On 6 December 2016, Vishal Kumar of Ayodhya will turn 24. So will the town’s claim to notoriety. Two hours after Vishal Kumar was born to municipal worker Ram Kumar and his wife, an army of Hindutva’s soldiers broke down a Mughal-era mosque because it stood on a land they believed to be the birthplace of the god-king Ram.
Last week in Ayodhya, I asked Vishal Kumar if he knows the significance of the day he was born. “I know that something happened,” Kumar said, squinting at the bright sun in a courtyard in one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Ayodhya. “Some people were killed. The structure of a mosque was broken down. I don’t know much else. It was so long ago.”
In many ways, 6 December 1992 marked the beginning of the Hindu Right’s campaign for a Hindu Rashtra – an India for Hindus. At its centre was the push for the construction of a temple to Ram on the site of the demolished mosque.
For years after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the demand for the Ram mandir was a byword for Hindu nationalism. A lot has changed since the day in 1992, including shifts in political power and court battles over the claim to the site. Nearly 25 years after the event that polarised India, the movement for the Ram mandir is as irrelevant to the young Hindus of Uttar Pradesh as to those who tore down the Babri Masjid.
New Era, New Agenda
“It’s not an issue for me, at least. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Ram toh dil mein baste hain (Ram is in one’s heart). He doesn’t belong to any one place,” said Vishal Kumar. Two years ago, Kumar dropped out of a local college to help his family tide over financial distress. He is still looking for a job. When Kumar casts his vote in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, this is what he will be thinking of. “The biggest election issue for me is employment. Other issues for me and my friends are progress, profitable education, factories.”
In another ancient courtyard in Ayodhya, 20-year-old Pranu Shukla told me the last thing Ayodhya needs is another Ram mandir. Her father, an Ayodhya old-timer whose ancestors built their own temple to Ram, had just delivered the statement that “every single person in Ayodhya wants the Ram mandir.” The young woman didn’t agree.
“Ayodhya already has so many temples. Each has a statue of Ram. They all look the same. Why do we need another? What should be built in this town, in my view, is something that will take the people of Ayodhya forward, something that can be used by everyone, like a shopping mall. It will create employment. It is time for the fuss over mandir vs. masjid to be over.” Shukla, a student of business management at a local college, too has clear expectations from the next person who will lead Uttar Pradesh. “He or she should be like [Narendra] Modi. They should have the courage to do what he has done with black money. I agree with his policies.”
Religion hasn’t stopped mattering to the new generation of Uttar Pradesh’s Hindus. The proliferation of Hindu-extremist outfits across the state point to a deepening of the sectarian divide, in fact. However, most young people joining these fringe armies relate more to the battles for Hindutva in which they can participate – against the imagined love jihad or the killing of cows – than an agenda from a time before they were born.
“The whole of Hindutva is our agenda and not just the Ram mandir,” said P K Mal, the leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Gorakhpur-based organisation floated by Hindutvavadi rabble-rouser Yogi Adityanath. “Of course, every Hindu wants the temple to be built in Ayodhya at some point. Agar bhagwan Ram Ayodhya mein nahin rahenge toh kya Mecca mein rahenge? (If lord Ram won’t live in Ayodhya, where will he live – surely not in Mecca!) But our larger campaign is against the political appeasement of Muslims in UP. Against terrorism. For a Uniform Civil Code. For a Hindutva-led lifestyle. For a majoritarian state. We should take inspiration from [Donald] Trump.”
The view that the Hindutva project no longer needs the establishment of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya isn’t limited to the young Hindu radicals in Uttar Pradesh. Its believers include people who cleared the physical space for it to be erected on the morning of 6 December 1992.
Watch: The Fight For Ram Mandir Is Losing Steam
Then and Now
Ashok Chatterjee, 67-year-old businessman in Ayodhya, was among the throng of 150,000 kar sevaks headed for the Babri Masjid on the day of its demolition. An old correspondent for Panchjanya, a mouthpiece of the Hindu Right, Chatterjee later testified in the Allahabad High Court in the case over the legitimacy of the title to the contested site. Chatterjee is no longer waiting for the temple to be built in Ayodhya. The Ram mandir movement, he told me, has served its purpose in the Hindutva project.
“Everything is symbolic in Hinduism,” he said, bent over a stack of files containing documents supporting the legal case for the Ram mandir. “In my own drawing room, I used to hesitate before saying that I am Hindu. Ram mandir brought the words Hindu, Hindutva and Ram not just to our drawing rooms but to national imagination. It took the narrative of India back from the Congress and the communists. A whole community figured out where its roots are. And as a result of that Modi ji came to power in 2014 with 282 seats.”
Chatterjee doesn’t worry about the fact that the BJP hasn’t put Ram mandir at the centre of its election campaign in the state. He feels the party can continue to reap the rewards of orchestrating the events of 6 December 1992.
“Whether it’s ‘Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkar’ or ‘Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkar’, these words originated from the Ram mandir movement. If 6 December didn’t happen, Modi wouldn’t have come to power in India, and Trump wouldn’t have become the president of America. The same thing will make true BJP’s goal of 288 seats in the UP elections.”
In October, the BJP announced its decision to set up a Ramayana museum in Ayodhya. This is all the party has offered on the subject of Ram in its election campaign in Uttar Pradesh so far.
“Ram mandir is not a part of the BJP campaign,” said Keshav Prasad Maurya, the president of the party’s state unit, in his office in Lucknow. “The building of the temple and the development of Ayodhya are two different matters. The second should not be affected because of the status of the first. Be it the youth or Ram bhakts, everyone in UP is supporting BJP with the hope it will bring change.”
This is also what Lallu Singh, a kar sevak from 1992 and the current MP from Faizabad – Ayodhya’s twin town – told me when I visited him at his weekly durbar. “BJP’s priority right now is to uproot terrorism from the country, securing the borders, lifting the living conditions of the average citizen. The temple will be built either today or tomorrow. And lord Ram is lord Ram; he will decide when it’s the right time for him to take his seat in Ayodhya.”
Aged 35 in 1992, Singh, an RSS volunteer since he was a boy, had taken care of logistics on the day of the mosque’s demolition. Today, Singh believes Hindus should see Narendra Modi as a stand-in for lord Ram.
“What lord Sri Ram did while ruling Ayodhya, Modi is doing right now in India. Lord Ram finished off people with a demonic bent, the equivalent of today’s terrorists,” said Lallu Singh. “He empowered the poor, turned them into soldiers in his war against Ravan. We can say that, to some extent, Modi is also following the same path. You meet any saint in Ayodhya and he will tell you that Modi ji is Sri Ram.”
I asked Raghavesh Das Vedanti, a saint placed high in Ayodhya’s holy order, about the connections between Narendra Modi and Ram.
“Everyone in Ayodhya knows the reason Modi is in power at the centre is Hindutva. We believe the moment BJP forms the government in UP and the Supreme Court gives a judgement in our favour, the process of the building the Ram mandir will begin.”
Mission Ram Mandir
The saints aren’t, however, the only people in UP who still care about the construction of the temple. In October, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, an organisation of radical Hindu nationalists, announced its decision to fight each of the 403 seats in the state election on a one-point agenda: Ram mandir.
“Let BJP fight the election on the promise of progress. In any case, neither Modi nor BJP is capable of building the temple in Ayodhya,” said Shivkant Shukla, a spokesperson. “We have begun an awareness campaign at the level of the polling booth. The temple is in every Hindu’s interest, after all.” I asked Shukla if the public is responding in the same spirit. “People are showing some support, but not that much.”
In a Time Warp
Removed from the twists and turns in the politics over the temple, the building of its structure continues at a workshop in the centre of Ayodhya. Stones are polished, columns stacked in rows, and designs carved on slabs of marble. It’s with the same everyday care that an elaborate model of the temple is guarded in Karsevakpuram, the operative headquarters of the mandir movement. “These are the five gates of the temple, this is where Sita is supposed to retire when upset, and those are the steps leading to the sanctum,” says Hajari Lal, taking me around the Plaster-of-Paris framework.
On 5 December, 1992, the 32-year old RSS volunteer left his village in Benares to carry out his life’s duty in Ayodhya. “I was there at the top of the building. We found whatever we could – shovels, spades, rods – and began striking at the dome. By noon, the structure was demolished. Four hours later, I was on the ground, buried under a pile of rubble.” Lal spent the rest of that December first in a series of hospitals and then jails. “When I went back to Ayodhya, police were sent with me for protection.” Lal went home after, but he knew he had to come back.
Hajari Lal has been a fixture in Ayodhya for years now: taking care of the model, managing labourers at the workshop, attending to visitors. In acknowledgement of his services, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sends him an occasional stipend to spend on personal needs. For 16 years now, Lal’s routine has revolved around the uncertainly over the fate of the temple; he doesn’t know what he’ll do if it gets built.
I asked Lal if he still hopes to see that day. “I don’t think about it. Whether or not lord Ram takes his place at the temple, he is settled in the hearts of Hindus across the world.”