To be good neighbours in Ayodhya
As a mediation process is under way in the Ayodhya dispute, the city’s residents recall how neighbours helped fill the breach between two communities
There are many ways to look at a wall. Some say good walls make good neighbours, and with them we share our bread. Some others say that walls between neighbours should never be so high that you cannot greet them. In Ayodhya, and its twin city Faizabad, which the Nawabs of Awadh developed as their first capital, neighbours are measured by the breach in the wall. Who helped whom when their houses were attacked; who put out the flames in the locality when the Babri Masjid was brought down in 1992, and which of their neighbours today sieve with them the events of that year to show if there was hope then, despite provocative speeches by politicians, it cannot be all over now.
In the ensuing 27 years, the case has run into thousands of pages and has multiple appellants, most of them neighbours, living within 2-3 kms of each other. Its two most famous appellants, the late Ramachandra Das Paramhans and the late Hashim Ansari, lived in the same mohalla and would sometimes even go in the same car to the court. Locals said whenever the VHP gave a bandh call in Ayodhya, Paramhans would hire a cab from the taxi service run by the Ansaris to check if the call had had any impact.
“Our relations predate the dispute and was unchanged by it,” says Iqbal Ansari, Hashim’s son.
On March 8, 2019, the Supreme Court ordered a mediation among petitioners in the Babri-Ramjanambhoomi case. This has set many residents thinking about the nature of the solution and what it will mean for the city of a thousand temples, the wounds of a people and career politicians.
Who stands where
Ayodhya MLA Ved Prakash Gupta of the BJP says: “If Muslims are unhappy about Babri, they can go pray elsewhere. Actually, local Muslims are quite okay, it’s Muslims outside who are restive.”
Ayodhya minus politicians “is equal to no dispute”, says Krishna Pratap Singh, resident editor of Janmorcha, a 12-page Hindi daily, which was influential in the 1990s for its feisty editorials and reporting, especially among the local progressives. Singh’s ability to look at Ayodhya from the ‘outside’ is determined partly by where he stays -- his home is in a locality where Faizabad and Ayodhya meet -- but more so due to his experiences of 1992.
He says he was helpless when one of his best friends, Sahil Bharti, a teacher and a poet, rushed home one day as the situation tensed up in Ayodhya and asked him whether his wife and kids could be safe in the city. “‘Should I send them away’? Sahil asked. ‘I don’t know’, I said. We were both strugglers, he had a rented room, I had a one-room flat, we just sat in it and wept.” Hindu-Muslim ties in Ayodhya were derailed in 1992. These ties were and are based on cultural affinity and economic interdependence, the first being the outer layer, and the second, the inner core of the “famed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”, adds Singh.
Muslims are around 15% of the population in Faizabad and six per cent in Ayodhya. Mixed neighbourhoods may be uncommon in the rest of India but not in Ayodhya and Faizabad, explains Singh. “The tailor, the khadav (wooden sandals) makers of the deities and the sadhus, and the garland-makers are all Muslims. If the fire is lit in a neighbourhood, a Hindu house next to a Muslim one will burn, so will our shops. We are in each other’s lives. We are different but any attempt to enforce a separation will cause pain….”
Everyday life between Hindu and Muslim communities in Ayodhya since 1992 has depended on an elaborate ritual that is almost like a Japanese tea ceremony in which keeping the shoes out of the room is actually the first step towards keeping the surroundings squeaky clean, the conversation moderate, and its pitch low. “With all those with whom we have social relations, we have terribly sanitised, risk-averse conversations now. We constantly tell each other, ‘Everything is fine and all the trouble was by outsiders’,” Suryakant Pandey observes wryly. Pandey is a social activist who has come to meet his neighbour, Reyal Ahmad Khan, principal, Forbes Intermediate College, for a chat.
Khan agrees, and tempers his remembrances with ifs and buts. “Obviously locals were involved [in the Babri demolition on December 6, 1992, and the attack on Muslim houses in its aftermath] but then one has to differentiate between which sentiments are temporary and which are permanent, and how those feelings can be made to rise…. But if there were some people who tried to stoke a fire and create divisions, there were many who tried to mend the crack. We remember 1992 as an attack on Muslims, not a Hindu-Muslim clash.”
Did any of his immediate neighbours empathise with him that December day? Khan answers that indirectly: “Crackers were burst…candles were lit…. If something is built, there is cause for celebration, but if a demolition makes people happy, what is there to say?” He calls for tea and gently changes the topic of conversation. “But we had a good Holi this year, didn’t we?”, he asks of his neighbour. Pandey agrees they did.
Both wave symbols of the city’s syncretic traditions – its most well-known temple, Hanumangarhi, was built on land donated by Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah, and on its land stands a mosque that is now being repaired with the temple’s funds --- and try to graft a new skin onto the year 1992. “Even with the religious polarisation outside at the Saket Degree College, the student community elected Afzar Mehdi as the students’ union president. He was acceptable to all,” states Pandey.
The relations between people of different religious beliefs in Ayodhya and Faizabad are not the product of a single day or week but have been honed over the years. But there is “a bad Hindu or a bad Muslim who sits inside us and is ever ready to foment trouble and prick each other’s anxieties”, says Pandey. In 2018, the Yogi Adityanath-led state government joined Faizabad with Ayodhya and made it part of a single entity, the Ayodhya Municipal Corporation. “No doubt there are people who have been made happy by this move. It’s one way of teasing a community and saying, ‘We have taken over your city, wiped off Nawabiyat and see, now your city has a Hindu name’.” It’s a small give to conservatives, he adds, for “not being able to give a temple”.
The UP government in its official communication has stated the move was due to public demand.
A potent mix
“Teen nahi, ab tees hazaar, nahi bachegi ek mazaar,” was a VHP slogan that shook Ayodhya and Faizabad in 1992 and beyond. Says VHP spokesperson Vinod Bansal: “Our research says on 30,000 temples, Muslim monuments were constructed. That’s why it was said please vacate them without delay, otherwise we’ll have to fight for the 30,000 which were destroyed by their ancestors.”
Haji Asad Ahmed (a Samajwadi Party member) and his childhood friend and neighbour Shailendra Pandey (a Congressman) both grew up in the vicinity of two mosques. By 1992, Asad and Pandey had passed out of college. “When I heard the Babri Masjid had fallen, I went to Asad’s neighbourhood and found his house surrounded by a mob. Somehow we managed to hide him and his family inside a police station.”
Pandey and Asad uphold their implacable communitarianism even now. Walking through the dark alleys of Ayodhya, Pandey on his way home stops to point at exposed bricks of temples. “These bricks are at least 500 years old. Who were ruling then? Not the British. All these temples came up during the Mughal rule. They were built by the kings who were thriving under them!”
Pandey’s exasperation with communal politics is shared by Asad. “The Ramjanambhoomi area falls in my ward. My neighbours know who I am. They did not take the burden of being Hindu when they voted for me as their corporator in 1995,” he says. Asad routinely gets invited to Shiva mandir bhandaara and other religious functions.
He says 1992 was the starting point of a political movement, not a religious one. But what followed has been the template for all conflicts, even potential ones; political points are made in religious terms and can blow up anytime. In 2012, Shah Alam, a cultural activist, ran into trouble when he organised a screening at Saket University, Ayodhya, of Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Ram ke Naam, based on the events of 1992. A leading Hindi daily carried the story of the ABVP protest with the headline, ‘Film festival mein mahapuroshon ka hua apmaan’ (Film festival insults the greats).
“The mix of religion and politics has been deadly here. Even today many Muslims leave home to go outside the city or relocate somewhere safer whenever the Sangh Parivar has a major programme in the city or gives a call for building the temple,” says Singh. “They don’t want to sit at home thinking will it be 1992 again….”
Asad adds: “When the plates start moving, local and petty resentments are expressed in a full-blown religious mobilisation and then you will see Muslims in one corner and Hindus in the other. Then again in a few months, neigbours are back to being neighbours, it seems everything is back to normal and we are eating at each other’s feasts and weddings.”
Ayodhya is thus a story of negotiation and strain, and equally a story of building and re-building of what is broken. Not much can be gained out of bad blood, locals feel. Iqbal Ansari’s neighbours, Shyama Devi, a vegetable seller, and Kaleshwar Yadav, a temple guide, who live within half-a-kilometre of where the Babri Masjid stood, say, “We had nothing to do with its falling, and we had no problem when it was standing either”. Yadav adds: “What did we get in return? Curfew, trouble, lack of rations, hundreds of temples acquired and closed down because of their inclusion in the controversial site.”
At the house of the late Munnu Miyan – the manager of Sundar Bhawan, Ayodhya till the ’90s, that included a temple -- his son, Sabir Ali, sits in his living room. Monkeys are jumping all over his terrace; when they break his flower pots or raise too much of a din, he points the empty air rifle at them. A calendar with the Babri Masjid hangs on one of the walls. On December 6, this retired government official tells Veeru Tiwari, a well-wisher and a neighbour, of how Ramsagar Shukla, another neighbour, had saved his father. “And Babban Das, a Naga sadhu I knew, had stayed with me the entire night to keep me company.” And they did this because for that one night all of them broke down some parts of the wall.