Whose Ayodhya is it anyway?
Ayodhya has been a centre of influence not just for Hinduism but also Islam, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism
Visitors to ‘New Ayodhya’ have reported that it looks like a gigantic film set. The description seems apt, for in the works is a spectacle that will goad devout Hindus to suspend their disbelief in much the same way that a feel-good superhero blockbuster movie might have. If you were there for the prep, you might have seen, apart from the many large statues and kitschy paintings, battery-operated vehicles and workers bustling about the place to ready the set for the Ram temple ceremony on 22 January.
Conspicuously absent from the scene are local residents, who have been advised to stay indoors on the big day. Advisories flying about on social media and in sundry WhatsApp groups are abuzz with all sorts of dos’ and don’ts, the most common refrain being ‘stay indoors’ on the days before and after the inauguration.
A large tent city has come up to accommodate the many thousands expected to descend on Ayodhya. A Gujarat-based company (no surprises there) is supposedly managing the tent city, with amenities that have been described as ‘comfortable’, if not cushy. The land on which the city has come up was earlier used to grow flowers, which had to go, of course. So also the homes of the people who grew these flowers, which kept the bulldozers occupied for a while.
Among the displaced is Ram Avtar, a member of the Bajrang Dal and a kar sevak during the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. “I’m also a Ram bhakt, but they are making the poor poorer,” he grumbles. Sapna Madhukar, another displaced grower, is more belligerent and asks if Lord Ram really needs so much land and if He would’ve harassed the poor in this fashion.
They are hopeful of a more sympathetic hearing once the euphoria of the inauguration dies down, or perhaps when the Lok Sabha election a few months down the line is out of the way. That’s when compensation and rehabilitation issues will be sorted out, says a ‘Vikram’ driver. There are 900-odd Vikrams — the old-style autorickshaws common in some parts of north India — plying in the temple town, now banned in New Ayodhya.
Mohammad Umar, a resident of the Kotwali area, fears a repeat of the events of December 1992, as pilgrims descend on Ayodhya. “It happened to me then and it can happen again,” Umar was quoted as saying by Newslaundry. Three decades ago, his house was marked and burned down by a rampaging mob. After painstakingly rebuilding his home and life bit by bit, Umar again lost a part of his house and shop last December during a demolition drive for a road-widening project.
He now lives among the dead in a nearby cemetery, where he has built a makeshift room for his family of four. And has opened a hardware store in whatever space remains of his property, and given it the kind of name that won’t immediately mark him as a target.
“Muslims have limited business options here,” says Umar. “Tourists don’t buy from shops that have Muslim-sounding names and we can’t open restaurants or chai shops because Hindus won’t eat food we’ve touched. We have to do business discreetly.”
“The land mafia are threatening to seize our religious properties. Our mazars, tombs, mosques are all fair game. Even graveyards are not safe. The government is spending thousands of crores for a new temple but has no money for Islamic heritage,” says Azam Qadri, president of the Sunni Central Waqf Board. The community’s appeal to the district administration to protect these properties and release funds for their maintenance has elicited a stony silence, he says. “Does Ayodhya belong only to Hindus?”
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is fully aware of the simmering resentment over ‘New Ayodhya' but has pronounced that nobody is above Lord Ram and that everyone big and small must make sacrifices for the lord and rejoice at his homecoming.
Land records in Ayodhya are complex, with much of it given to trusts or individuals by former rulers and landlords, many of them Muslims. Several generations of families have lived here, including 3.5 lakh Muslims, but very few have documents to prove ownership of property. They are all bracing for dispossession and displacement, with little or no compensation, even as their land is taken over by outsiders, the temple trust and the government.
Seven-star luxury a.k.a. The Sarayu
Film star Amitabh Bachchan has reportedly bought a plot in Ayodhya valued at Rs 14.5 crore. Dirt cheap for him, no doubt, and he wants to build a 10,000 sq. ft house in ‘The Sarayu’, a "seven-star mixed-use enclave in the holy city".
"Ayodhya has a “special place in my heart,” the 81-year-old Bollywood veteran reportedly said, and he is “looking forward to building my home in the global spiritual capital”. The housing estate is not far from the upcoming Ram Mandir. For the record, the government’s ‘Ayodhya Vision 2047’ makeover will cost an estimated Rs 30,000 crore of taxpayers’ money.
That, for this government, is money well spent, for who needs jobs or a livelihood and other such mundane things when there is faith. Ayodhya is on its way to becoming a religious tourism hotspot — in December 2023, PM Modi reportedly launched development projects here worth Rs 15,700 crore — and the temple town is witnessing a real estate boom. It’s getting a new international airport.
A slew of hotel chains are making their way to the town, which must sound like sweet music to real estate developers, but where are Ram Avtar, Sapna Madhukar or Mohammad Umar in any of this? Where, for that matter, is the old Ayodhya in any of this?
Ayodhya has been a centre of influence not just for Hinduism but also Islam, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. There are over a hundred mosques, five Jain temples, gurudwaras and ancient Buddhist sites excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India, besides scores of Hindu temples. Many of these are in a dilapidated state, and their minders worry that they will now lose both devotees and their meagre offerings to the new Ram temple and to ‘New Ayodhya’.
During the week preceding the grand inauguration, flight tickets to Ayodhya from Delhi and Mumbai, for 20 and 21 January, were hovering around Rs 16,000, whereas average fares on these routes are Rs 3,500-4,000; Mumbai-Ayodhya flight tickets were going for as much as Rs 20,000, according to some reports. The hoopla is obviously for real, but the Ayodhya insider seems wary — very far from the gung ho picture cheerleading media is painting — about the wide roads and big hotels and all that jazz.
Who else is feeling left out?
The Shankaracharyas are not the only ones worked up about the goings-on in New Ayodhya. The Ramanand akharas, which collected the offerings and worshipped the idol of Ram that was smuggled into Babri Masjid in December 1949, are upset about losing control to the government-appointed Shri Ram janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra, and are complaining that the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) has hijacked the temple.
They are also objecting to the new idol. The idol that has been worshipped all these years should be the main deity of the temple, insists Tejpal Das of the Hanumangarhi temple. “The temple is a seat of the lord; it’s not a place to display idols,” Das fumed.
Clearly not all is well in this make-believe Ram Rajya.