For Ayodhya residents, peace more important than Ram temple; Hindus, Muslims resent extremists threatening communal harmony

Like every other resident of Ayodhya, all that Gulnaz yearns for is an end to the communal frenzy that the Hindutva activists keep stoking. "Every day we sleep with a fear of redux of 1992 when our brothers and sisters were killed in the communal riots which broke out after the demolition of the Babri mosque."

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Ayodhya: "Ayodhya's communal harmony is exemplary and should be an ideal for the world to follow." This is what Gulnaaz Begum, 33, has to say as she sips her tea in the garden outside her home, located at a stone's throw away from the disputed site. Humming along the Hindu religious songs blaring from a loudspeaker in a nearby temple, she says, "I know more Hindu devotional songs than hymns about my religion." Yet, she doesn't want her children to live and grow up in Ayodhya and has bought some land outside the town.

Ayodhya has been the epicenter of the Sangh parivar's temple politics. In November 2018, a religious get together held by the Vishwa Hindu Parisad (VHP) saw saints and seers converging on the town in thousands. They urged the government to fix a date to start the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site.

But as a large number of Hindu devotees thronged Ayodhya, many Muslims left the town out of fear.

Gulnaz Begum's fears emerge slowly. "We feel like we are living in a conflict zone. There is an uneasy calm amongst the Muslim community whenever a large number of people come to the town on the call of a political or religious leader and we have to close our shops," said Gulnaz, whose husband runs a garment shop in Faizabad district, now renamed Ayodhya. "I want to provide a safe and secure environment for my children."

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Like every other resident of Ayodhya, all that Gulnaz yearns for is an end to the communal frenzy that the Hindutva activists keep stoking. "Every day we sleep with a fear of redux of 1992 when our brothers and sisters were killed in the communal riots which broke out after the demolition of the Babri mosque."

"But let me praise the police," she adds quickly. "We have the support of the Hindu community and though the BJP has done great work on the development front, they should avoid saying anything which can disrupt the communal harmony of the town."

The town remains a powder keg as Hindutva fringe groups keep stirring the communal cauldron by constantly demanding a quick decision by the BJP central government on construction of a grand Ram Temple. Some of these groups go to the extent of threatening to start the construction on their own, if the government does not accept their demands.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and their ilk claim that the site where the mosque was built, was once a Ram temple which was torn down by the Mughal rulers.

However, one little publicised fact is that the Supreme Court had tasked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to excavate the area surrounding the mosque to try and establish if this was indeed true. The ASI’s findings, which were made public, was that a temple had existed on the site over which the mosque was built. But the ASI report did not specify if it was a Ram temple, as the RSS and other Hindutva groups insist. If anything, the ASI report indicates that it was probably a Shiva temple.

True, for decades till it was pulled down, the mosque was rarely used and bore a deserted look at most times. On Independence Day, 1947, the Babri Masjid had been a sparsely used mosque managed by the Waqf board. But, on 22 December, 1949 it suddenly became a 'temple', when an idol of Ram Lalla mysteriously appeared inside the mosque. The decrepit mosque structure had remained till its demolition in 1992. And a makeshift Ram temple was quickly built on the land owned by the Nirmohi Akhara near the mosque.

Since then, first the Allahabad High Court and now the Supreme Court has been grappling with a raft of petitions over the ownership of the land on which the mosque once stood. The courts have the insurmountable task to decide whether a Ram temple existed there before the mosque was built, and who would own the land and manage the new Ram temple if and when it got built.

The main petitioners are the Nirmohi Akhara, claimants to the temple land, the Sunni Waqf Board, the custodians of the Babri Masjid, and surprisingly, Lord Ram Lalla himself, who was accepted as a petitioner by the Allahabad High Court.

The Supreme Court had subsequently decided to combine all petitions challenging the previous high court order, and new ones filed on one or another related charge and have one hearing for all. After a number of delays, the Supreme Court has now set up a Constitution Bench, headed by the chief justice, which will decide on 5 March whether the dispute should be referred to a court-appointed mediator. 

Meanwhile, on one hand the Centre avers that it will not take any decision till the court gives a final verdict. On the other hand, it asked the Supreme Court to hand over two-thirds of the land acquired by the government post the dispute, to its original owner the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas — the trust overseeing the Ram temple building plan.

And as campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections gains momentum, the demand for a speedy decision on the construction of the new temple is being ratcheted up again, by people like Acharya Satendra Jain, the court-appointed chief priest of the makeshift Ram Temple.

"The BJP is not in any mood to construct the temple," says the Acharya.  "They are just playing with the faith of people. It was one of their main promises in 2014, they could have done something since they are in power in Centre and also in the state but not a single step was taken. The government is just fooling everyone. I am going to make a boycott call against the BJP very soon in the coming elections. If saints and people can bring you to power then they can uproot you as well," added Jain.

But Jain's views are at odds with that of the local residents, many of whom are miffed with the repeated imposition of Section 144, every time the Hindu groups decide to hold a congregation. Like Chunky Pandey, 43, a local shopkeeper at the Saryu Ghat (river bank) who echoed much of what Gulnaz Begum expressed.

"The first thing the government should do is ban provocative speeches and slogans," said Pandey. "This is not just affecting the other section (Muslims) but also affecting us as we have to close our shops from fear of violence, ransacking and riots. It is the will of God that nothing unfortunate has happened in the last decade but tension prevails and we live in fear. You construct the temple and I will also contribute in the construction but please stop making Hindu-Muslim statements," he said.

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Everyone is now looking up to the Supreme Court to resolve the issue. Iqbal Ansari, the chief petitioner on behalf of the Babri mosque says that he believes in the Constitution and will obey whatever the Supreme Court of India orders. However, he sets a rider, "The apex court should also observe how attempts are being made to disrupt communal harmony and should prohibit any kind of provocative activity in the town," said Ansari. "I do not have any problem with the BJP and would say that they have done a lot for the Ayodhya. I would have both temple and mosque constructed here and end this dispute."

But electoral compulsions have their own dynamic. Political commentator JP Shukla is convinced that the stakes are higher for the BJP in the coming elections and the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya will again be a big campaign plank. "It is one of those issues which can bring you to power but it is not going to be easy as the BJP did nothing in the last five years and now people are understanding that this poll promise was nothing more than a jumla."

Yet, in the end, as Shukla said, "for the citizens of Ayodhya, the only resolution is peace and nothing else”.

The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and State Editor, 101Reporters


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