The barricaded acres around Ram Janmabhoomi occupy a very large area. Visible as soon as one reaches Tedhi Bazaar Chowk, the barricading runs alongside the crowded main road where Ayodhya's main Sri Ram Hospital is located, and curves towards areas close to the annual 'parikrama' path of pilgrims " Brahm Kund and Kaushalya Ghat. Residents in these areas (known as the Yellow Zone for security reasons) have lived for over 25 years with their movements severely curtailed. And yet, they " like other residents of this temple town " accept the presence of the barricades as a sign that 'status quo' is being maintained and there isn't likely to be any upheaval relating to the Mandir-Masjid title dispute presently before a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court.
On 29 January, the Central Government filed an application before the judges to "Permit the Central Government to restore/revert/hand over back superfluous/excess vacant land (other than the disputed land admeasuring 0.313 acres) to the owners/occupiers from whom the lands were acquired under the Act of 1993."
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was quick to welcome this move by the Narendra Modi government, saying that permission to use the "undisputed" land was a long-standing demand of those asking for a Ram Mandir.
The Law Minister of India, Ravi Shankar Prasad, had expressed his disapproval of the slow pace of hearings in the Ayodhya case in the Supreme Court, a day earlier, in Patna. He later clarified that he spoke as an ordinary citizen and not as the Law Minister.
On 31 January, the RSS' Mohan Bhagwat and Uttar Pradesh's deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya were to address the 'Dharm-Sansad' organised by the VHP at the Kumbh Mela. But not only did a sizeable portion of sadhus belonging to the Akhada Parishad boycott the event, alleging the politicisation of the Ram Mandir issue by the VHP, Mohan Bhagwat's address was disrupted by heckling sadhus who raised slogans of "Taareekh batao, ya vapas jao" asking for the announcement of a date to build the temple, or a return home for Bhagwat. This open revolt and restlessness took the VHP aback, and they forcibly removed the slogan-shouting sadhus from the venue. Bhagwat had actually been appealing for patience for 4-6 months, giving time to the government to face elections. He offered reassurance that anything less than Mandir construction was not acceptable to the Sangh, and after the four to six-month window where he asked for forbearance during election season, the RSS would apply their full might to the demand and construction of a grand Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
All these developments, taken together, reveal the nervousness and indecision of the government and the Sangh on how the Ram Mandir issue is to be presented during the campaign for the 2019 general elections.
First, the vague mention of undisputed "superfluous/excess vacant land" in the Central Government application flies in the face of facts. The 67 acres acquired by the Union Government in 1993 in order to maintain communal harmony around the disputed site was taken from farmers' families who are still fighting cases for due compensation in the Faizabad courts. These farmers included people from the Maurya, Muslim and SC communities. The land was earlier fertile fields where vegetables and puja flowers for the Ayodhya market were grown. Vineet Maurya, whose family held 29 of the 67 acres, is among those waiting for compensation to be paid. I wrote about the family's disenchantment with Hinduism as a result of their struggles, and how they became Buddhists, in my book Portraits from Ayodhya: Living India's Contradictions (2011).
In 1992, the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh had " a few months before the mob of kar-sevaks brought down the Babri Masjid " transferred 42 acres of the land within this 67 acres to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas Trust on a 99-year lease at the rate of Rs 1 per annum, in order to build a Ram Katha Park. When the Central Government became a 'repositiory' of the land through the Acquisition of Certain Areas of Ayodhya Act of 1993, this was barricaded within the 67-acre periphery and no Ram Katha Park came up here. Now, in a disingenuous and convoluted claim, the government is claiming in the Supreme Court that the VHP-controlled Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas are the "original owners" of the land and it should be given back to them, thus paving the way for some temple related construction to begin around the disputed area.
"How can this land be considered undisputed? When land is acquired by any government, it has to be proved that it has been done for the benefit of the public," says advocate Deendayal, an Ayodhya resident who represents Vineet Maurya's family in court. "If the land was acquired for a Ram Katha Park and no such park came up, it is the original farmers who need to get back their land. The Nyas is an outside third party." He doesn't see the present application having much effect on the Ayodhya matter, since the Supreme Court, in separate orders in 2003 and 2011, had directed that 'status quo' be maintained with respect to the barricaded 67 acres.
Regular taunts about the unconstructed Ram Mandir continue to follow the BJP government. Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, their alliance partner in Maharashtra, went on a much-publicised trip to Ayodhya in November 2018 questioning the BJP's inability to build the temple when it was in power both at the centre and in the state. The sadhus at the 'Dharm-Sansad' showed a similar tendency. They have also heard the same from their own MLA from Ballia, Surendra Singh, on more than one occasion. Yogi Adityanath's announcement in November 2018, of a 221-metre statue of Ram to be erected in Ayodhya, has clearly failed to silence these jeering voices.
In election season 2019, Ayodhya is bringing its moment of reckoning for the BJP government at the centre.