They have come here all the way from Baramati in Maharashtra, the elderly men in white Nehru caps, the women in their saris. Their last stop was Kashi-Vishwanath, and now their tour bus has halted at the karyashala (workshop) in Ayodhya. In a city full of medieval shrines, this is by far the youngest of monuments and perhaps the most contentious.
Their guide Surinder is a young man from Kashi. “I have come here so often with such tours that I have learnt what the guides here say,” he tells me as he ushers them into the complex. Hands folded, they stand before the wooden model of a temple enclosed in glass. It represents a two-storeyed structure, 268 foot 5 inches long, 140 foot wide, 128 foot high, with 106 pillars on each floor and 16 statues carved on each pillar. It is the temple that is meant to come up at the Babri Masjid site. The pilgrims let out a cry of “Jai Siya Rama” before the guide leads them on a tour of the karyashala.
It starts with a long series of panels mounted on a wall. They make little sense, unless interpreted creatively by a guide. One of the earliest panels, Surinder says, shows the curfew of 1990 around the ‘disputed structure’. He moves quickly through the intervening panels to stop before a vividly portrayed scene: “Tab ke mukhya mantri Kalyan Singh nein chaar ghante ki maulat di thhi, usmein vivaadid dhaanche ko kar sevakon ne dhwast kar diya (Then Chief Minister Kalyan Singh gave the ‘holy workers’ a reprieve of four hours, in which time they brought down the disputed structure).” He poses dramatically before the huge carved sandstone pillars stacked in neat piles. “You must have heard of the judgment by the court to be announced on the 17th of September. It will go in our favour, the temple will soon be a reality.”
Surinder is wrong on many counts. It is by no means certain that 17 September is the date, but a judgment by an Allahabad High Court Special Bench on a civil suit, to decide the ownership of the site where the Babri Masjid once stood, is likely in the third week of September. Also, it is by no means certain which way the court judgment will go. In either case, it will be contentious.
This is not lost on anyone. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently noted, “I am told in a few days’ time, you will [see the] judgment of the Babri Masjid [title suit]. Now the way the country handles this—the aftermath—will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country.”
An appeal in the Supreme Court is likely to follow the judgment, but the decision itself, whatever it is, will become fodder for new arguments. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report of 2003 on the excavations at the site is likely to be one of the key pieces of evidence contributing to the court’s judgment—but it will not settle the dispute, it will only become another element of the debate. Amidst the political rhetoric that will spill out onto the streets, historians will fight the same fight with equal vehemence in TV studios. Such arguments will matter little, because the battle in Ayodhya is not about history, but popular perception.
At my hotel in Faizabad, I ask for the number of a guide in Ayodhya. I want to hear the narrative a guide selected at random would provide. My guide turns out to be Rama Pragat Mishra, a Pandit with his caste mark visible on his forehead. Born in Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), he had studied in Ayodhya before going to work in Gujarat at a polyester firm. He returned in 1999 to become a guide, catering mainly to the Gujarati and Maharashtrian pilgrims who make up the bulk of visitors to Ayodhya.
His Ayodhya tour takes me to the banks of the Sarayu river, the walls of Valmik Bhawan where the Sanskrit text of The Ramayan has been inscribed in full, a nearby gaushala where a cow has just taken birth, the datun kund where Rama is believed to have taken care of his dental hygiene every morning, Dashrath’s palace, Kanak Bhavan gifted to Sita by Kaikeyi, the karyashala, and the site where the Babri Masjid stood.
As we travel from pilgrim spot to pilgrim spot, he tells me, “No non-vegetarian food is available anywhere in Ayodhya, but as soon as you travel towards Faizabad, you start seeing it everywhere among those people.” I ask him about ‘those people’ and their presence in Ayodhya. He denies their very existence: “There are no dargahs or mosques in this city. Where is the question of it? After all, there are no Muslims in Ayodhya.”
In over four hours of this tour through the town’s labyrinthine streets, I see nothing that even hints at a Muslim presence here. This is the Ayodhya that is alive in the imagination of those who come here as pilgrims. This is the Ayodhya they will fight for when the judgment will reawaken their imagination.
The next day, I am at the home of Haji Mahboob Ahmad, one of the litigants in the title suit and among the 7,000 odd ‘those people’ in this town. An armed guard from the UP Police accompanies him wherever he goes. Before I can talk to him, two officials from the state intelligence department accost me. Glad they can file a report on me, they helpfully tell me Haji Mahboob is the biggest landowner in town: “Ek rupiah mein chawanni zameen unki hai (roughly one-fourth of all land in Ayodhya is his).”
Since there is no Muslim guide in Ayodhya, Haji Mahboob has requested Master Abdul Lateef, a retired school principal, to accompany me across town. Suddenly, what my earlier tour kept concealed comes to light. Just behind the town kotwali lies the dargah of Naugaza Peer. On the outskirts of town, adjacent to a temple, is the dargah of Sheesh Paigamber, a message bearer and ‘son of Adam’ who came to India to spread Islam. It is easy to add to these instances. There are important mosques in the heart of the city, and the minaret of a decaying medieval mosque towers over the temples that line the old ghat. Muslim presence in Ayodhya is no recent intrusion, and it certainly cannot be wished away.
And another set of myths has laid claim to this land. Haji Mahboob says, “For us, Ayodhya is Mecca Khurd (little Mecca). Our faith is rooted deep here. There is a 40 acre kabristan (graveyard), where has it come from? Ask the dharamsalas where they got their grants of land, in the main it has come from Muslim landowners such as me.”
THE DISPUTED SITE
The site itself, which Haji Mahboob claims as his, has been enclosed by an iron fence painted bright yellow. It is manned by armed men from UP’s Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). The security presence is overt and overwhelming. All cameras, mobile phones, pens, notepads have to be left behind, as visitors—Hindu pilgrims in the main—walk along a corridor lined by wire mesh and covered on top.
Five body searches later, a visitor finally comes face to face with a makeshift Rama temple. A pujari sits by the mesh to accept donations, and a PAC head constable beside him enthusiastically tells every passing pilgrim, “That is Rama Lalla’s shrine.” Almost all the visitors ask where the masjid was; they all expect to see some signs of its presence. But from within the wire mesh cage, it is difficult to believe a mosque ever stood here.
Giani Gurjit Singh Khalsa is one of the men who saw the masjid fall. He is head of the Brahmakund Gurdwara, which traces its historicity to a visit by Guru Nanak to Ayodhya, another addition to this city of monuments made out of myths. He was on stage in 1992 in the company of LK Advani and Uma Bharti as they watched the Babri Masjid being brought down before their eyes. “Around noon, I spoke from the stage. The pilgrims were swarming over the roof of the monument.” He looks a little sheepish, as he continues, “What could I say? I just said they should tread with care; after all, the idol of Rama Lalla lies below their feet. Advani was sitting beside me. He didn’t say a word, he just swooned and fell and had to be carried off the stage by his commandos.”
He measures his words: “Write… write this with care. There should be a temple at this site but with the cooperation of Muslims and consideration for their sentiments.” Noting my quizzical look, he adds a somewhat apologetic explanation, “You must understand our situation. When a Simranjit Singh Mann announces in Punjab he will march down with a jathha to construct the masjid, you don’t know how difficult it becomes for us.” His fear is only a shadow of the fear that Muslims in UP and elsewhere voice as they anticipate the aftermath of the judgment. It is a fear only a minority knows.
Haji Mahboob, like everyone else in town, doesn’t believe Ayodhya will see a recurrence of violence; the security presence is overwhelming, and the government’s will, unlike in 1992, not in question.
But he, like everyone else, cannot say for certain what will happen outside Ayodhya (see accompanying story): “We don’t want to rip apart the nation. We will abide by the court’s decision and take what legal recourse we can.”
Two months earlier, the High Court after hearing the evidence in the case had asked all parties to try and arrive at a mutually acceptable decision. But no progress was made. He tries to give the impression that he is willing to work towards a compromise, but it is not quite that simple. “The ASI report found no evidence of a temple,” he says, “I was there every day for the excavations. But we ourselves say the mandir should be built. It is my land and I will give it away free of charge. Just let them leave aside the land where the masjid stood.”
Less than a kilometre from where I met Haji Mahboob lives Mahant Gyan Das, head priest of the most important uncontested temple in Ayodhya, Hanumangarhi. He is also under armed guard, under threat from the same men who threaten Haji Mahboob. He has time and again stood up to the VHP. Says he, “Varshon pehle jo taandav unhone machaaya thha, woh hum phir hone nahin denge (We will not let them wreak the same sort of destruction—in Ayodhya—they did years ago).”
But even Mahant Gyan Das, a man who was part of the long-drawn process of trying to reach a compromise, is adamant that the makeshift Rama temple cannot be shifted from the disputed site. When I ask him the question, he echoes Haji Mahboob’s words: God exists everywhere. But then cautions, “Now there is no choice but to wait for the court decision. We are sure the decision will be in our favour. The ASI has found so much evidence. All the talk can happen later.”
Both Haji Mehboob and Mahant Gyan Das agree on everything but the conclusions of the ASI report. Both agree to a compromise on everything but that one patch of land. This is a precursor of what is to follow the court judgment. In Punjab, this sort of dispute is called a watt di ladai. A watt is a thin raised strip of land that separates two agricultural fields. This is the kind of fight that never seems to end with a court decision, and the feud goes unendingly down generations.
The caretaker at the karyashala, Shivnath Pandey, has been on duty since 1992. He comes from a nearby village, but left his village home in 1992 for this site, “At one time, 200 to 250 workers from Rajasthan were living here working on the sandstone blocks. The carved material lying here is enough to build one floor of the temple. They used to be given ration and kerosene. Work used to be underway all day long. These machines you see lying idle would be busy lifting and cutting. Now, it is all quiet. The work stopped when it seemed no decision was likely in the foreseeable future. The material lying here is enough to construct one floor of the temple.”
But Pandey is not very optimistic that work will resume anytime soon. “Maamla rajneeti mein ghus gaya hai. Court se kya hoiga? Woh kahaan maan-ne walein hain, aur agar hamare khillaaf gai, toh hum kahaan maan-ne walein hain? (The matter is now about politics. Those people are not going to accept the court decision. And if it goes against us, neither are we)”