Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Through The Voyeur's Eyes

Through The Voyeur's Eyes

Curiosity took writer Mukul Kesavan and cartoonist Ajit Ninan through Faizabad and Ayodhya where they found little evidence of a Ram Leher but felt the undercurrents...

ON Tuesday, the 23rd of April, we were waiting for Advani to address a rally at Gulab Bari in Faizabad. This public meeting was to be held in the neighbourhood of a large stucco mausoleum left over from Faizabad's glory days, when it was the capital of Nawabi Avadh. Across the road from Gulab Bari was an untended Muslim graveyard where vendors had collected in anticipation of business and, as I entered the ground, the first thing I passed on the left was a whitewashed grave.

The ironies of the location were embarrassingly obvious but the local BJP speakers, given the job of holding on to the audience till Advani arrived (he was running three-and-a-half hours late on his Su-raj Yatra), were leaving nothing to chance or subtlety. Trenchant things were said about Muslims by denouncing handy surrogates like Pakistan, Bangladesh and medieval Muslim rulers. Marauding Muslims had disfigured our history by dishonouring our women and destroying our temples; then the Congress ruined our geography—bhoogol bigar diya—by allowing Pakistan to occupy part of Kashmir and then cravenly ceding three bighas of land to Bangladesh. But one speaker, in full metaphorical flight, soared over the rest: four years ago, he said, on the 6th of December, the Nation, and through the international press, the World, saw a miracle on the sacred ground of Ayodhya: they saw the natural order reversed, they saw a cow bite a dog!

The BJP had no doubts about its main poll plank: it was the campaign for the Ram Mandir. The question that brought us to Faizabad was this: how important was the mandir issue for the rest of the constituency, three years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid?

Walking around Lucknow, Faizabad and Ayodhya it was hard enough detecting an election, let alone a Ram Lehar. It's a hidden wave, said Vibhuti Narayan Singh confidentially at the BJP office opposite the Vidhan Sabha in Lucknow, letting us into a well-kept secret. It is a strong undercurrent, said B.B. Tripathi, BJP ziladhyaksha, Faizabad, by way of variation. The compound of the Lucknow office was shared out in stalls selling election paraphernalia. Sudha Traders and Garg Traders had their stalls piled high with lotus flags, angochas, banners, but no one was buying. The hidden wave wasn't moving merchandise.

To be fair, some of the credit for the sedateness of this election, belonged to the Election Commission. No cut-outs, no wall-posters, no cavalcades of jeeps and cars, no loudspeaker harangues at midnight: Seshan had Uttar Pradesh's politicians obediently jumping through tight little hoops. It was also harvest time in these parts, not the best time for an election campaign.

At the Samajwadi Party's office in Gulab Bari, the day before Advani's rally, Raj Bahadur Yadav, zila mahasachiv, let one corner of his mouth curl at the idea of a hidden Ram wave. What wave? he asked scornfully. There's never been one—even in '93, one year after the demolition, they lost eight out of nine seats in this region! He looked around the room for confirmation. We were sitting on a bed in the middle of the room, the mahasachiv and I, surrounded by chairs and party workers. It had the feel of a boys' hostel in a rough college. It was hard to imagine female party workers functioning from this office. Yadav was wearing a lungi and a shirt; he had walked into the room tying on a lungi and yawning.

The faces around me were young, young enough to be students. One of them, in fact, was called Vidyarthi, Sushil Singh Vidyarthi. In his previous political incarnation he had been the zila pramukh of the Bajrang Dal and a devoted follower of the Bajrang Dal chief, Vinay Katiyar, Faizabad's current MP and the BJP's candidate for the seat. Startled, I ask him if he had seen the masjid being felled. He smiled with shy pride and corrected me: he hadn't just watched—he had helped with the felling. And why had he joined the Samajwadi Party? Disarmingly frank, Vidyarthi said that Katiyar, after winning, didn't take care of his team. That one crore per year each MP got to develop his constituency? Well, Katiyar never consulted them about how it should be spent. Critical of such candour, the zila mahasachiv sitting next to me intervened. Actually, he said, Vidyarthi suffered such a shock—sadma—when the masjid fell that he had a change of heart and joined us.

BUT even a friend of the BJP like Sudhanshu Mishra—principal of an intermediate college in Ayodhya and one-time student of both Rajju Bhaiya, the RSS supremo, and Dr Murli Manohar Joshi—admitted that temple fervour seemed to have ebbed because Ashok Singhal's recent attempt to court arrest at the disputed site attracted no more than 160 volunteers. Ajay, an honorary worker at one of Ayodhya's major temple trusts, who showed us around the important pilgrim sites, observed severely that the typical pilgrim came to Kanak Bhawan and Hanu-man Garhi out of a sense of reverence but when he visited Ram Janambhoomi that reverence was alloyed by vulgar curiosity.

Feeling common and vulgar, Ajit and I queued up to see what the vandals of December 6 had wrought, because it seemed odd to try to measure the political aftershock without visiting the quake site. At the entrance we were herded in single file into a seemingly endless corridor made oddly sinister by the fact that besides being fenced off on either side, we were also roofed in by bars. There were surveillance cameras and there were policemen, frisking us more intimately than we had ever been frisked before. One of them bent over double to search a three-year-old child. Even him, joked Ajit. The policeman nodded apologetically. It was the cameras: the people watching got very tough if you waved children through.

The corridor passed by the tented people at a distance of about 50 feet and the shuffling queue stalled as people stopped to look at the swaddled infant, Ram Lalla. It wasn't just reverence and curiosity; there was something proprietorial about their gaze; it was like a high-security parody of fond relatives peering through glass at a new-born child in a nursery. I bumped into someone I had met just that morning at the Kanak Bhawan temple. Saurabh Malwi was doing his inter-college from Gorakhpur but his elder brother was in the Railways, posted in Bombay where he was active in the local RSS shakha. The elder brother greeted us with unexpected affection. Our meeting like this didn't surprise him: it was destined. This camaraderie infected the whole queue: we had Ram Lalla in common so we couldn't be strangers.

I began to wonder if the BJP wasn't in fact right about an undercurrent; perhaps there was a sub-stratum of feeling that it could bank upon. This back-slapping fellow-feeling. ..it was the kind of thing I had seen after an Indo-Pak cricket match when India won. Ram Lalla in his tent atop the platform wasn't just God in his rightful place; Ram Janambhoomi, taken together, was also a trophy. For Saurabh Malwi and his brother, the destruction of the Babri Masjid must have been like the Indian victory over Pakistan in Bangalore during the World Cup, raised to the power n. There was a poster in the stands at Bangalore that summed up the exultation of victory after paranoid years of humiliating defeat: This Isn't Sharjah. The Hindutva brigade was making a similar point; Ayodhya was their way of saying: This Isn't Medieval India. This was Bharat, where Hindus had the home advantage, where they would always win.

It was a powerful feeling to tap into. No wonder Ajay Kumar Tiwari at the Congress party office on Rikabganj was so unhappy that the BJP had run away with the credit for the demolition. BJP or Congress, for a Hindu, he said, the temple was all-important. No wonder, either, that the chief mahant, or Gaddi Nashin, of Hanuman Garhi temple was anxious to claim credit for the demolition. Small and round, with fat tilaks painted on his forehead, he was sitting in state on his throne, propped up by bolsters, when Ajay took us off to meet him. The fortress-like temple, he told us, had been built courtesy Shuja-ud-daulah after he'd been cured of leprosy by the then mahant. In the same breath, he assured us that the demolition of the Babri Masjid had proceeded successfully only because Hanumanji had rendered the administration's security forces helpless. Little wonder, too, that Ajay's disdain for vulgar, sensation-seeking pilgrims, didn't stop him from visiting the site after the demolition and claiming a brick as a souvenir.

Our driver, Tiwari, who came from Sitapur and planned to vote for the BJP, believed that the groundwork for the demolition was done by the Congress and the credit claimed by the BJP. Naam BJP ka, kaam Congress ka. He was an Ayodhya veteran, having watched the masjid go down in 1992 in the course of driving a Hindustan Times journalist around. The CRPF could have stopped it, he said, but it wasn't allowed to. It was, according to him, all willed by Narasimha Rao. Then why did the BJP get the credit? Because they were the party of Ram, he said simply. Ram unka hai. 

If the BJP's strategy was to consolidate the Hindu vote via the Muslim bogeyman, the party making the strongest pitch for the Muslim vote was the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BSP office was a dark, high-ceilinged room in the perimeter wall of the Bahu Begum ka Maqbara, a mausoleum that dated back to the early 18th century. There was a picture of Ambedkar on the wall behind me; someone explained that Manyavar Kanshi Ram's photo had hung there too till it fell to the floor and the glass broke. The chairs in the room were always filled with thin, serious, attentive people, women amongst them. The two most articulate though, were Muslims: Nusrat Quddusi and Parvez Akhtar. They reeled off everything the BSP had done to mobilise the Muslim vote. The party had allotted 23 of Uttar Pradesh's 85 seats to Muslims (as opposed to just eight put up by the SP) and for the first time since Independence a recognised political party had fielded a Muslim candidate from Faizabad, namely the BSP's Iqbal Mustafa Khan. Twelve of its 69 MLAs in the dissolved Uttar Pradesh assembly had been Muslims.

Then they settled down to what all party workers do best and enjoy doing most: bitching about the competition. In this case it was the Samajwadi Party. I asked Quddusi if the Muslim vote would divide between the SP and the BSP and make the BJP's job easier. He didn't think so. Muslims knew, he said, that when they stood on the SP ticket, they didn't get Yadav votes, whereas the BSP always delivered the Dalit vote. He accused Mulayam Singh of having spent 28 lakhs on illuminating the Parikrama around Ayodhya with mercury vapour lights and of establishing a police station near the disputed site and naming it Thana Ram Janam Bhoomi. Besides, the Samajwadi Party's candidate from Ayodhya, Mitrasen Yadav, was, according to them, a criminal, apart from being a defector from the CPI. It's a party of goondas, said someone else, no wonder its office is next to the old Kotwali.

When I relayed these allegations to the Samajwadi Party's office, Raj Bahadur Yadav said the BSP was peopled with liars. The Samajwadi Party-Janata Dal combine had nominated 16 Muslim parliamentary candidates, not eight. In any case, he wasn't interested in trading statistics with the BSP because the real contest in this constituency was between the BJP and the SP and everyone, including the Muslims, knew that.

Not surprisingly, the Muslim voters we spoke to were much less certain about Muslim intentions than were the parties speaking on their behalf. One night, after a Congress rally in Faizabad Chowk, we struck up a conversation with two Muslim voters. The rally had been addressed by Balkavi Bairagi, a wonderfully stirring and amusing speaker, and a welcome change from the inert despair of Kamala Nehru Bhawan, the Congress party office in Rikabganj, where the cobwebbed pictures of dead leaders on the walls seemed livelier than the party workers lolling inertly on the dirty gadda on the floor. The older of the two who lived in Mohalla Taksal and worked in the wholesale vegetable market, appreciated Bairagi's secular rhetoric but he didn't see Muslims voting for the Congress. The younger one, who ran a fruit stall, was much more emphatic. No Muslim was going to waste a vote on the Congress. They both agreed that the danger and the likelihood was that the Muslim vote would scatter and the BJP would benefit. The old man thought that by fielding Iqbal Mustafa Khan, the BSP would siphon off a large part of the Muslim vote and hurt the Samajwadi Party on that front.

When I finally met Iqbal Mustafa Khan, it was hard to believe that he had anything in common with the shabby, poor, committed men and women who ran the party office in the Bahu-Begum ka Maqbara with such missionary zeal. He was a small industrialist who manufactured smokeless fuel and he was turned out like a fading film star: violet shirt, cream trousers with knife-edge creases, Rayban shades and a white angocha slung around his neck to add the common touch. He couldn't remember when he had joined the BSP, though he claimed to have recognised an ideological affinity with it for years. His amnesia was understandable; it might have been embarrassing to recall that he had joined the party at more or less the same time as it offered him the Faizabad ticket. He was, naturally, certain that Muslims would vote for him everywhere: in a world where people voted increasingly in terms of caste and community, he just knew that the Muslims of Faizabad were behind him.

MEANWHILE, at the Gulab Bari ground, Advani had finally arrived. The higher you get in any organisation the more say you have in office decor. Advani, being close to the top, had near total control, but even so the pictures on the sides of his travelling office, the pink Su-raj Rath, were strangely eclectic. On the one side was painted Subhas Chandra Bose with the Red Fort in the background, to signify his, and Advani's, assault on Delhi. On the other side was a picture of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. To try to coopt into the pantheon of Hindutva a man who had spent his life trying to detach Dalits from mainstream Hinduism was an act of incredible political effrontery. But there was method to this madness; having established its identity as the most uncompromisingly Hindu party in the country, the BJP could now try to swallow its enemies whole, as Brahminical Hinduism had done by making the Buddha one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu.

On stage, Vinay Katiyar introduced Adv-ani in moderate tones and then abruptly began screaming. He was shouting a slogan, a slogan that took its cue from Ambedkar's face on the Su-raj Rath: Na Dalit, Na achhoot, Hum sab Bharat Ma ke Poot. Then he made a little speech about the necessity for the Ram temple and how the Ram temple would also be a temple to Valmiki and beyond that a temple to Mother India herself.

Advani began his speech without acknowledging that he was late by three-and-a-half hours. He harked back four years to his first yatra from Sagar to Saryu. We had waited this long for memories of times past? It was nearly dark and we had to return to Lucknow that night. So we set off before he finished, and along the way we passed BJP election meetings that were waiting for Advani to arrive. He followed us through the night, thundering down the road in his pink carriage fitted with pink loudspeakers, cooled by one small airconditioner, powered by two generators. We beat him to Lucknow but even as I settled into my hotel bed he checked into Begum Hazrat Mahal Park across the road and started telling us the same things all over again. But when I woke up in the morning, he was gone. 

(Mukul Kesavan is author of the widely acclaimed novel Through the Looking Glass.)