On 25 November, I was sharing an auto rickshaw en route Virar station. It was a Sunday. The driver had a passenger seated next to him, to whom he was describing the strong desire of Hindus for a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya. "Just imagine! Ten lakh people came on to the streets of Ayodhya demanding the temple be built," he said. "Uddhav Thackeray was accompanied by lakhs of people from Maharashtra." We were driving past posters in this Mumbai suburb showing Thackeray against a background of Lord Rama, with the slogan 'Har Hindu ki yahi pukaar, pehle mandir phir sarkaar' (It is every Hindu's demand that the temple be constructed before a government is formed) prominently displayed on them.
I leaned forward and said, "Ten lakh people, isn't that an exaggeration?" The driver turned to look at me, wondering who was this aunty challenging his WhatsApp-acquired information. "I'm asking because I'm from Faizabad," I said. He was mollified. "I'm from Pratapgarh, myself," he replied. While the remaining moments of the auto ride did not yield any further comments or controversy, I was left wondering at the power of propaganda in the present day: when a WhatsApp message can mobilise a mob of a few thousand in minutes and a gathering of a few thousand can be reported as ten lakh or even a million strong.
My memories of Ayodhya are inevitably centered around my own journey of faith. The steps going up to Hanuman Garhi, that I climbed often, the daily spectacle of 'Anavarat Ramlila' at the Tulsi Smarak Bhavan where I saw many groups perform, all represented moments of great joy. I walked among thousands in the chilly night-time November conditions, for the 'parikrama' or 'paikarma' as it is called by Ayodhya locals. This circumambulation of the holy sites of Ayodhya by pilgrims is an annual ritual that people complete in a 24-hour period, many walking all night long.
Stumbling along village roads, resting on hay laid alongside the bank of a pond, I remember worrying about the absolute lack of facilities and transport. What if someone were to fall seriously ill during this walk? No doctors or ambulances were visible. The seva booths at various points looked unmanned and deserted. If this was a celebration of people's faith, where were the practical amenities that would help sustain them during the 'parikrama'? I had no answers then, as now, for many of the experiences I lived and observed in Ayodhya.
It was my attachment to the place and its people that led me to write Portraits from Ayodhya: Living India's Contradictions. I was trying to explore life beyond the headlines, and the months I spent listening to all 25 subjects featured in my book, as well as many other residents who offered comments and views gave me much to think about my faith, my people and my country.
Today, Ayodhya is back in the news because Uddhav went there on 24 November and said he is attempting to wake the 'Kumbhakarna' or sleeping demon represented by the BJP governments at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh. It is making headlines because the Ram Mandir is being evoked in election campaigns in five different states, and a 221-metre statue of Lord Rama is being planned and promised on the banks of the Sarayu. It is awash, once more, across all TV channels as the site of competitive Hindutva.
"Thackeray's slogan of 'pehle mandir phir sarkaar' really clicked among the people and threw the RSS-BJP-VHP into a panic," said Gaurav Tiwari, Ayodhya resident and Indian National Congress worker. "It was because of this panic that they hurriedly called a 'dharma sabha' at Ayodhya on 25 November. If they had allowed Thackeray to hog all the media attention, it would have been disastrous."
The panic in the prime minister and chief minister's camps could also have been because a local sadhu, Swami Paramhans Das, mahant of the Tapaswi Chhawni went on a fast-unto-death in October 2018 demanding that the Centre pass a law for construction of the Ram Mandir and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit Ayodhya and announce the date of its construction.
After this, Pravin Togadia came to Ayodhya and announced that he would soon be launching a political party that would fight the Lok Sabha elections and build the Ram Mandir within three months of coming to power. Tiwari is sceptical about the 221-metre statue announced by Yogi Adityanath. "Where is the space for this on the banks of the Sarayu?" he asked. "It flows all the way to Ballia. Let them point to a place in Ayodhya where such a statue can be built, and then we can take it seriously," he says.
In the midst of all this grandstanding, life goes on in Ayodhya. "As far as development goes, nothing has changed since Nagar Nigam Ayodhya became the governing municipal corporation for both Faizabad and Ayodhya towns nearly a year ago. If anything, things are going downhill, and the monkey menace has become very severe," said write and poet RD Anand.
He was voicing such concerns to me because I spent a year trying to campaign for mini-sanctuaries for monkeys in Ayodhya and Faizabad towns. He also pointed out an important facet of life for many of us post-2014. "There is disquiet in many hearts about the renaming of Faizabad as Ayodhya. But people have been divided so much into ever narrowing notions of identity that conversation on these matters has been frozen even among family members and friends. How can any popular resistance be organised against any of these measures without unity?"
His words brought home what Ayodhya represents for me most of all. I see it as the failure to oppose what is manifestly ugly and harmful to us all. More than two decades after trained youth pulled down the Babri Masjid and threw our Republic into turmoil, we have failed, as Indian citizens and believing Hindus in protesting what takes place in the name of 'faith' around us today. If we are unable to say out loud that today's protectors of the cow are destroyers of our faith, then indeed, 'Hindu khatre mein hain.'