The six-lane national highway from Lucknow cuts through green paddy fields. Faizabad arrives without warning. The city is one straight road with narrow lanes radiating from it and vanishing into a jumble of old, half-built houses.
At eye level, the city is a bazaar, selling sweets, spices, tobacco, medicines, condoms, film rolls, holy water and anything else one may need. A few kilometres on and the road becomes the main street of Ayodhya. Here, every other building is a temple. But it also has new shopfronts—all glass cabin, bright lights and modern names. Ayur Beauty Clinic, Hello Doctor Coaching Centre, Hi-Fi Midnight Disco, Easy English, Lovely Sweets and Clinic. The roads seem to be meant for cows, goats and dogs. And monkeys rule the rooftops.
The locals — 1.5 lakh of them — fight for space with the animals, diesel-spewing autorickshaws and monstrous police trucks filled with men carrying every variant of the Kalashnikov. The town has no beginning. But it has an end — the ghats on the Saryu river, which is wide and in spate. From the bridge on the river, the town looks like a sepia-toned photo — temples with withered masonry and mildewed walls. But, the town is both decaying and booming at the same time. Mobile phone towers rise from temple walls, dwarfing their spires. Tiny satellite dishes sit outside their windows.
Ayodhya has its Ground Zero — a 90 feet by 110 feet platform on which the Babri Masjid stood till it was razed by a fanatical mob in 1992. Today, a small makeshift temple with idols of Ram, Laxman and Sita stands at the site. Around it, 47 acres of land are barricaded with steel fences and barbed wire and protected by armed jawans who maintain a vigil round the clock.
On Friday (September 24), the Allahabad High Court’s Lucknow bench will deliver its verdict on a 60-year-old case that will either order the resurrection of the 428-year-old mosque or pave the way for a temple to be built at the disputed site. A wary government has been moving security forces to Ayodhya in order to prevent trouble on the day of judgment. At every street corner there is a man with an automatic rifle.
The locals are increasingly irritated. They want to reclaim their city — from the security forces, the courts, quarrelling religious groups. “Whatever the judgment of the court we will respect it. If the matter was left to people of Ayodhya it would have been resolved by now,” says Satyendra Das, head priest of Ramjanambhoomi Mandir.
Just a week before the verdict in the title suit, which actually lists the two plaintiffs as “Bhagwan Shri Ram Lala Virajman and Asthan Shri Ram Janmabhoomi”, the people of Ayodhya are indifferent to the issue and fiercely opposed to the politics of it. Even as the state government tries to prove that it can maintain law and order and discredited politicians try to stir up religious emotions, Ayodhya says it wants to move on from the past. “Those who ran a violent movement for temple forgot Ram, when they came to power. The supporters of the masjid too behaved like this when they were in power or close to it. Now they are all worried about it. That worries us,” says Khalid Rashid Faranagi Mahali, a prominent Sunni leader of UP.
“No one in Ayodhya wants violence in the name of masjid or mandir,” says Anil Kumar Singh, who teaches literature at the Saket Postgraduate College.
It would be a lie to say Ayodhya has forgotten December 6, 1992. It is not as if the local people don’t care about religion. Ayodhya has close to 20,000 temples. Till 1992, it had five mosques. Now, it has three. “Why should we kill or die for a temple when almost every house here has a temple. The whole city belongs to Ram. Why restrict him to just one disputed place,” says Ramkishan Yadav, who runs a tea stall in front of the Saket College. “All the politics and violence in the name of temple has given Ayodhya a bad image. We want that image to change,” says Yadav. A group of students drinking tea nod in agreement.
It’s in this part of the town — near the college but not far from Ground Zero — that the New Ayodhya’s new aspirations become very apparent. Young men and women at Yadav’s teashop and everywhere else express complete contempt for the mosque versus temple issue. They are hungry for education. The college has 14,000 students. The area is dotted with billboards offering professional courses, coaching for MBA exams, call centre training and English-speaking classes. In a two-km stretch, there are at least 12 centres offering lessons in spoken English. Most of these centres are doing good business, with even boys and girls from nearby villages enrolling for courses in spoken and written English. It’s part of their plan to seek a future beyond Ayodhya.
“After graduation, I want to go to Lucknow or Delhi for a professional degree and look for a job there. Ayodhya doesn’t have any job opportunities and I don’t want to live here all my life,” says Wasim Ahmed, 21, a smartly-dressed student who speaks good English.
At Yadav’s teashop and in the various broadband cyber cafes dotted around the conversation veers to big-city dreams, careers and relationships. Ayodhya’s young people want a new, different future. “Every time something happens, they send the force here. They are now living in our college. They harass local people and because of them the prices of food and other essential things go up. We don’t want this kind of life and the outsiders should stop playing their dirty political games here,” says Kumar Gautam, a student.
Ayodhya has a pretty good record of communal harmony. In 1992, when communal frenzy gripped the whole country, riots did not break out here. The locals take pride in their inter-faith heritage, recounting the fact that Tulsidas, Umrao Jaan and Begum Akhtar lived here. Hindus and Muslims share history and the economic opportunities available. “Most of the things in the temple such as flower garlands, wooden khadaun, clothes, etc are made by Muslim craftsmen. The syncretic tradition has been very strong here,” says Singh.
The seeds of the dispute were sown here when idols of Ram, Laxman and Sita “mysteriously appeared” inside the mosque in 1949. The man who started the litigation process in 1950, Mahant Paramhand Ramchandra Das, was local. But Ayodhya wants to move on from the past. Right now, it is studiously ignoring rabble rousers. Just days ago, former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh tried to resurrect his political career with an “Ayodhya march”. He was ignored by the locals and snubbed by the mahants.
Ayodhya has suffered from its past but it’s in no mood to carry the burdens of it much longer. The young want their town to catch up with the rest of India. The old are hopeful the dispute can be resolved locally. And everyone is ready to accept the court verdict “whatever it is”. Ayodhya 2010 is in a different time zone — suspended between an unquiet past and an unclear future.