There are many similarities between Harsh Srivastav and Sarfaraz Ali. They both graduated from Uttar Pradesh’s Awadh University, they have both been working in the telecom sector for four years, and they are both colleagues at the newly opened Xiaomi store in Ayodhya’s Hanuman Garhi area, barely a kilometre from the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi site.
They know it better as ‘RJB’.
The final countdown
A temple at the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi site has figured in the BJP’s election manifestoes since 1996. Twenty-seven years after the Babri demolition, the Supreme Court is set to wrap up arguments in the case which changed the country’s politics, and deliver a verdict before CJI Gogoi retires on November 17. If not, the case will have to be heard afresh.
As countdown begins in the case that will finally decide the fate of the disputed site, and days ahead of arguments drawing to a close in the Supreme Court on October 17, many roads are making their way to Ayodhya. But here in the temple town, in the midst of the festive season, more buzz is around a newly opened store and a mall.
Srivastav, 24, and Ali, 21, part of Ayodhya’s post-Babri Masjid demolition generation, explain why. Thankful for the air-conditioner in their store — whose neon orange board and glitzy walls stand out among the old ‘Shri Ram’ shops selling conch shells, kalash, incense stick holders, coconuts, and jerry cans to hold river Sarayu’s water — Srivastav says, “The youth in Ayodhya are like youth in any part of the country, glued to phones and in search of better opportunities.”
Like others in Ayodhya, both believe that for this, they need to make their way out of the town.
Nearby preparations are on for a grand Diwali, with the Yogi Adityanath government promising a bigger event than the previous two times. Last year, South Korea’s First Lady Kim Jung-Sook was the chief guest, and the Chief Minister had renamed Faizabad district under which the holy town falls as Ayodhya district.
Those who suffered in the aftermath of the Babri demolition on both sides in Ayodhya are preparing too, for the verdict to give them “justice”, hoping it will help them put behind the violence of those days.
The hope shared by all is for the town to “move on”. Saying that religion is important, but “in our daily life, none of this matters”, Srivastav says that while he would be very happy if the verdict was in favour of a temple, “whatever it is, the issue should end with the Supreme Court judgment. We will all accept it. Ayodhya must look beyond Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid. That’s all we have heard since we were born.”
Adds Ali, scrolling through songs on his phone, “As a Muslim, I want a mosque at the RJB site. But if a temple is made, there will be more tourism in Ayodhya, and in turn more jobs. So, I am fine with a temple too.”
With Ayodhya centric to the BJP’s political agenda, the Adityanath government has unveiled a series of projects for the town with a population of close to 60,000. These include plans to make Ayodhya a ‘Smart City’, Rs 174 crore for a medical college (to add to Ayodhya’s three government colleges), Rs 400 crore for an airport, a 221-metre Lord Ram Statue, to be highest in the world and taller than the Statue of Unity in Gujarat (its budget has not yet been revealed), and a Rs 31-crore revamp of the area along Sarayu. The medical college is almost complete.
Says Ayodhya District Magistrate Anuj Kumar Jha, “We are still deciding on a place for the Ram statue. As for the airport, two villages have agreed to give up their land. We are negotiating with two others as well.”
Adds Jitendra Kane, the Chief Engineer at the Ayodhya Nagar Nigam, “When work begins on the Smart City project, there will be smart cards for buses, wi-fi, e-Challan system for traffic etc.”
It doesn’t take much to shatter their illusions, laughs Shivam Yadav, 18, a B.Sc first-year student at the government K S Saket P G College. With college on autumn break, a few students have come to collect scholarship forms and deposit submissions. “FB dekh kar hamein hamari aukaat pata chal jaati hai (Facebook shows us our place in the country),” says the eldest of three children of a teacher. “My friend who is pursuing B.Tech in Greater Noida says it is so much better… We have nothing, no malls, hotels, non-vegetarian food… Sirf vivaad (only conflict)… Politicians have sown seeds of distrust.”
Paint is chipping off the walls of the college building while its basketball court is filled with water from the previous day’s rain. Pointing to the infrastructure, Rajat Srivastav, 17, a first-year student, says he hopes to clear the NEET medical entrance, “move out from here”. “Hindu or Muslim, the new generation wants education,” he asserts.
Abdul Razaq, 18, who is also preparing for NEET, accuses politicians of using religion to divert attention from these “real issues”. “If one raises questions about education and development, all they say is ‘Mandir yahin banayenge (The temple will be built here)’.”
Amrita Verma, 22, a first-year D Pharma student, says women figure even lower among the government’s priorities. Rushing for a special class, Verma, the daughter of a lawyer, fears the verdict wouldn’t be the end of the discord. Asking the government to pay some of that attention to women’s security, she says, “We hear of schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, but on the ground, women don’t feel safe. We all want to take up jobs after college… But how does our opinion matter? Women are not a part of the conversation anyway.”
Her friend Kanti Yadav, 17, adds that most women she knows are not even allowed phones. As others laugh, she suggests, “The court should order that a college be made at the RJB site, which will have both Hindu and Muslim students.”
Three kilometres away, around 4 pm, to the sound of the evening aarti from Hanuman Garhi, a crowd builds up around coaching centres near the market, offering classes for a range of competitive exams, from entry to the IAS and Army to teacher training. Photographs of those who topped the exams last year dot the town.
Ajay Chaudhary, 25, teaches ‘General Studies’ at Sankalp Academy, which has over 100 students taking classes in turns in a cramped room. “If you just walk into galis off the main road, like this one, you will see that dharm (religion) doesn’t really matter. You will also see the problems of Ayodhya — the open drains, crumbling homes, broken pathways.”
He admits that all students and teachers at the centre, born after 1992, want a Ram Mandir, but adds that there is little enthusiasm about it. “How will it help us? All the students here are working hard to land jobs outside.”
Shivam Yadav has a more immediate concern. “We have heard a large number of troops will be coming in before the judgment and will stay at our college. So that’s another two months lost.”
Says DM Jha, “We have to be ready for all outcomes. We will ensure there is no breakdown of law and order.”
There are no accurate figures of the death toll in the violence before and after the Babri demolition. While nobody remembers any Hindu-Muslim riots in the town, the memory of those days, changing the country’s politics, lingers.
Gayatri Pandey, 50, lost her husband Ramesh Pandey when police fired on karsevaks trying to storm Babri Masjid in 1990. Sitting on the floor of her dingy home in Rani Bazaar, she smiles as her five-year-old grandson Athar, sitting in her lap, quips, “Mandir ka nirmaan hoga (The temple will be built).”
The family, including Ramesh’s four children, got Rs 2 lakh after his death. Gayatri says the real tribute to her husband would be a temple. “I have waited for too long, 27 years… Everyone forgot about us. When the verdict comes, I hope my husband’s sacrifice will be remembered. At least my sons should be given government jobs.” Her older son works at the VHP’s Ram Mandir Karyashala.
Sandeep Kumar Gupta (30) and sister Seema Gupta (35), whose father died in the 1990 firing too, barely make ends meet running a small clothes shop. Insisting a temple should be built, Sandeep says, “Ram is our identity. What Mecca is to Muslims, Ramjanmabhoomi is for us.”
In another part of town, Mohd Naeem is hoping his 16-year-old nephew Sadiq’s death in the violence following the Babri demolition, among the 15 Muslims reportedly killed, doesn’t turn out to be in vain. “Our homes were burnt. Sadiq was pulled out and beaten to death,” says the 51-year-old driver and father of six.
Brushing aside his 18-year-old son’s attempts to hush him, Naeem says, “Kyon nahin bolein (Why shouldn’t we speak)?. The new generation is unaware of those times, they just want to study and get jobs. But we are waiting for the judgment. Abhi tak hamari koi sunwai nahin hui hai, ab ummeed hai ki hamein insaaf milega (No one has heard our pleas so far. I hope we get justice now).”
Tarannum, 30, who lost her father Shaukatullah in the post-Babri violence, is reluctant to talk. Speaking from behind a door, she says, “Bas masla sulajh jaye (The matter should just be resolved). It’s been going on for too long.”
Sharad Sharma is the Ayodhya spokesperson of the VHP, the Sangh Parivar outfit that played a prominent role in the temple movement. While he admits that passion for the temple is dwindling, he says technology makes up for it. “Earlier, the Bajrang Dal (the VHP’s youth wing) had 25 lakh members, now we have over 70 lakh. With Twitter, Facebook, this generation will take the movement forward. And now we see youngsters celebrating Durga Puja, Ganesh Puja. They know our history.”
Work has been on at the VHP’s Ram Janmabhoomi Karyashala at ‘Karsevak-
puram’, over a kilometre away from the disputed site, since 1990, on stones to be used in the proposed temple. But since the lone artisan passed away recently, work is at a halt. Many of the stones have gathered moss. Says Sharma, “Around 65% of the work is complete… We are waiting for the judgment.”
Like several others, Deepak Kumar Saini, 25, has come to offer his services at the Karsevakpuram this time of the year, taking a break from his regular job, at a mobile repair shop. Distributing food at a ‘Dussehra bhandara’, he says, “Mandir aur vikas saath aayenge (Temple and development will come together). Already, roads are being widened, loose hanging wires are underground… Ayodhya has no problems now.”
A few metres away, at a school run by the VHP, 35 students between the ages of 12 and 17, from Ayodhya and nearby areas, recite verses from the Yajur Veda. Asked by their teacher Narad Bhattarai, 30, if they want a temple, they respond with a loud “haan (yes)”.
The students have a packed schedule, starting 4 am, studying the Vedas and English, Maths, Social Science. The school, from Class 5 onwards, accepts them after an entrance test, and they go on to clear Class 10 and 12 through open board. Bhattarai, one of five teachers at the school, says most go on to pursue higher studies at institutions such as Banaras Hindu University.
Gyanendra Mishra, 15, a Class 10 student, says he wants to become a “Ram Kathavachak (story-teller)”. As other children tease him, he hits back, “No, not a sadhu (priest)! Kathavachak.”
Ten kilometres away, on the Ayodhya-Faizabad border, is located Muslim Yateem Khaana Madrasa. One of the biggest madrasas in the region, it has around 50 students, with as packed a schedule. Asked about the coming judgment, most are wary of speaking.
Teacher Mohd Haseeb, who points out that his students study the Quran as well as Maths, English and Urdu, asserts, “Religion has nothing to do with education at this madrasa.” He adds, “Whatever the verdict is, we will accept it. Bas dhokha nahin hona chahiye (Only, we should not be cheated). We saw how the Babri Masjid was felled…”
Most Muslims, Haseeb adds, are driven by a sense of fatigue and resignation. With little political representation and dwindling space to express their views, the community has learnt to keep to itself, he says. “A verdict in our favour will bring some closure.”
Around 20 students gathered around him nod. Refusing to be named, one of them says, “It is important to put the issue to rest. We want a mosque.”
Mohd Shehzad, a local meat-seller, who is visiting the madrasa, says while he too agrees that “the (RJB) land is ours”, he is scared about what will follow the judgment, “because of the way the media has been portraying our community”. “I saw what happened in 1992, I don’t want it to happen again,” says the father of three.
Around this time of the year, the echo of any tension, anywhere outside is the loudest in Ayodhya. Shehzad has opened his shop today after nine days of Navratras. “Now we hear even meat shops on the outskirts of the town will be shut down. It’s my only source of income,” he worries.
So, like the others, the 50-year-old has decided what’s best for his children. “I didn’t let them join my shop. They are all studying and will hopefully get jobs outside.”
Till then, Xiaomi, the Big Bazaar store at Ayodhya and the Reliance Trends Mall at Faizabad will have to do.
At the Xiaomi store, Srivastav says they sell about 180 handsets every month, mostly for Rs 8,000-10,000, to mainly youngsters. For now happy with the Rs 20,000 a month he earns at the store, he hopes to eventually join the Uttar Pradesh Police. “After working from 11 am to 8 pm, I study till 2 am, then go for coaching in the morning. I want a government job, it will give me stability… I wouldn’t think twice before leaving town,” says Srivastav, the eldest of three siblings of a farming family.
His colleague Ali, whose father runs a hair saloon nearby, wants to set up his own business after gaining enough “experience”. “I started working at 17. I searched job sites, but there were no Ayodhya-based posts. I was too young to leave. But now, if something comes up, I will leave,” he says, adding he earns Rs 15,000 every month.
Shivangi Kanojia, 18, started working at the Big Bazaar outlet, located on the outskirts of Ayodhya, last month. The daughter of a daily wager, she says, “I have three brothers, but they are no good. Since I passed out of Class 12, all I have been worried about is getting a job.”
The only thing she knew about the Big Bazaar job was that “it would be an air-conditioned office with a good salary”. She grabbed it, seeing it as a step up from her hospital job helping nursing staff. Now she cycles 6 km from home, for a shift of 9 am to 9 pm with one day off, working in the security department of the three-storey store.
A day after Dussehra, the store that opened a month ago is buzzing, including with customers wearing the saffron garb of sadhus. The bestsellers, the staff of over 70 say, are face wash, almonds and women’s kurtas.
Dressed in a bottle-green uniform, Kanojia says she earns Rs 8,000 a month. “I check bills, bags, and guard the offices. This job has been very helpful for my family.” She has no time to worry about the Ram Mandir agitation, she adds. “But if it brings better jobs, I am for it.”
The Reliance Trends Mall in Faizabad came up in February. Aditya Yadav, 29, its assistant store manager, says the sales have been “awesome”. “People outside Ayodhya have a certain perception, that this town is all about Ram Mandir… But in Ayodhya we are moving forward,” says the local resident, who earlier had a job with Vodafone.
Guiding customers around the Indian wear sections, he says the store gets around 500 customers daily, going up to 1,300 at times. “We are already in the process of opening a new store… Most of our customers are families, and many are from the Army’s Dogra Regiment stationed nearby. Not many youngsters….”
Store manager Shyam Singh says the Ayodhya posting has been an “eye-opener”. “Last year when I was doing market research before the outlet’s opening, I found that most homes had grilles around their windows. I presumed it was precautionary, for a clash or curfew… Later, I found it was to keep monkeys away,” he laughs. “We have heard there will be Ola service here soon.”
Change has also breached another religion frontier: the Ramlilas. On Dussehra day, towards the evening, most streets are deserted, with only a few men heading to the Ayodhya Ramlila Mahotsav Samiti’s Ramlila at Rajendra Niwas — one of the three in town, and the oldest. The groups of young men who have been gyrating to racy Bhojpuri tunes through the day, accompanying Durga Puja idols headed for visarjan, have dissipated.
The crowds are not what they used to be, laments the Rajendra Niwas Ramlila owner, Awadh Kishore Pathak. The few gathered around the small make-shift stage today, mostly women and children, are complaining about the insects drawn to the lights. In one corner, stands a large bamboo Ravan, surrounded by a few boys taking selfies.
Pathak believes phones are to blame for the lack of audience. “The youth watch everything on their phone, even Ramayan. Why would they come for the show?”
Ratnesh Shukla, the 26-year-old father of two who plays Ram, Laxman as well as Sita at the Ramlila, getting Rs 20,000 for 10 days of performance, insists things will change. “Jaldi sab clear ho jayega (Soon, everything will be clear). You should come for the Ramlila next year. The place will be full. Now we are all just waiting.”
But who says the Ayodhya show has to end?
In Aasif Baag on Ayodhya’s outskirts, Raju Prajapati is at work at his potter’s wheel, to churn out “10,000 diyas” by Diwali, for “Rs 100 per 70 diyas” — an order from the state government. “Like Ram and Sita lived in Hanuman’s heart, Ayodhya lives in the heart of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogiji,” the 25-year-old graduate, who joined the family profession after trying his hand at “everything”, beams. “We have to make four lakh diyas this time. Yogiji se direct baat hui hamari (I spoke directly to the CM).”
27 yrs & counting
Dec 6, 1992: Babri Masjid demolished at the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi site
April 2002: Allahabad HC begins hearing on determining who owns the disputed site
Sept 30, 2010: HC, in a 2:1 majority, rules three-way division of disputed area between Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.
May 9, 2011: SC stays HC verdict
Feb 26, 2016: Plea filed in SC seeking construction of Ram Temple at the disputed site
Mar 21, 2017: Then CJI J S Khehar suggests out-of-court settlement among parties
Dec 1, 2017: 32 civil rights activists file pleas challenging 2010 Allahabad HC verdict
Feb 8, 2018: SC starts hearing the civil appeals
Jan 25, 2019: SC reconstitutes 5-member Constitution Bench to hear the case. The new Bench comprises CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S A Bobde, D Y Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S A Nazeer
July 2019: SC orders 8 weeks of mediation by a three-member panel
Aug 2019: CJI Gogoi says mediation efforts in the land dispute have failed; daily hearing of case begins in SC from Aug 6
Oct 17, 2019: Hearings to conclude, judgment expected before CJI retires on Nov 17