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Ayodhya: How BJP Lost The Land Of Ram Mandir

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ram temple project with the Rath Yatra comes full circle with the party losing Ayodhya in 2024

Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
Large cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lord Ram in front of a temple in Ayodhya Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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Ayodhya has changed. In early January, it looked like an adolescent preparing for a fancy dress competition—eager, obedient, unrecognisable; reflected in the neat file of shops, shrunk on the government orders, on the Ram Janmabhoomi Path—but in June it resembles a dogged daredevil: the shops have spilled on the road (selling golgappas, toys, and pooja items), as if flipping the bird to the city administration. Some hawkers sit on the pavement with jute bags; some hold rods balancing floral dresses; some stand near folding tables. The demolition drive overwhelmed Ayodhya on the very same road over the last two years: shops halved, homes snatched, pittance tossed. But now if the authorities come, the tables will fold, the bags will swing, and the hawkers will flee. How do you destroy something that doesn’t even exist? The portable shops send as clear a message as the recent election result: We’re reclaiming our street and town, do what you can.

An entrance to the Ram mandir opens on the same road. Most devotees have arrived from different parts of the country. And, over the last few days, they saw a message on social media platforms: that if they visit Ayodhya, they shouldn’t give business to the locals. “Before I came here,” says Vivek Kumar, a salesman from Chandigarh, “my friend told me, ‘Don’t buy any prasad from a local shopkeeper.’” He did not. “They defeated the BJP; we won’t let them thrive.” It makes no sense to a shopkeeper on the main road: “Because the winning candidate [Awadhesh Prasad] is also a Hindu.”

A Telling Story: (Opposite page) An inverted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag hangs over the Ram Janmabhoomi Path in Ayodhya; Shri Pal Das, a priest at the Prajapati temple Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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The Hindutva-Ayodhya story can be summed up in a meme: ‘‘How it started, how it’s going’’. How it started: the demolition of the Babri Masjid, how it’s going: the demolition of homes. How it started: the rabid-right wingers boycotting Muslim hawkers, how it’s going: the rabid right-wingers boycotting Hindu shopkeepers. How it started: Indian Muslims proving their patriotism, how it’s going: Indian Hindus proving their Hinduism.

A man on the Delhi-Ayodhya flight kept watching and ‘liking’ videos on the topic (one of them called the people of Ayodhya “ungrateful”). Another man in a hotel lobby assured someone on the phone: “Ayodhya-vaasi are not at fault. They still belong to Shri Ram.” The boycott call amuses Shri Pal Das, a priest at the Prajapati Temple: “Sure, don’t buy anything from us. But will you leave everything connected to our town—how about the roads that pass through it? Will you come by helicopter, do darshan, and return?”

“Will you leave everything connected to our town—how about the roads that pass through it? Will you come by helicopter, do darshan, and return?”

If the Ram mandir was supposed to make the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sail then, according to Das, the same mandir has made it sink. “After the consecration ceremony, it’s become difficult to move inside the town.” Numerous barricades overwhelm the roads, forcing people to take much longer routes—something I, too, experienced while visiting the Prajapati Temple. “So if someone falls sick—or if there’s a medical emergency—then how will they reach the hospital on time? I know at least 30 to 35 people who died on the way.” Over the last few months, he’s also noticed another change: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers raising Jai Shri Ram slogans, then saying “Ab ki baar, 400 paar”, then screaming “the Constitution will be abolished; the Manusmriti will be imposed”. Now everyone knows, adds Pal, what the Manusmriti contains. “The Constitution protects the [Other] Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes. So what now: Will you turn the tide, will the chains of slavery return? The people responded: We’re here, we’re alive. We won’t allow genocide.”

The BJP’s ex-MP, Lallu Singh, also made the comment about the Constitution in April. Since then, the electoral battle in the temple town became embroiled among three gods: Ram (the real God), Modi (the self-proclaimed God), and B R Ambedkar (a God-like idol). “Besides, whenever the people approached Lallu Singh for their problems”—such as shopkeepers demanding fair compensations—“he’d only say one thing: ‘Have you given vote to me or Modi-ji?’” He also told the shopkeepers: “‘I don’t want your 10,000, 20,000, or 50,000 votes.’ So they waited for their chance. And they knew that, in the town of gods, at least one thing will prevail: divine justice.”

There’s one word that ripples across the Faizabad constituency as people discuss the recent election. They say it with unmitigated passion and relish—referring to Singh and, at times, Modi—“Ahankaari”, “ghamandi” [arrogant]. “Lallu never came on the road, never met anyone,” says Krishna Kumar Mishra. “Like Modi-ji is an ‘avatari-purush’ [God’s avatar], so is Lallu. When Modi-ji came, he went on a road show and just waved at people. So they waved back at him—bye, bye.” He laughs. Besides Lallu’s complacency, he also discusses the “lack of enthusiasm among the BJP workers”. They barely campaigned. “In fact, the BJP didn’t get the support of the BJP.” Why? That sentiment pops up again: ghamand. “Lallu believes in one man, one party, so he didn’t allow anyone else to rise. As a result, during the election, no one helped him.”

No Place to Call Home: Remains of demolished houses in Ayodhya. Many shops and homes were demolished in order to widen the roads and give the town a makeover as the Ram temple was being constructed Photos: Suresh K. Pandey
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As Mishra talks, three more men join the conversation. They call themselves “Sanatani” who had voted for the saffron party in the last Lok Sabha election. But they flipped this time. “The BJP put our entire town under curfew,” says Krishna. “Not for one or two days but forever.” They bemoan the barricades restricting their mobility, the “VIP culture” ruining Ayodhya, and the administration denying the locals the chance to enter the temple on the consecration day. “The police beat them with lathis [sticks],” says ‘Guru Baba’, raising his voice. “They made us dogs in our own home.”

Krishna keeps calling the consecration as the “BJP’s event”. This group’s grievance has another component. “Ram-ji was not black [referring to the idol’s colour],” says Krishna. “He was wheatish.” He cites a line from the Ramcharitmanas to support his claim, then hammers the BJP for milking the Ram mandir for political gains. “Our Shankaracharyas said no, so we followed. It may be an election issue for you, but for us, it’s a matter of heart, a matter of faith.” Towards the end of the conversation, Krishna says something that’s echoed by several locals across the constituency: “It’s believed that if we vote for the BJP only then we’re considered Hindus. So the people of Ayodhya want to say something to the BJP: we don’t want your certificate.”

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Several political commentators called the 2024 Lok Sabha election “silent”, as many voters seemed reluctant—or fearful—to voice their opinions. But even a week after the results, silence continues to talk in the markets of Ayodhya. More than half of the shopkeepers didn’t allow me to record our conversations. It’s not tough to understand why, for their lives have become entwined with politics in a way they’d like to forget. “Vikas [development] has happened,” says Manish Jaiswal, a young man, selling clothes on the road. Can he give a few examples? A long silence. “So much has happened. You’d have to ask me what has not happened.” Still, can he talk about two or three things? Another silence. He scratches his chin: “Vikas has happened.” Shivam Kaushal, like many shopkeepers on the Ram Janmabhoomi Path, lost both his home and shop. But he can’t understand why the BJP lost the election. “I’m ashamed. Our victory looked certain.” Maybe, he adds, the demolished shops had something to do with it. “But even that was fine. The shops had to be destroyed; the road had to be widened—otherwise where will the pilgrims go?”

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A few feet away is Krishna Gupta’s shop. His story is also the same as everyone else on this strip. He got a compensation of Rs 1.35 lakh; he expected at least Rs 5 lakh. “When we went to meet Lallu Singh to discuss our compensation, he dismissed us.” So before the election, the traders held a meeting: “We said, no matter what, we won’t vote for Lallu Singh. He’s ghamandi.” But then, without asking, he says, “I voted for the BJP.” What explains the contradiction? Gupta sees none. “Here, everybody voted for the BJP. I voted for vikas, for my family’s safety. Since the BJP has come to power, crime has reduced a lot.” What does he admire about the BJP’s vikas work? “Now what do I say about that?” He smiles, then stays quiet.

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“They’ll remove reservations,” says Ram Awadh, a blue-collar worker. it also felt like an attack on his idol. “They’re removing the word of Babasaheb.”

“They’re lying that they voted for the BJP,” says an old shopkeeper on the same road. He echoes Krishna’s concerns: that how the outside money has made Ayodhya unaffordable for them. The auto fares have soared; the barricades have put a siege on their town. “The BJP would have lost by a bigger margin if it hadn’t done the EVM scam.” His anger is visible, his betrayal palpable. “The BJP’s arrogance led to its downfall.” Referring to a famous Hindutva song, Jo Ram Ko Laaye Hain/Hum Unko Layenge [We’ll elect those who brought Ram], he asks, “Can someone bring Ram? He’s the one who has brought us all.” And finally: “I don’t want the BJP’s certificate that I’m a Hindu.”

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In the Pasi-dominated Sanethu village, the farmers endure the same problems common to many UP hamlets, but here, there are issues within issues. “When we visit the gaushala to deposit a stray animal,” says Daya Prasad Rawat, “we’ve to pay a Rs 500 bribe.” Several villagers repeat the same amount. They also agree that neither Singh nor his representatives campaigned in their area, while Prasad came often. “It didn’t even feel like an election this time,” says Surendra Pratap Singh who chose the BJP. One by one, almost all of them underscore the following: Singh’s “ghamand”, “he didn’t do any work as an MP”, “just Ram mandir wasn’t enough”, “we also wanted to attend the consecration ceremony but weren’t allowed”.

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Not all of them had heard of Singh’s comment about changing the Constitution, but it left a deep impact on those who had. “They’ll remove reservations,” says Ram Awadh, a blue-collar worker. It also felt like an attack on his idol. “They’re removing the word of Babasaheb.” He points to a spot in the village, where Ambedkar’s statue stands. “They’ll impose the Manusmriti,” says 17-year-old Amit. “Dalits are anyway backward.” His friend, Ashu, acknowledges the enormity of the comment about the Constitution, but “the BJP would have lost even without it”. And just like many in Amethi and Raebareli, the people in the Faizabad constituency—both in the town and villages—rail against the “Godi media”.

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Several farmers talk about another threat—“the outsiders will snatch our lands”—but don’t explain it further. “There’s a lot of fear,” says Rawat. “It wasn’t like this before.” Seeing Ashu and Amit talk, their friend, Gulshan Rawat, stops by. “The farmers are scared that the government will take their lands to build a ring road. They aren’t plastering or making their homes.” Gulshan, too, is worried. He owns three bighas in the Samaha Khurd village near the main road. After the Supreme Court’s decision, several locals say, the land prices shot up in the area, resulting in one biswa netting around Rs 4 lakh. But the government will only give them Rs 1.14 lakh. (Twenty biswas make a bigha, and one bigha is 1.63 acres.) Gulshan expected Rs 2 crore for his plot; he’ll earn less than half of that. But unlike other villagers, he contacted a “big lawyer in Faizabad” and filed a lawsuit. A few weeks ago, he adds, many farmers complained to Singh. “He said, ‘It’s alright even if I get less votes, but it’s my government, I can’t do anything.’” He sums up the BJP’s debacle in a sentence: “This time, the poor villagers brought the government down.”

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In Samaha Khurd, the government notice left Roshan Rawat, 26, baffled. “It didn’t mention the circle rate. It didn’t estimate the cost of trees, wells, boring.” Given his plot lies near the main road, he expects at least Rs 10 lakh per biswa. Desperate to find a solution, he followed the Parliamentary debates on his phone. “Lallu Singh never raised the issue. He thought he’d win due to Modi alone.” Before the government intervention, which first began via the Aerocity construction, many property dealers used to scout the area, promising up to Rs 18 lakh per biswa. But when they found out about the government eyeing these lands, says Roshan, they stopped coming. The officials pressured the villagers: “You won’t be able to fight the government.” Many obeyed. When the pradhans met with Singh, he said, “We’ll see after elections.”

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There’s something else in Ayodhya whose fate has remained unchanged: the Mohammed Bin Abdullah mosque, the Babri Masjid’s replacement.

Ayodhya is not just restricted to 10 km, says Roshan, the area that interests the media and the outsiders. “You just need to cross that radius, and you’ll see that no change has taken place.” He discusses the backlash on social media. “People are abusing us sitting in Delhi and Gujarat. If they think that only the BJP folks are Ram bhakts, then they’re wrong. They’re not Ram bhakts; they’re andh bhakts [blind devotees].”

Unlike Gulshan, Roshan hasn’t filed a lawsuit. He plans to approach Prasad. “He’s assured us that he’d get the circle rate increased within three months. I hope Modi-ji listens to our problems. I hope he understands why he lost Ayodhya.” And as if rebutting the political analysts who reduce a town’s diversity to the ‘caste-religion equation’, Roshan says, “It’s not about caste. Had that been the case, how would they win the 2022 elections?” Many Brahmins and Thakurs, he adds, also voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP), as they too had lost their lands. “Hindu khatre mein nahin hai, Samvidhan khatre mein nahin hai. Zameen khatre mein hai [Hindus are not endangered, the Constitution is not endangered. Our land is endangered].”

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There’s something else in Ayodhya whose fate, much like Roshan and Gulshan’s, has remained unchanged: the Mohammed Bin Abdullah mosque, the Babri Masjid’s replacement. Earlier this year in January, its caretaker had said that the construction would begin by May 2024, but nothing has happened. In fact, forget constructing, this place is unravelling. Newspaper scraps, plastic cups, guthka sachets, shoe soles, aluminium foils, and ice cream packets litter the far end of the field. Two barbed wires have broken down on the left periphery. But at 7:30 in the morning, on the day of the India-Pakistan T20 World Cup match, a few school kids playing cricket provide some solace. They say their full names, as if lining up for the morning attendance: “Ritesh Yadav, Vishal Yadav, Vineet Yadav.” Rohit Sharma seems to be a clear favourite among them, followed by Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya. A player crash lands his bat to a yorker, much like M S Dhoni, and the ball races to hit the mosque wall: It’s a boundary.

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Behind the mosque stand several columns of crates containing mangoes. A few men sit on chairs and a wooden plank bed. “Till the BJP government is in power,” says Mohammad Siraj Khan, “the mosque won’t be built.” Over the last five years, he adds, Singh never came here (not even for campaigning). Like many in Ayodhya, Khan praises Prasad for the same reasons: that he’s amiable, humble, accessible—someone who has served the poor. “He didn’t win because of caste but because he worked.” He asks: “They say we brought Ram—was Ram not there before?”

This election though, he says, has restored some unity between Hindus and Muslims. Otherwise, they’d have voted for the BJP, and the SP’s vote share wouldn’t have increased. Khan’s demands are modest: a road and a school. He points to a nearby area, dominated by Thakurs, which got a 10 km road, but his area has nothing. “Muslims are surviving on their own. That’s why we choose a political party that gives us izaat (respect).” The conversation returns to the mosque: “Why will the BJP care for it? They only have one motive: that the Muslims leave. Will Muslims go anywhere? Arre, ehi mein katiye, mariye, jeehiye, rahiye [we’ll die, live, and survive here].”

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(This appeared in the print as 'Ayodhya: Demolition Row')

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