खबर लहरिया English On the Road to Perdition

On the Road to Perdition

Khabar Lahariya mingles with the small business owners of Ayodhya who man the street that leads upto the controversial site, on the 26th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition

“If it were upto me, and I speak for my Muslim brothers here, the temple would’ve been built by now.”

Babu Khan, proprietor of Babu Tailors in Ayodhya, one of the many peopling the bustling market leading upto the controversial site where the Babri mosque was destroyed 26 years ago, speaks in a calm, if resigned tone. “I want to see it. I want to see the temple in my lifetime. It should be built.”

A few paces down from Babu Tailors, Shatrugan Lal, who runs a shop selling puja essentials, holds up a prized possession – a photograph he has kept with him carefully. A black and white picture of the mosque as it was before kar sevaks descended on it in 1992. He has titled it ‘Shri Ram Janm Bhoomi, Dated Oct 30, 1990’, and says, warped historian-like, “This is to show successive generations the origins of our Ram janm bhoomi, how it all began, our itihaas.”

In Ayodhya of 2018– some would argue in India of 2018 – there is room only for selective nostalgia when it comes to documentation – the kinds that metamorphoses quickly into re-writing and/or altering history. “It’s become Ayodhya from Faizabad, hasn’t it? That itself shows us all that the temple will be built now, very soon. Changing of names should tell you that.” Ramesh Kumar, a 20-something youth shooting the breeze with his pals in the streets outside the market, alludes to the re-naming drive that Yogi Adityanath has been on, even as he claims to have read into the signs of his Chief Minister quite clearly.

“If they wanted to build the temple, don’t you think they would have done it by now? People elected this government and Modi ji in particular, assuming that it would be done in his time in office.” Praveen Soni is cynical, or simply clued-in, you could say, “The only reason it’s heating up again now is that ab toh last ka time aa gaya hai. His tenure is almost over and the elections are around the corner. This is why, once again, in the name of votes and politics, the entire issue is being raked up again.”

Soni doesn’t differ much with the analysts sitting far away from the din of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chanting through the grounds – who speak of vote-bank politics too, nestled inside plush news rooms in Delhi and Noida. During the Hindu Mahasabha, organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on November 26, Ayodhya had turned into an ocean of saffron, almost overnight. Buses and trucks drove into Ayodhya, from Banda, Chitrakoot, Mahoba, where we watched late night, distanced by the alpha male – read inebriated – dissonant energy, and yet pulled towards it, being the reporters we are. Similar reports came in from across several other districts of U.P., where volunteers (or devotees if you will) came into Ayodhya for the sabha, by the truck-loads. “We want the temple now”, they screamed into journalists’ cameras, not needing lapel mics, “Enough of Modi’s mann ki baat, now the time has come for him to listen to what’s in our hearts.” The desire was lucid, “Build the Ram mandir,” and the faith in the P.M.’s abilities to do so rigid, “… just like he brought in demonetization, with sheer will and force”.

In the run-up to the Mahasabha, the Muslim shop-owners who run the same business as their Hindu counterparts – in Ayodhya, only Ram sells, after all – recognize the force only too well. “My shop has been looted four times”, Khan tells us, almost matter-of-factly, as he shares with us his 1992 story, “They ransacked my shop. They ransacked my house. My family and I were left with nothing, not even a single spoon.” He comes back to the spoon often, still horrified almost at what he suffered. Khan is nothing if not practical though, “It’s always the same. Nobody here wants any violence, any nonsense. We live amicably, Hindus, Muslims, all. It is only when people from outside come in, that trouble brews, because that is precisely what they come for. It was the same in 1992. Kar sevaks were bahri people (outsiders), they came in and destroyed the mosque, and then went around killing, looting, plundering, burning homes of Muslims.” In 2018, running a reasonably decent business, Khan considers himself lucky, “I don’t know how, but we somehow managed to escape in 1992. I know of so many who could not. We hid around in peoples’ homes for months and came back to rebuild our lives.” He is also proud of how he set everything up again and informs us that he is the preferred choice for decking up Ram idols with outfits, “Poore Hanuman Gadhi mein pooch lijiye. Ramlala ke kapada bhi humare yaha banaya hain humne yahaan do baar. (You can ask anyone her ein Hanuman Gadi. My shop has made Ram lalla’s clothes twice).” After a pause, Khan affirms, philosophically, “Whether it’s a Hindu or a Muslim, khoon toh behta hai na? It’s the death knell of humanity, is what it is.”

“Mandir toh banna chahiye, ji haan.” From the mouths o’ babes, the same statement we encountered at the sabha somehow sounds ludicrous. But it is only until they reason, “Footfall has decreased considerably. If the temple gets built, imagine the number of people who would come to visit. And that is good for dhandha.”

Every businessman we speak to here, echoes what Nabi Hussain says, “Obviously, we want tourists here. Tourists will buy our wares. And tourists will only come if the temple gets built.” Says Soni, “But who wants to come to a dangerous place? At the best of times, people avoid it. And now with all this happening, security has been tightened, cops keep scouring the grounds, doing their usual intimidation – koi nahi ayega. Anything that happens here in Ayodhya spreads like wild fire outside. How will we make ends meet, if nobody’s here to buy what we sell?”

The recent Supreme Court decision postponing hearing to January 2019 has also been a much-discussed cause of discontent. While the bhakts at the sabha refused to acknowledge any wise thought processes behind it, not only concerning the 2019 elections, Khan offers a wistful, almost romantic take, “What can the Supreme Court also do? It is like having to choose between two of your own children who both want the same thing. Hindus also want it, Muslims also want it, and they are both equal in the court’s mind.” He adds his opinion, steeped in logic, as he sees it, “That’s why I say humein nahi chahiye. Us Muslims are ready to give it up, balidaan karne ko taiyyar hai (we are ready to make the sacrifice). You take it and build the mandir. But nobody seems to be doing that.” Soni believes the Supreme Court fears riots too, and is hence dithering.

Lal, meanwhile, is quite certain though of witnessing history of the “right” kind, “Bilkul banega. Har haal mein banega. And it will be during the BJP rule only.” He has a take on sacrifice too, “If people descend here by the lakhs, what the authorities can even do? How many bullets can the cops fire, after all? There were policemen in 1992 as well. Lives will be lost, as they should – it is essential for a sacrifice of this stature.”

Lal’s confidence shines despite P.M. Modi’s absence in Ayodhya, which is a sore point with him. Khan narrates, “Even when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath came here, hordes of people asked him, ‘When will the temple be made, Yogi ji?’ there was only silence. He did not answer.”

Soni points to the details that the mandir politics miss completely, perhaps the only ones that should matter, “The main road is fine, chamka di gayi hai, but if you step into the galis even just in this 5-kilometer radius, you will see the state of this place. There is zero development. Agar sadak hi nahi hai, toh kaun ayega? That’s what they should think about – vikas. But no party, no leader, cares about that. For them, it’s all only about votes.”  He adds, “Naam badalne se kuch nahi hota hai. Jo uski hakeekat hai, usko badalna chahiye. (What’s the point of rechristening? Change the reality). The youth don’t care about this mandir-masjid politics. They want jobs. But because of these politicians, they also stayed tangled up in the same mess.”

Mohammad Sajid speaks of the shadow of fear his community lives and breathes in, “When this kind of buzz happens, Muslims fear for their lives. Many simply leave for that duration.” While Saiyyad Muhammad Hussain Khan, one of the oldest shop-owners we interview, has the last word, “Why not a hospital, beta?, he implores, “Why don’t they build a hospital? That can be for everybody, right? The poor people would welcome it with open arms.”

– Pooja Pande

This Khabar Lahariya report, co-published with News Laundry.