Twenty five years ago, on this day, a medieval-era mosque was razed to the ground in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The more than 100,000 Hindu activists who gathered at the behest of the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the BJP and the Bajrang Dal believed that the mosque (known as the Babri Masjid) had been erected at the exact spot where Rama, a Hindu god was born.
In the wake of the demolition of the mosque, thousands (more than 2,000 by some estimates) of Hindus and Muslims killed each other in riots that erupted in several towns and cities across the country [though the maximum casualty was from the minority community]. The Bombay serial blasts of 1993 was also a fallout of the communal violence following the demolition. Ayodhya, too witnessed large-scale rioting by Kar Sevaks (volunteers) who were egged on by godmen assembled under the banners of the VHP. One of them, Acharya Dharmendra, a now well-known hate-speech expert, was heard justifying the burning of Muslim homes by saying that this is the only way to make Ayodhya a "Hindu Vatican".
Today, Ayodhya, historically a place that drew to itself renouncers and seekers belonging to Hindu sects, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism, is overwhelmingly Hindu - more than 93 per cent of its population of 55,000 people identify themselves as Hindus, according to the 2011 Census. But, despite the exodus after 1992, many Muslims returned to stay in the place of their birth, and continue to live here.
In fact, many of the previously abandoned mosques have been renovated. Ayodhya has also become one of the most paramilitarised places in the country since 1992, and regular security drills and barricading are now part of the daily life of the residents. "We are quite fed up of the regular frisking and checking by the police in our own neighbourhoods," says Ramprakash Chaurasia, a local pan-seller. The temple at Rama’s birthplace itself, consists of a canvass tent pitched on the debris of the Babri mosque, it arguably is the most-guarded temple in the country where visitors undergo four rounds of frisking.
In 2005, five terrorists, allegedly belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba were killed by the security forces when they tried to storm their way into the shrine using grenade launchers and assault rifles. Since then, the security at the disputed shrine and in the town has grown to make it look like a garrison. Every year, on December 6, Ayodhya is thrown under an extra thick security blanket, visitors, pilgrims and residents alike are frisked and their vehicles checked.
On this day, the Muslims of the region mark it with a customary "mourning" while at the VHP office at another end of the town, Hindu activists celebrate it as "Valour Day".
'Ram lalla, hum aayenge mandir wahin banayenge (Lord Rama, we will build the temple only on that spot)'
Construction of a grand Ram temple as promised by the RSS and its offshoots like the VHP and BJP is still a pipe-dream as the case pertaining to the ownership of the land where Babri mosque stood is pending in the Supreme Court. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the demolition, the Sunni Waqf Board through its lawyer, Kapil Sibal who is also a leader of the Congress, unsuccessfully pleaded the court to postpone the hearing of the case until after the 2019 General Elections.
The next hearing will be now held on February 8, 2018. The Sunni Waqf Board argued that the Ram temple-Babri moque issue is being used to influence elections in Gujarat as well as other states. The local representative of the Sunni Waqf Board in Ayodhya, Khalik Ahmed Khan, says, "We don’t want the court to let it become a political or a religious issue. It is a property dispute and nothing else. In the given political situation in the country we fear the Supreme Court too is not impervious to external pressure."
This sudden demand to defer the case is being projected as an admission of the weakness of the Sunni Waqf Board’s own arguments, according to Mahant Ram Das of the Nirmohi Akhara, one of the oldest litigants in the case. “If their case was strong enough why would they want to postpone the hearing, it means they are afraid they will lose as they have no evidence," says Ram Das.
It’s shadow-boxing as it wasn’t only the Muslim parties led by the Sunni Wafq Board that had opposed the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict. The Nirmohi Akhara and several other Hindu parties had appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court. The Allahabad High Court in its 2010 judgment had instead of deciding who was the owner of the disputed site had resorted to a three-way award settlement in which it awarded two-thirds of the land to Hindu parties and the remaining one-third to the Sunni Waqf Board.
It is an undeniable truth that the highly fortified disputed site known as the "Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex" is touted as the "promised land" and is used by the BJP to whip up emotions among Hindus during election time.
The BJP had successfully used the desecration of a "Ram (idol) inside a mosque" to become the single-largest opposition party in the 1989 elections when it won more than 80 seats (from just two seats in 1984) in the Lok Sabha. Since then, it has masterfully harnessed the religiosity of the majority Hindus to become India’s largest party with governments in several states, including Uttar Pradesh, as well as at the Centre.
In a way, the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque also marks the 25th anniversary of the "construction of a Hindu vote bank", which was also a slogan that was painted all over Ayodhya in the months leading up to the demolition in 1992.
However, it is for the first time that there are BJP majority governments at the Centre as well as in Uttar Pradesh. Because, in the past two decades, the BJP may have expanded in new territories, including south and east India, in UP, it for the first time that it has formed a government on its own. The last BJP government to rule UP was in 1992 when the mosque was demolished with the alleged tacit backing of the then chief minister, Kalyan Singh. It is this past of the BJP, which along with the violent assertion of Hindu vigilantes over beef-eating and cattle-smuggling is making the Muslims wary.
Tarik, a 23-year-old taxi-driver, says, "I have never seen a BJP government, so for me, it is very difficult to accept the kind of restrictions that the state government is imposing on us. Forget Buffalo meat, we can’t eat chicken meat or even eggs during Hindu festivals like Durga puja." A common concern for both Hindus and Muslim youth like Tarik who often leave the region for cities like Delhi and Mumbai to do odd jobs are the dim employment prospects in the district.
While political parties who used the Ayodhya card for electoral gains have moved far and wide, the town and its residents have remained stuck in a development limbo. Except a biscuit factory, some brick kilns, and one-room manufacturing units, the towns have no industry to boast of.
In the past 25 years, Ayodhya and its parent district Faizabad have remained stuck in time in other respects too. The latest National Family Health Survey conducted by the government of India, recorded that half of the children here are stunted and malnourished. More than 60 per cent of them are anemic and so are the women of the district.
The chronic poverty that plagues Lord Rama’s city also reflected in news reports of women and children taking away the unburnt oil from the thousands of lamps that were lit at Ayodhya for the UP government’s much-publicised Diwali celebrations.
Faizabad also remains of one of the 200 high-burden districts identified by the government of India as part of a programme to address maternal and child malnutrition.
But none of it matters to the majority of the Hindus of the region who root for the construction of a Ram temple, now more than ever. The presence of BJP governments at the Centre and the state is for them a sign of God’s own intent to get the temple constructed and the oft-heard refrain with regard to the temple is, “if not now, then never”.
It is sort of a fait accompli that the local Muslims too are well aware of. "We just want the dispute to be decided by the court in a free and fair manner. Whether the judgment is in our favour or against us, if not justice, at least there will be some closure," says Tarik.