Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Ayodhya II

People in Ram's kingdom blame BJP for driving them to economic ruin

April 8: Sant Ram eagerly looks forward to Hindu festivals and holy days. That's when pilgrims from nearby towns descend on Ayodhya to offer prayers at the makeshift Ram temple -- which sits on the spot where the Babri Masjid stood till 1992 -- and Sant Ram's tea shop does some business. On the rest of the days, he “kills flies” -- as he describes his idleness.

“The demolition of the mosque has demolished our business,” says Sant Ram, who says he is 55 but looks far older. He has been running the shop, a stone's throw from the makeshift temple, for 30 years now. ”Things went on so smoothly before. Hundreds of people came every day, and that used to be the bus stop,” he says, pointing to a nearby spot.

“But now Ayodhya has become a chhawni (Hindi word for cantonment). They have even diverted the bus route. Nobody wants to come here now, except the few who come during the festivals,” says Sant Ram.

A handsome town with rather good roads and dotted by temples and buildings mostly dating back to the early 1900s, Ayodhya, about 150 km from Lucknow, indeed resembles a cantonment area. Uniformed men and women from the Rapid Action Force stroll about the streets, and men and women from the Uttar Pradesh police are almost everywhere.

“Yesterday was full-moon day, that is why you see some acitvity here. Otherwise you will find only monkeys on the streets,”says Ram Pratap, a farmer squatting in front of Sant Ram's shop. Chips in Sant Ram: “Even the monkeys are starving. What to do, people themselves do not have enough to eat.”

Sant Ram's story is written all over Hanuman Garhi -- literally meaning the domain of Hanuman -- which sits right in the heart of Ayodhya and houses most of its shops. Here every shopkeeper, big or small, blames the BJP for giving “a kick on his stomach” -- which means depriving one of his livelihood.

“They should build a sarvadharma (all-religion) temple here and leave it alone. Otherwise, these politicians will ruin us even more,” says Sanjay Akhilwani, who runs a grocery store.

I spoke to these people the morning L K Advani came to Ayodhya. He was the man who made Ayodhya a household name in 1990. Since then, his party's fortunes has shot up, while the fortunes of the common man in Ayodhya have nosedived. It wasn't surprising therefore that people like Sant Ram and Ram Pratap weren't impressed when Advani came to their town again to seek votes and to promise a grand temple soon after the victory of the National Democratic Alliance.

“Our business should be back to nomal if a temple is built. But I don't think that will ever happen, because the politicians will have no issue to fight over,” says Saroj, who sells flowers on a Hauman Garhi street. Does she support the BJP over the temple issue? she shakes her head: “BJP ne to humen barbaad kiya hai -- the BJP has ruined us.”

Ram Pratap, the farmer, is angry with the BJP for other reasons as well. “When Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister, a bag of urea cost Rs 185 and one litre of diesel Rs 16. Now urea costs Rs 265 and deisel Rs 24,” he says.

The Ram temple, clearly, isn't an issue here. Still the BJP has chances in Faizabad (the distict under which the town of Ayodhya falls) and that's because of the popularity of its candidate, Lallu Singh. Singh has been an MLA for long and has excellent rapport with the locals. “If you call him for your daughter's wedding, he will come. He knows each and everybody here,” says Akhilwani, the grocer. Maybe that is why Singh was preferred over the sitting MP, the notoriously sharp-tongued Vinay Katiyar, who was once the head of the Bajrang Dal and is now president of the BJP's Uttar Pradesh unit. Katiyar is contesting from Lakhimpur Kheri.

But Lallu Singh has a formidable opponent in Mitrasen Yadav, a veteran CPI leader who joined Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party in the early 1990's. In the recent past, Yadav and Katiyar have taken turns in representing Faizabad -- once the capital of Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Avadh in the late 18th century.

If you look carefully, a lot of that Nawabi charm is still intact -- spacious streets, magnificent but decaying palaces and temples, gardens and the river Sarayu that presents a wonderful sight. But thanks to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP, the place has been overrun by kar sewaks several times. In 1992, they pulled down the 16-century mosque, creating a rift between Hindus and Muslims throughout the country.

But in Ayodhya, the story is different. “In Allahabad or Lucknow, you can tell a Muslim from a distance. But here, you cannot make out a person is a Muslim till you ask him name. They are a part of us,” says Shyam Bihari, a school teacher. A number of the 5000 or so Muslimsin Ayodhya, in fact, are engaged in garland-making. and Ayodhya is a sea of garlands. They are sold in the hundreds of wooden stalls that line the streets eventually leading up to the makeshift temple. They also sells knick-knacks that a Hindu pilgrim might require -- vermillion, sandalwood sticks, bead-necklaces, bangles and so on. And unlike Varanasi or Puri, this place is a lot cleaner and middle-men of various kinds don't accost you. You almost feel sad for Ayodhya, and also for Lord Ram, for being in such a state of siege.

It isn' easy getting into the temple.

After depositing your mobile phones and other electronic gadgets with the policemen at the gate, you have to travel more than a kilometre through a narrow, grilled corridor -- narrow enough to ensure a single file -- and pass through security checks at three different points. At places there are gaps in the grille from which monkeys hop in and hop out. Finally the corridor slopes up and there you are, under a canopy, looking at a brightly-lit platform. The platform is far enough to give you a close look at the idols -- you can barely distinguish between the marigold-covered figurines.

A security guard standing behind me tries hard to make me recognise the idols, but I still can't figure out who's who, except for Lord Rama, who stands taller than the rest. Anyway, it's Rama that matters here. I head for the exit after accepting the prasada -- a few sugar globules -- from the priest on duty.

The makeshift temple stands on a mound, and all over the mound, there are huge holes covered by tarpaulin. The security guard said it was part of the digging work done by the Archaeological Survey.

You breathe easy on the way out because there aren't any grilles around you. But it takes a while to get out of the compound. And once out, you run into stalls selling different kinds of things -- booklets and VCDs showing the events of 1989 (when kar sewaks were fired upon) and 1992, when the Babri mosque was demolished. The booklets were being sold by enthusiastic young boys who could teach seasoned salesmen a thing or two about marketing. They are all promoted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Once out of the temple, I return to Akhilwani's shop and ask him what people of Ayodhya think of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “We really don't care about VHP or Ashok Singhal. Singhal's visits to Ayodhya look like an event because TV crews accompanying him project it like that. But here, life goes on,” he says.

One can believe him, because even when Advani came calling on April 6, life in Ayodhya was going on.

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