The Persistence of Ayodhya: Wounds & Resistance

I was asked to remain confined to my room.  The men from Indian intelligence were polite but firm, and as they questioned me in a small tea shop in a neighborhood adjacent to where the Babri mosque once stood, I could see that they were unsure about what precisely it was that I represented.

I looked Indian, spoke Hindi, and yet they told me that I did not carry myself like an Indian and had been easy to pick me out that morning as I had been walking along the streets adjacent to what is now called the Ram Janmabhoomi complex – the stretch of land that is claimed by Hindu fundamentalists as the future site of a temple to the god Ram who they say was born here.  Their suspicions were were further aroused by the fact that that morning I had no real identification papers on me, that I had a Muslim name and that I could not explain what I was doing there. My statement that I was a photographer working on a project about India’s heritage of pluralism and that I had come to Ayodhya to document its Sufi dargahs (shrines) was met with incredulity.

To make matters worse, I was in the company of Mahant Yugal Kishore Shastri, a dissident Hindu priest who had a reputation for his opposition to the Hindu fundamentalists and the destruction of the mosque.  He had alienated himself from a lot of people by once hanging a garland of shoes around a picture of the god Ram.  Mahant Shastri had been giving me a short tour of the dargahs and Sikh temples in the neighborhood when I was firmly pulled off the street and into a local tea shop, associates alerted via walkie-talkie and bombarded with questions about my reasons for being in Ayodhya.

It has been 16 years since the leaders of India’s Bharata Janata Party (BJP) and members of her sister organizations led a mob to this once quiet, nondescript town in Northern India and carried out a act of historical vandalism that lifted this city out of its obscurity and made it into a symbol of the Hindutva project to recreate India as a ‘pure’ Hindu nation. The passage of time has done little to either heal the wounds or reduce the fear on the streets.

Police checkpoints and barricades remain in place around the Ram Janmabhoomi complex.  Guard posts protect all the entrances to the city’s most important mandir the Hanumangarhi Temple. Trucks carrying police men in riot gear go back and forth all day.  Men from the Indian intelligence with their large walkie-talkies can be spotted sitting in local tea shops or at street corners.

And in the midst of all this, thousands of devotees go about their daily rituals.  This is a city to the gods – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Jain.  The streets are filled with the sounds of pujas, and religious music from inside mandirs .  The Azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, fills the air with its melody and men rushing towards the mosques.

A local policeman tells me that they are afraid of Muslim ‘terrorists’ attacking important Hindu sites in the city.  When I ask if the police is better prepare for ‘Muslim terrorists’ than they had been for the ‘Hindu’ ones who actually carried out the only act of violence in this city in 1992, there is an uncomfortable silence and a chuckle.

But I understand their fear – an act of reactionary violence against the people of this city would not be unexpected.  Fortunately none has occurred to date.

Sitting in the tea shop as the Intelligence agent went through my notepad and fired questions at me, I remembered how I had hesitated coming here fearful of precisely this moment. From a few thousand kilometers away I had imagined it as a dangerous and violent place – A Hindu town hostile to anything Muslim.  And at times, in conversations with people that I met on the streets it seemed to be just that; fragmented, hate filled and with a Hindu-Muslim community irreparably divided.

But then there were the other moments, the ones that mattered the most, when it revealed itself as a place of pluralist and tolerant ideas and values that I had thought long lost.

This city along the Surya river, its society damaged and cowed because of the fundamentalists, maintains a more universal, inclusive idea of the idea of god and the tolerance to allow men of different faith to find it here.  Despite the events of 1992 when not only the Babri mosque but many Sufi dargahs were attacked and destroyed, and a large number of the town’s Muslims forced to leave, much of this commitment to pluralism and mutual acceptance remains and the people of the city were eager to tell me about it.

Whether it was Hindu families describing their struggle to protect local mosques during the Babri mosque riots, or Muslims caretakers of local Sufi dargahs helping Hindu families perform the necessary rituals, one could sense a way of thinking about spirituality, and man’s relationship to the divine that was not limited by sectarian categories. And I soon learned that it has been that way for centuries.

In a bookshop in Varanasi I come across a book with an architectural sketch of the Babri mosque complex.  Until that moment I had never seen the mosque itself, it being more an abstraction.  What took me by surprise was that the sketch clearly showed the presence of a Hindu worship area on the what I believe is the Northern wall of the mosque building!

The Babri mosque complex was in fact a shared religious site and at any one time both Hindu and Muslim worshipers congregated there.  Some further research revealed this to be true. According to the District Gazetteer Faizabad 1905, “up to… (1855), both the Hindus and Muslims used to worship in the same building.”

In fact, even after the cleavage created by the 1857 rebellion* when many believe that separation of the two communities became political policy, Hindus and Muslims continued to visit the site and offer prayers there.  This despite a local Muslim community letting its insecurity getting the better of its common sense, and insisting on preventing Hindu worshipers from entering the inner courtyard and insisting they pray in the outer courtyard only.  The site was still shared, and reflected the values and ideals of a community that chose a path of compromise and accommodation rather than intolerance and rejection.

The Babri mosque was constructed in the 16th century on the instructions of India’s first Mughal Emperor Babar.  A thoughtful man, he instructed his son, the Emperor Humayun, in his will to “…wipe all religious prejudices off the tablet of your heart…[and]…let the subjects of different beliefs harmonize… “, and “..not ruin the temples and shrines of any community which is obeying the laws of government.”

After the destruction of the mosque, and in the wake of sectarian violence than left hundreds dead, India’s future Prime Minister Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave a press interview in which he said that the Babri Masjid was a “symbol of shame” that “has been erased”.

Can we actually have been more ‘modern’ in the 16th century?

The project to construct the Ram temple has stalled.  Criminal investigations are being called to prosecute individuals for the possible theft of the public contributions made for the construction of the temple.  But the threats, the rhetoric and the motivation remains.  Calls for the construction of the Ram temple are often the cause of riots across the country.  The issue of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram, persists.

Modern day India seems to be in violent rejection of herself, flagellating her own body politic and cultural and for reasons that as yet remain alien to me.  In an uncanny mimicry of what Pankaj Mishra called an abhorrent obsession, India seems to have convinced herself that her Muslims are a people alien and hostile to her, and the source of any and all acts of ‘terrorism’ in the country.

Dozens were being arrested and paraded, complete with Arab style kafiyahs around their heads Iraqi-insurgent style, on prime time TV. Entire towns like Azamgarh were being called ‘centers of terrorism’. And I couldn’t help wonder how the creation of Pakistan may have left India’s Muslims orphans in their own land.

But the Ram temple devotees have to confront a local citizenry, Hindu, Muslim and other, that is resisting the destruction of the heritage and culture of their city. The idea of a more tolerant, inclusive and pluralist Ayodhya also persists.

My confinement lasted 24 hours.  After which 4 large men with looks that suggested an easy familiarity with violence, came by and took copies of my passport, my press credentials and my travel details.  They asked me about my family (I did not reveal by Kashmiri heritage for fear of further complicating the situation) and about my friends in India.  Just before leaving they asked me whether I said my namaaz (Muslim prayers).  I said No.  They laughed, but it seemed to calm them.

Or at least I thought that it did.

*I prefer not to use the phrase ‘Mutiny’ even though this event is more famously known as that.

Further Readings

Jan 08, 2009 | Ayodhya, Personal, Shared Landscapes

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