Four Decades of Milking a Deity in Ayodhya

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Ideas birthed in the course of this agitation have completely reconfigured India. But people will one day see through it.

In the four-decade long history of the agitation for a Ram temple in Ayodhya in place of the Babri Masjid, Lal Krishna Advani made a profoundly indicative disclosure on January 11, 1993. 

Made at a press conference a day in New Delhi after his release from custody, it was possibly aimed at deflecting the accusation of being among those directly responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. 

To serve as a reminder, Advani was arrested on December 8, 1992, well after dust from the Babri Masjid’s rubbles settled down and rioting erupted in several parts of India. He was released on January 10, 1993, following a court order.

While addressing journalists, he clarified that the campaign was not merely aimed at constructing the Ram temple in place of the medieval mosque. Instead, its objective was to arose among Indians, the “awareness of cultural nationalism.” 

The agitation for the ‘liberation’ of the Ram Janmabhoomi was a mere vehicle for propagating the Sangh Parivar’s imagination of the “country and its people”. The intention was to secure acceptance for the saffron fold’s viewpoint regarding “the position of the minorities in the country and their response to aspirations of the Hindu majority in India.”

Because these notions were fairly Greek then for the majority of Indians, the movement’s leaders and publicists played on people’s emotions by calling for “restoration” of the “birth-place of Bhagwan Ram”. The ‘liberation’ of the child Ram from the jail that the Babri Masjid was projected as, became a common talking-point of the movement.

For a mosque to exist at that “very site”, was little but blasphemous. To stir up passions of Hindus, repeated calls were made in the name of the mythical-hero turned deity. In Ram’s name they were asked to support programmes and campaigns being waged by Hindu majoritarian organisations.

From ensuring that people turned out in large numbers for the first yatra of the movement, the Shri Ram Janki Rath Yatra in September-October 1984, to the impending celebrations on January 22, it has been a long sequence of ‘events’. The sole aim of all this was to widen the political base of BJP and affiliated organisations, by figuratively speaking, ‘milking Ram.’

Also read | Ayodhya: Once There Was A Mosque

At the onset, it must be recalled that while the Ayodhya-Ram temple-Babri Masjid issue was a matter of public contestation in the late 1940s and immediately after the mosque’s desecration on the intervening night of Dec 22-23, 1949, the issue thereafter, receded to the background. 

From the 1950s, an impromptu local committee supervised worship of child Ram’s idol and the matter faded from public discourse. Even after a fresh push was given to Hindu communalist ideas through a series of programmes staring with the Ekatmata Yagna in 1983, secular groups failed to comprehend interconnections between seemingly disparate initiatives of the orchestrated ideological campaign.

The Shri Ram Janki Rath Yatra from Sitamarhi in Bihar was synonymous with Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti and it was difficult to separate one from the other. The latter in fact, was established after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad hosted a Dharam Sansad in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, pointing to the government’s decision to look the other way in the initial years of the Ayodhya movement. 

The focus of political discourse then was dominated by religious extremism in Punjab and on the ‘anti-outsider’ Assam movement. 

Consequently, when the Shri Ram Janki Rath Yatra arrived in Ayodhya in the first week of October 1984, no one joined the dots, which if done, could have pointed to Hindu right-wing forces’ emerging strategy.

None of their adversaries took note that the truck on which large statues of Ram and Sita were displayed, was emblazoned with banners proclaiming the slogan, Bharat Mata Ki Jai. From the movement’s infancy, it was a religio/cultural-nationalist movement and not merely a religious demand. The claim for the Ram temple and erasure of the Babri Masjid was framed within the imagined power and glory for the nation. Not accepting the demand or opposing it was portrayed as unpatriotic.

BJP supporters during Modi’s recent visit to Ayodhya. Photo: Facebook/Narendra Modi.

It also missed every critic’s eye that the yatra secured the participation of different Hindu sects despite the fact that during various religious congregations, inner contradictions and conflicts between the groups – Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Tantriks etc, were evident and clashes were common. This was evidence of future pan-Hindu unity but was also overlooked. 

By the second half of the 1980s, much water had flown down the rivers of India, especially Saryu, Yamuna, Gomti and Ganga, the four north Indian rivers that made its way past cities that became theatres of conflicts over the medieval shrine. 

Even while other temple-mosque disputes were raked up, the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhomi temple conflict triggered several riots across regions, now home-base of Hindutva forces. Yet, a magical idea or a programme that could convert the demand for the temple a mass movement backed by large sections of Hindus, eluded the Sangh Parivar. 

From 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s fortunes began declining, his reputation as an incorruptible politician was besmirched and political support for VP Singh began widening. Amid increasing efforts at opposition unification as in 1977, the BJP made the Advanian choice of remaining in ‘splendid isolation’. However, the party backed anti-Congress agitations and even joined the Devi Lal-headed coalition government in Haryana.

Fast-forward to 1989, the year of the ninth Lok Sabha elections. By then it was amply clear that the Sangh Parivar’s sword-arm on the Ayodhya movement, VHP, was lying in wait for an opportune moment to demolish the Babri Masjid. 

But, because the saffron clan functioned cohesively, the BJP’s political fortunes could not be risked in the polls. Although it had just two seats in Lok Sabha, its leaders sensed that the a quantum jump was possible.

To pitchfork the Ayodhya issue into the political centre-stage, the VHP announced two separate programmes. The first was the immensely controversial plan to lay the ‘foundation stone’ or a shila (brick or stone) at a chosen spot virtually in handshaking distance from the Babri Masjid. 

This was announced for November 9, also the day of devuththan ekadashi (a Hindu festival when gods are believed to rise from celestial slumber) when pilgrims assembled in thousands in Ayodhya. The VHP and other affiliates of the RSS were tasked to mobilize support across India.

The other plan was a pan-Indian programme which eventually electrified large sections of Hindus and provided them with a ‘sense of participation’ in the agitation for the Ram temple that was ‘destroyed’ for building a mosque.

Inscription located outside the Babri Masjid, above its main entrance door. The inscription contains 8 couplets of Persian verse.

In this campaign, specially manufactured bricks, euphemistically called Ram Shilas, were to be consecrated through special religious rituals in innumerable villages, colonies, towns and cities. Hindus were urged to participate in these rituals or line-up around the streets through which the bricks would wind their way to notified collections centres and eventually to Ayodhya.

From September 1989 onward, the Ram Shilas were transported in trucks, escorted to Ayodhya by slogan-raising youth volunteers drawn from the Bajrang Dal. The VHP declared that the shila pujan programme was decided to “provide a sense of belonging to Hindus at large.” 

Whether that happened or not remains a matter of dispute, but they surely caused communal riots, often triggered when VHP Ram Shila Yatras made their way provocatively through areas where Muslims dwelled in large numbers.

It is estimated that several lakh bricks eventually reached Ayodhya and multiples of these were used up by various people to construct private temples or other structures after making a ‘donation’ for the cause. 

The Ram Shila Pujan and Yatra programme was the first major nationwide fund-collection drive of the VHP and this remained a steady feature, as in 2021 when funds were raised for constructing the temple by activists of the RSS fraternity. 

The fate of these bricks and almost 1.25 lakh cubic feet of special stone, stored and carved in the locality which the VHP named Karsevakpuram, remains unknown although media reports mentioned that temple trustees had declared that these are being used in the construction.

This claim however, is at variance of a sample test informally done by Central Building Research Institute, Roorkee in the early 1990s. The scientists had opined that the bricks could not be used in a single structure as they would expand and contract differently for having being made from soil of different regions. These details points to the Sangh Parivar’s tactics of devising campaigns which can mobile people’s support even though the intended objective may never be met, in this case, pray and offer donations for making bricks to be used for building the temple.

Syed Shahabuddin was among the few Indian in politics and one of the principal characters of this macabre conflict that has still not ended playing out theatrically even after more than a century and a half, who sensed the enormous potential of the Ram Shila Pujan and Yatra programmes. 

Also read: Thanks to the Ayodhya Judgment, Faith Rather Than Fact is Driving India’s Courts

On the day this was announced during the Kumbh Mela in February 1989, this writer met him and shared the details of the announcement. His ashen expression as he heard and his response has not been forgotten for a moment since then: “Hereafter no one will be able to stop this mass movement.”

Almost 31 years after the Shilanyas ceremony, barely a hundred odd feet away from the precincts of the Babri Masjid, Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed Bhoomi Pujan on August 5, 2020 for the temple now still being built but will paradoxically be ‘consecrated’ and inaugurated. It was also the day of the first anniversary of the reading down of Article 370.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with UP governor Anandiben Patel, chief minister Yogi Adityanath, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and others perform Bhoomi Pujan rituals for the construction of the Ram Mandir, at Ayodhya on August 5. Photo: PTI/File

No one asked how Shilanyas was different from Bhoomi Pujan.

If another foundation stone was laid by Modi, what was the fate of the one laid by Kameshwar Chaupal, the Scheduled Caste member of the temple Trust, who was then a VHP activists and subsequently became a BJP legislator from Bihar for long before being handed his present job?

This has been the standard pattern for almost three and a half decades since the Ram temple issue moved to the centre-stage of Indian politics. Repeating programmes and rituals was commonplace. 

Ashok Singhal, the VHP strongman for decades and face of the Ayodhya agitation prior to LK Advani, declared that the Shilanyas ceremony as performed by Chaupal, did not lay the foundation of just the Ram Temple, but of a Hindu India. His assertion was articulated different by Advani, as aforementioned.

Indians shall wait for what Modi says after the ritual on January 22 and what would resonate thereafter. The Supreme Court verdict of November 2019 generated hopes of a closure. Events since have proven that this remains elusive, in the present, or in the immediate future. 

The Sangh Parivar, now led by Modi, will continue ‘milking’ Ram and the ideas birthed in the course of this agitation that has completely reconfigured India, for more political power and glory for more time, till the people see through this tactic when they are presented with an electoral opportunity.

With several more copycat campaigns and similar turning points, it might be apt to say, ‘Yeh to bas jhaanki hai, poori baat baaqi hai (this is a mere curtain-raiser, the entire tale remains to be told).’

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and author, and has written two books on the Babri Masjid-Ram temple dispute, one in 1994 and the other in 2021.

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Disclaimer: Four Decades of Milking a Deity in Ayodhya - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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