the Saryukunj Ram Janki temple joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mothership of the VHP, in 1978. He stayed a full-time member till 1992, when he says “their divisive politics” forced him to leave. Shastri is now one of the leading members of Voice of Ayodhya, a secularist forum. “The Dalits, Muslims and Yadavs of this town — whose name means ‘where there’s no yudh’ (battle) — do not want trouble. They don’t want the town’s name sullied any further. They’re disgusted.”
Shastri’s is not the only voice raising pitch against “miscreants from outside”. Not far from the chai shop, 33-year-old Mohammad Sagir has just finished the day’s last namaaz. Standing in front of his uncle’s house which still bears the charry scars of 1992, the medical representative says, “There’s been trouble here only when people from outside have poured in.”
He’s confident that this time around there wouldn’t be trouble. “Do you see outsiders this time? In 1992 they were swarming on the streets even around here,” he says, pointing to the lanes around the Tehri Bazaar masjid, one of the eight functioning mosques in Ayodhya (the official count is 29).
“Now there are only a handful of kar sevaks from Jharkhand holed up in Kar Sevak Puram, waiting to start work on the temple,” confirms Shastri later.
Haji Mahboob Ahmad, president of the Tehri Bazaar masjid, pours out invectives when asked about the loss of business. “There’s an air of uncertainty around Ayodhya. So nobody comes to talk business,” says Ahmad, who runs a transport business and owns land that grew the lucrative cash crop of tobacco a couple of decades ago. “Ask the intelligence officer,” he says, waving at a safari-suit sitting silently in his living room. The safari-suit nods sagely.
Local businesses have indeed suffered. Sheetla Singh, 79, editor of the cooperative-run Jan Morcha broadsheet that’s been published from Ayodhya’s twin town Faizabad for 52 years, says, “Most of the handloom and powerloom units around here have shut. Not many people from here work at the sugar factories nearby.” Singh says the number of pilgrims — the main spenders in this ‘town of a thousand temples’ — has come down over the past two decades. Shastri qualifies the claim by saying that only half a dozen temples have prospered post 1992, while the others can’t even maintain their structures. And by all counts, the number of female pilgrims has gone down sharply.
Satyendra Das, the state-appointed priest of the Ram Janambhoomi temple since 1992, echoes the thought. The pujari, who came to Ayodhya in 1957, says, “In the name of kar seva, internal strife has been stoked here... The VHP has damaged the town.”
One of the businessmen bearing the brunt is Sunil Gupta, owner of the 125-seater Samrat ‘Mini Cinema’, the only one in Ayodhya. Standing 30 metres from an open sewer and 300 metres from the Hanuman Garhi temple, Gupta says, “When I started 15 years ago, there were five halls in Ayodhya and Faizabad. Now there are just two.” What do the townsfolk do for entertainment? “They mostly stay home.” An inverted reply in an inverted town.