hospitals, factories and mills so that the unemployed people get jobs,” said Mohammad Aminullah Khan, 22 years old, who drives a small van for a living. “We want a peaceful resolution to this dispute.”
As they have for centuries, bearded Sadhus wander in small groups through town. So do pilgrims, who arrive in throngs for festivals. At the bus depot, sheets of saffron – a colour considered holy in Hinduism — hang from buses packed with the aged.
Women in saris visit street-side stalls full of the paraphernalia of devotion: small food for offering and sacred threads, bells, and lamps. Cows lope and monkeys scamper through the crowds.
At the main intersections, there are barriers and armed police in brown uniforms, part of an extensive security plan throughout the town.
Down one street there is a large compound of trees, lawns and low buildings. A sign at the entrance reads: “Karsevakpuram,” place of the “Karsevaks,” or volunteers. It is run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the organization that mobilized support for a temple to Lord Ram at the place where many Hindus believe he was born.
Inside the compound, in a small building, is a model of the temple that the VHP wants to build where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished on Dec. 6, 1992. Acting as custodian and tour guide is Hajari Lal, the activist who said he climbed on a dome of the mosque before it collapsed that day.
He leads visitors around the model of “Sri Ram Janma Bhumi Mandir,” the Birthplace Temple. The temple, said Mr. Lal, will have 212 pillars of sandstone and 51,000 electric lights. He added: “We will build a grand temple on the entire land.”
The pillars for the temple lie on the ground at a nearby park, which has become an Ayodhya tourist attraction. Stonemasons chip away at the sandstone, brought from Rajasthan. Some pillars have been lying there for two decades.
Behind an information desk hangs a large poster. It shows a portrait of Guru Dutt Singh. He was the city magistrate of Faizabad who played a major role in installing a statue of Ram in the Babri Masjid on Dec. 22, 1949, according to his son. It is the same picture that hangs in his family’s living room today.
Under the portrait, it reads, in Hindi: “The one who on Dec. 23, 1949, showed his determination and courage when Lord Ram appeared in Ramjanmabhoomi,” the Hindu name for the site. It notes that when Mr. Singh was ordered to remove the idol by “the Delhi government that trod on the fatal path of Muslim appeasement,” he resigned instead. “He lives with his immortal legacy among countless Hindus as a result of this courageous work,” it adds. It says Mr. Singh lived from 1894 till 1971.
Not far away, Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the Muslim tailor who has been involved in the legal dispute over the site since 1950, spends his days in a small blue house across from an open piece of land where there is a 24-hour armed police guard assigned for his protection.
Mr. Ansari, now 92 years old, speaks in angry tones. He points and pokes, staring intently. There is a painting of the Babri Masjid on the wall of his home.
“We have had very dirty politics in our country in the name of mosque and temple,” he said.
The central government today controls the site of the ruins of the Babri Masjid and its surroundings. It is protected by a high, yellow, steel fence. On an average day, a few thousand Hindu devotees visit the makeshift temple that was established after the mosque’s destruction in 1992. There has been no provision for Muslim worship at the site since late 1949.
To reach it, you walk into a small portico with a security checkpoint. Scattered around the police there are confiscated wares: pens, notebooks, cameras, lighters. A passageway then runs for about 50 yards beside the yellow perimeter fence. Above is a watchtower and a CCTV camera on a lamppost.
Security personnel, part of a contingent of more than 2000, are posted behind sandbags and concrete barriers. After another security check, you enter a green metal caged walkway, about 10 feet high and four feet wide, with a concrete floor. It is perhaps 200 yards long. After a slight rise, you make a final left turn and a sign announces: “For Viev of the Diety.”
Up a flight of 10 steps, about 15 yards away, behind the flaps of a white tent, you can make out a small, gold-covered object surrounded by lavish curtains. It is the idol of Ram Lalla, the infant god. The tent’s canvas is water-proof, fire-proof and bullet-proof, according to the temple’s head priest. The faithful – women in saris, children, some men, sadhus in saffron – create a small bottleneck as they strain for a glimpse of the statue. Then the walkway leads you away and out.
One woman, as she left the site one recent day, asked a policeman: “Where is the temple?”
“What’s important,” he said philosophically, “is not what is seen but what is unseen.”
In the political arena, there has been no decisive winner from the dispute.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which championed the construction of a Ram temple in 1989, came to power in New Delhi in successive coalition governments in the late-1990s.
But its coalition partners, uninterested or opposed to the BJP’s position on Ayodhya, made it clear that building a temple was not to be on the agenda. And the party lost the last two general elections, in 2004 and 2009, to the Congress party, headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia.
The canvas temple standing at the site today, hastily erected on Dec. 6, 1992, is testament to the fact that the cause of construction hasn’t advanced in two decades.
Neither the BJP nor Congress, which also sought to use the temple movement for electoral gain in the 1980s, has been able to muster a simple majority in Parliament since Ayodhya became a political issue.
In part that’s because the dispute fragmented the electorate, fueling the rise of powerful political alternatives such as the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh and the party of Nitish Kumar, chief minister in the neighbouring state of Bihar.
Both have wide support among Muslims, who have become an influential voting bloc, especially in northern India. As a result, the nation will be governed by diverse coalitions in New Delhi for the foreseeable future.
Lal Krishna Advani and several other leaders of the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are facing trial in a special criminal court on a range of charges brought by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the national investigative agency. The charges include inciting communal violence on the day the mosque was demolished.
Several Hindu activists are also separately facing trial in a criminal court for their alleged involvement in the demolition. A lawyer representing the leaders and the activists says all deny the charges; the cases continue.
Kalyan Singh, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — the state where Ayodhya is located — at the time the Babri Masjid was demolished, resigned when the mosque fell. He became the state’s chief minister again for two years in late 1990s, heading a coalition government.
But the BJP’s overall performance in Uttar Pradesh has declined consistently in the five state elections since the demolition. Today, Mr. Singh is an independent member in the national Parliament. He says he accepts responsibility for the demolition of the mosque.
Nor has a mosque been rebuilt on the site where the Babri Masjid stood. That has angered many Muslims, who blame the Congress party for what they view as ambivalence over the issue stretching back all the way to 1949 when the idol was first installed in the mosque.
Today, as they have since 1949, Hindus remain in control of a place that Muslims have considered sacred for almost 500 years, though many Hindus argue it was sacred to them for thousands of years before that.
The 2010 verdict by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court which divided the site of the mosque and the surrounding land into three parts left all litigants dissatisfied.
The Supreme Court in New Delhi admitted their appeals and has ordered the digitization of tens of thousands of documents. The papers, many of which are in Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian, will have to be translated, the court said. There is no indication when hearings may start; a verdict may yet be years away.
Aside from Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the Muslim tailor, all the individual litigants involved in the original filings are dead.
Bhaskar Das remains the legal representative of the Nirmohi Akhara, the sadhus who say they have traditionally protected Ram. He is the third head of the order to represent the sect in the suit. Now 85 years old, he is suffering from an assortment of medical ailments. He spends his days chanting Ram’s name.
Otherwise, a new generation is taking up the fight.
After the death in 2002 of Deoki Nandan Agarwal, who served as Ram’s “next friend” in one of the Hindu suits, Triloki Nath Pandey, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist, became Ram’s new “next friend.”
“If Muslims have to stay in this country, they have to respect the feelings of Hindus,” Mr. Pandey, 67 years old, said in an interview.
Neelendra Singh, 40 years old, is the son of Rajendra Singh and the grandson of Gopal Singh Visharad, the man who filed the first suit in the legal battle in 1950.
“I plan to represent my father in this case after him but hope the case is decided within my father’s lifetime,” Neelendra Singh said. He works as an insurance agent in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.
Mohammed Waquar, 35 years old, is the son of Haji Mahboob Ahmad and grandson of Haji Phenku, one of the original Muslim defendants.
Mr. Waquar recently returned to Ayodhya from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for a multinational company. He says he will take up the court case when the time comes.
“As a Muslim, I know what Masjid means to me,” he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Shakti Singh, the grandson of Guru Dutt Singh, the Faizabad city magistrate in 1949, said he hopes to be a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate for Parliament at the next elections, scheduled for 2014.
If Mr. Singh, 52 years old, runs for office, he said he will campaign to build a Ram temple at the site: “It’s a responsibility for me to complete the task that my grandfather started.”
As the battle is picked up by a new generation, we asked Swaminathan Gurumurthy, the chartered accountant who was involved in a 1990 effort to negotiate a solution, what he thought Lord Ram would make of the dispute’s seemingly endless spiral.
“It is very simple: Ram will think, ‘This is the way of the world,’” Mr. Gurumurthy said. “He couldn’t do much about it. He can’t correct human nature.”
Can Ayodhya again ignite the nation?
Until it is solved one way or the other, the dispute will retain some potency.
Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad said in an interview that Hindus could be mobilized to the cause in an instant – then he snapped his fingers on both hands.
Around Ayodhya, communal tensions still flare from time to time. In October in neighbouring Faizabad, Hindus and Muslims clashed during the annual Hindu ritual of Dussehra. Two people died, according to the Faizabad district magistrate. One was Hindu, one was Muslim.
Still, India is a very different country today than it was 20 years ago. It is living an era of rapid economic expansion, focusing younger Indians in particular on the pursuit of prosperity rather than historical divisions. Culturally, the country is less hidebound by its past, too.
“We are all in a hurry, particularly the younger generation,” said Arif Mohammed Khan, the minister who resigned from Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1986. “They want India to transform into America at the earliest.”
And in a nation of 1.2 billion that is about 80% Hindu, the majority has not consistently run roughshod over Islam or any of India’s other religions – as it could potentially have done given the country’s feeble law-enforcement apparatus and Ayodhya’s appeal to Hindu nationalists.
In 1991, the government enacted a law that made it illegal to change the character of a place of worship to another religion. The act exempted only the Babri Masjid.
The law was a victory for Akshaya Brahmachari, the Sadhu who had opposed the installation of the Ram idol in the mosque in 1949. He was instrumental in persuading politicians in New Delhi to bring the legislation. Mr. Brahmachari died in 2010.
That’s not to say that all India’s citizens have equal access to economic, educational or political opportunities. But the movement that at one time aggressively asserted its dominance over a minority community has lost much of its popular appeal and momentum.
“The country has learned so much, it has gone so beyond these emotions that there will be nothing very serious” whenever the Supreme Court’s verdict over the site comes, said Zafaryab Jilani, the lead lawyer for Muslims in the court case. “It will be the country which will win; it will be the country which will lose, if at all.”
In that, India’s secular nature has, for now, prevailed. That required many Hindus to reject the inflammatory and divisive nature of the Ayodhya dispute, either out of fatigue, disillusionment with politicians, or a sense — set deep in the religion’s spiritual traditions — that it is wrong to destroy another’s house of worship.
“The soul of India was retrieved by the Hindus who refused to go along with the desecration of this place of worship that was not in their own community,” said Mani Shankar Aiyar, Rajiv Gandhi’s special assistant. “For Hindus, all places of worship are divine.”
Every day, a small team of priests at the makeshift temple cares for the idol of Ram Lalla and other statues that have been added since 1949.
The first priest arrives at around 5:30 a.m. He opens the temple curtain then chants, “Gods, wake up, wake up!” He rings a small bell and puts the idols in a sitting position.
He changes their overnight clothes, bathes them with flower perfume, water and sandalwood, and dresses them. There is clothing of different colours for each day. He places a tilak, or holy mark, on their foreheads then a silver crown on their heads before offering them sacred smoke from burning incense sticks. After, he presents them with a breakfast of “peda,” a sweet made of milk. Lamps are lit. Hymns are sung.
A few hours later, Mahant Satyendra Das, the chief priest, leaves his house and is driven in an SUV to the site. He bows at the temple’s entrance and gently touches the floor of the wooden platform where the idols sit. He takes some sandalwood, adds a dab of water, and puts a mark on his own forehead.
He lights incense and waves the stick in a circular motion around the idols, singing: “From the heart of God is the moon, the sun is from His eyes, the wind and the life are from His ears and the fire is from His mouth.”
He chants silently until more food is brought for the deities. Then the idols have a 90-minute nap.
Shortly after sunset, another priest offers evening food and puts the deities to sleep. He places them horizontally and removes their crowns. He gives them cotton pillows to rest on and tucks them in under small blankets.
Then the priest draws the curtain closed.
URL of Chapter One of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-one/d/9534
URL of Chapter Two of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-two/d/9553
URL of Chapter Three of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-three/d/9567
URL of Chapter Four of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-four/d/9574
URL of Chapter Five of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-five/d/9596