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This piece was first published in the Indian Express in December 2002, the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid

Sankarshan Thakur, Indian Express AYODHYA

You will go back disappointed, said the former Raja of Ayodhya. Nothing here ten years later, he said, the action was further west, in Gujarat, where Babri VIPs were lining up to cheer their new hero. So Sankarshan Thakur and photographer Prashant Panjiar let Ayodhya’s residents tell their stories: from an ailing architect of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to boys who sell Babri demolition cards they can’t read. From a Muslim shoemaker who watched his shop burn to a mason who’s chipping away at the pillars of a very real and, at the same time, a very imagined temple.

The time was about right, we were told, but we had got the place terribly wrong. However could we have mixed up Godhra with Ayodhya? That is where it is all happening this year, isn’t it, in Gujarat, that last surviving fortress where a make or break battle rages. In Ayodhya it was going to be all symbolic and this time, unlike December 6, 1992, they honestly meant it. There weren’t enough of them around to manage anything beyond the symbolic.

It was going to be so normal in Ayodhya, in fact, that Ram Mandir spearhead Paramhans Ramchandra Das, ever bellicose at 80-plus, ever ready to gird his loins and launch himself into the pit, was feeling a bit sorry for himself that he had had to miss the flight to Ahmedabad. ”I would have loved to go, that is where my fight is today but my doctors would not let me. Yaheen par kuchh chhota-mota kar lenge is baar lekin dhyan to hum sabka Gujarat ki ranbhoomi par rahega (We’ll do something small here, but we’ll all be focused on the battlefield of Gujarat.)”

On what has always been a rather hectic eve for him these past 10 years, he sat rather forlorn under the medieval archway of his haveli, with nothing more to do than answer the odd telephone call and warm himself by a crackling woodfire. A parrot shrieked intermittently from within what looked like an aviary but was being used as a store for odds and ends — crimson langots, lotas, bunched up tridents, brass lamps, piles of newspapers and leaflets. ”Morcha badal gaya hai ladai kaa, lekin ladai jaari hai, bhagwan ne chaha hum bhi Gujarat chale jaayenge (The frontier has shifted but the battle is on, if God so wills, I too will get to Gujarat).”

But then, Ayodhya extends beyond the hyper-activised courtyard of Paramhans Ramchandra Das’ Nirmohi Akhara. There is more to it than that canopied god quarantined in steel and khaki. Ayodhya has, to start with, a history that stretches far beyond December 6, 1992. And it has a future that would pan beyond the implications of that single day, or so its people would like to believe. And there are, actually, more temples than just that one, in fact 7043 more temples at last recorded count; there are more mosques than just that one, although they are fewer than the temples. And then there is the life beyond the temples and the mosques, flourishing in bits, languishing in greater bits but life all the same. At once abused and celebrated, like the Sarayu, suffocated by the same old and familiar rogues — bigotry, poverty, disease, illiteracy, malgovernance — but not stilled. There is a life that exists on this side of that notorious anniversary and that, a flow that finds its way despite. Despite what happened on December 6, 1992 and the times that have followed. Despite what might happen in the near and distant future. Despite what may become of the battle in Gujarat next week.
These are encounters with a few such lives, ”disappointing” as they are in the words of former Ayodhya Raja, Bimalendra Mohan Pratap Mishra, or Pappu Raja as he is handily known.

Pappu Raja is a part of that ”disappointment”, a facet of Ayodhya that has remained, by and large, untouched by its recent notoriety, a reputation punctiliously protected behind the crumbling walls of his modest palace. Nothing sensational about him, very disappointingly proper. ”I was clear about one thing from the start,” he says, ”I will not get involved in the politics of this whole thing, not this way, not that. I have helped when I have been called upon but I refuse to play a role, as they say. That means getting embroiled.”
He is friends with Paramhans and friends with the senior Imams of Ayodhya and Faizabad, he is trustee to many a temple trust in town and many of his tenants and retainers happen to be Muslims. Pappu Raja’s roots turn too many ways for him to turn partisan. But behind the geniality of his persona is a hard realist. ”There is no way out of this other than a temple,” he says, ”What they should do is to let construction start from an undisputed part of the complex, attention of the community will be so diverted that this movement-shoovement will lose whatever impetus it has overnight. And the Muslims too cannot really object. This has gone on too long, give Ayodhya a chance to recover from its setback, that is all I say, restore some sense of order, end this daily tamasha.”

Basheer Ahmed is a tenant of the Raja’s in Babubazar, who rents a Rs 50-month shop but hasn’t paid rents for the last eight months. ”Where from?” he asks, ”I didn’t have enough to buy half a kilo of sugar and a fistful of sewai for Eid.” Basheer used to craft and sell wooden clogs to sadhus and pilgrims; he still could but there isn’t enough now to buy wood and there aren’t enough clients. He too is crying for Ayodhya to be given a chance. ”They burnt my shop in 1992 and after that it was like a cursed fire had gone through Ayodhya, the business got wiped out, what I earn today my debts gobble up. The poor are dying and all that happens here is the great politics of who will rule Delhi.”
Madan Mohan Mishra joins the roadside conversation and begins attesting Basheer. ”As long as the politicians have their way, who is bothered about the poor? It is loot all the way down and it is the poor getting looted.” Mishra is a small farmer from a nearby village and has come to buy fertilisers and seeds. ”They cheat you at the public distribution outlets, they cheat you for diesel and fertilisers, they cheat you with bank loans and then they create these issues of Hindu and Muslim and cheat your votes away. I am a devotee of Ram but I am also poor and I want solutions which nobody is offering me. Is there anybody here that is bothered about the real problems of people? Build a temple, build a mosque, but don’t rob me for it.

Karan Sonkar must come from a home quite like Basheer’s and Mishra’s; not for nothing would his parents have sent the eight-year-old out vending Ayodhya trivia on the streets. For him, and many like him, December 6, 1992 was, quite simply, the inauguration of a little cottage industry that has done fairly well for itself. Sonkar roams the labyrinth of Ayodhya selling little booklets and postcards celebrating the birth of the newest of the town’s 700-plus temples. He also sells little locally manufactured histories of the exploits of the clan of Dasharath and the more recent exploits of the armies of Ram.
He cannot read what he sells for he never went to school — ”My parents can’t afford it and my family needs the money; I don’t really mind wandering about all day, doing my own kind of thing” — but most of what he so gleefully peddles is quasi-myth and bogus history. One of his books — The Bloody History of Shri Ramjanmabhoomi — begins the telling of history as it happened 900,000 years ago with the glorious and divine appearance of Ram and ends, barely 80 pages later, with the ”re-establishment of the Lord’s pride in the place of his birth”. Sonkar doesn’t know whether what he sells is true and, frankly, he couldn’t care. ”It sells,” he says, ”people like you buy these things and that is good enough.”

Kailas Das came to Ayodhya from his native Madhya Pradesh as a boy about Sonkar’s age, beckoned, he says, by Ram himself. ”I came, driven by his call and never went back, I never felt like.” To him nothing about Ram matters other than Ram himself. Neither history, nor myth nor all the politics around it. And although he lives within stone’s throw, he couldn’t be bothered going to what they call the janmabhoomi.

”I am forever with Ram and Ram is forever with me, what need is there for me to go anywhere?” Ram, to him, is the whole and only one. He was never born, he never died, he just is. When they brought the Ramshila to Das’ Bada Akhara this March, he was among the curious onlookers. ”I went to see what the hullabaloo was all about and it was only a piece of stone for the temple they want to build. Godspeed to them but to us in the akhara it really does not matter if the temple is built or isn’t; that is politics, we are devotees, we even sent the stone back to wherever they wanted to keep it because it did not look like its caretakers were devotees of Ram, they used to raise slogans of this party and that party and they brought the police and officials and all that trouble along. Those are not God’s things.

On the other end of town from the Bada Akhara, that temple Kailas Das couldn’t bring himself to be concerned with is slowly taking shape under hammer and chisel — 20-odd artisans pegging away day and night at pillars and plaques and facades and arches. The structure, they would tell you, is mostly ready, bits in the two workshops at Ayodhya and other bits in Rajasthan; they just have to be put together and the temple will stand.
”But will it?” Ram Kishore, who has now spent more than a decade fashioning the temple’s facets, often wonders to himself. ”This isn’t a simple temple, after all, is it?” he reasons as he chips away at a raw piece of sandstone thick as an elephant’s foot, ”This is not going to be a simple matter of joining the pieces and erecting a temple, this is going to be slightly more complicated.”
A fellow worker wonders whether they would even be allowed in if some day the temple becomes a reality after all. ”Hunh,” grunts Ram Kishore, ”You think they will let you in? Don’t you know what happened to the fellows who made the Taj Mahal? Our job is just to work, take our wages and go home, don’t hope for more, don’t even be sure this temple will someday stand, of that not even the Prime Minister is sure.”

But Haji Mehboob Ahmad is quite certain. ”No way, not for anything on earth,” he says, ”how can they steal away our land and do whatever they wish, this is theft, nothing more, nothing less.” As son of Haji Begu, the last known Imam of what used to be the Babri Masjid, Haji Mehboob is one of the key characters of the Ayodhya stage. He still calls himself the zamindar of lands including where the disputed site is and insists he has a strong case.
”We will win, you will see, the other side has no arguments and no evidence, they have found neither the remains of an ancient temple, nor any proof that anybody was born here, how can the courts rule against us?” But is the Haji ready to contend with the wages of victory? Has he wondered about what it might take to present a vacation order to the current occupants of the disputed site? ”But why do you think on those lines? Is there rule of law in this country or are we governed by might is right? We have suffered, we have lost, we are the victims and you ask us to make sacrifices? Why is it always a matter of faith for some people and never a matter of faith for us?”

The temple bells begin to peal early along the Sarayu and from somewhere in the distance the call of the muezzin so mingles with the tolling that you might wonder what the violent clamour of all these years has been all about. By the time that first light strikes the stained masonry of old Ayodhya and brings the baroque to life, the town is done with its ablutions and is shivering up the ghats to another day’s journey.

And here, by the banks of the Sarayu, Rajesh has spent his lifetime vending tea, morning and evening, out of his portable brass pot. Like a lot many in Ayodhya, Rajesh too wonders often about the clamour of his town. He could almost measure its tenor by the teacup; the higher the clamour the fewer the cups he hands out. And these past years, he says, it has been downhill, there’s nothing that tells him things will look up. ”I used to think only men fight court cases that nobody wins, here, what do we do, even the Gods are locked in a dispute.” He sounded like the most disappointed character of this story.

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