How My Hometown Became the Epicenter of India’s Religious Politics

Protesters on the 26th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque, in 2018. Credit Saikat Paul/Pacific Press -- LightRocket, via Getty Images
Protesters on the 26th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque, in 2018. Credit Saikat Paul/Pacific Press -- Light Rocket, via Getty Images

Ayodhya is a small, placid temple town in northern India, considered holy by Buddhists, Jains and Muslims, and believed by most Hindus to be the birthplace of Ram, one of Hinduism’s most revered deities and the protagonist of the epic poem the Ramayana. My family comes from a nearby village. Though my parents lived in Kolkata, we spent our summer and winter vacations in Ayodhya.

In the evenings we would walk through the streets of the town, which brimmed with pilgrims of almost every faith. Hindus frequented shrines of local Muslim saints; Muslims sold Hindu religious artifacts outside temples and revered Ram as a prophet. An unattended young girl, I ran around, bought knickknacks, ate sweets sold as offerings to the gods and swam in the Sarayu River — which we hold to be as sacred as Ram, our family deity — that flows by the town. In Ayodhya, I was at home.

Away from my childish concerns, Ayodhya was caught up in a decades-old bitter legal battle for the ownership of a patch of land, 67.7 acres long, where a medieval mosque stood alongside small temples dedicated to Ram and his consort, Sita. For residents of Ayodhya, Ram was omnipresent, but some Hindu activists claimed that Ram was born within this contested area.

In the late 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party, then a minor Hindu nationalist party, ran a campaign to build a grand temple for Ram in Ayodhya, contending that a temple to Ram had existed on the disputed site until it was razed in the 16th century and replaced by Babri Masjid, a mosque built by India’s first Mogul emperor.

In the summer of 1990, when I was 8, buses full of young men wearing saffron headbands began arriving in Ayodhya. They would come to our village, ask for donations and raise the slogan: “Mandir Wahin Banayenge! We Will Build the Temple Right There!”

The stores in Ayodhya started selling stickers with this ubiquitous slogan and audiocassettes of vitriolic speeches calling for a temple to be built where the mosque stood. I bought some colorful stickers and offered sugar cane sticks from our fields to the sloganeering young men.

They said they were fighting for Ram. I was too young to understand they were fighting against the very idea of India.

On Dec. 6, 1992, a mob mobilized by the B.J.P. and its affiliates demolished the Babri mosque. India tore itself apart in subsequent religious violence; hundreds were killed. Ayodhya was still in shock when we visited from what was then called Calcutta a few months later. The dust from the rubble of the destroyed mosque still hung thick; bullet holes marked the walls of modest dwellings; people spoke in hushed tones of blood flowing into the Sarayu River. I passed those months with a sinking feeling I could not quite name.

I have been thinking of Ayodhya in the past few months as campaigning for the elections, which conclude on May 23, has picked up. Hindu nationalists rose to electoral significance in India from the debris of the Babri mosque. Though a legal dispute about the temple and the mosque continues, the B.J.P., now the ruling party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promises at every election to work toward constructing the Ram temple at the disputed site.

In December, I saw thousands of Mr. Modi’s supporters marching through New Delhi and raising the slogan, “Mandir Wahin Banayenge! We Will Build the Temple Right There!” The slogan I had first heard as a child in Ayodhya has come to be the catchall phrase for the efforts of Mr. Modi’s party to achieve a Hindu majority vote, and so transform the constitutionally secular democracy of India into a majoritarian state.

The feeling of loss I’d first experienced after the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a sense of foreboding that my country was turning into an unfamiliar place, returned. I felt it more strongly as a college student after the February 2002 Gujarat riots, in which about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed under the watch of Mr. Modi, then chief minister of the western state.

Mr. Modi, widely believed to have been complicit in the violence, was never formally charged. His political profile only grew in the 12 years after: In May 2014, he swept the polls and became the country’s prime minister. During his five years in office, the ghosts of Ayodhya returned as hatred and violence against minorities were normalized.

Having failed to deliver on his promise of economic development and jobs, Mr. Modi and his party have been seeking re-election by promising the Hindu majority that their interests will take precedence over those of the already disenfranchised Muslim minority — and that with Mr. Modi at the helm, India will be a muscular power ready to dominate Pakistan by any means necessary.

I returned to Ayodhya recently to try to understand what lessons my wounded home might hold for my country. Ayodhya languishes as an unheeded cautionary tale, a testament to the havoc wreaked by divisive identity politics. The sunlit lanes where I played freely as a young girl are barricaded and heavily guarded by armed policemen. The town of 55,000 people lacks even basic medical services and educational opportunities. Economic distress is starkly visible.

Hindu and Muslim citizens of Ayodhya continue to eke out a living together in peace and celebrate each other’s religious festivals together — but their anxious assertions of unity betray the fear that they might not be able to save their home from another assault of religious politics.

Thousands of activists and supporters of Mr. Modi’s party arrive in Ayodhya on Hindu festivals associated with Ram, to mark the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque. They shout belligerent slogans through the day and dance in the streets at night to songs that call Muslims the vilest of names, threaten to kill them and turn Ayodhya “red” once again. They bring the town to a halt: children find it difficult to get to school, Muslim families move out of town in fear, businesses suffer.

One afternoon in Ayodhya, I met a group of young men huddled over a mobile phone. They were watching “Avengers: Infinity War” dubbed into Hindi. None of them had a stable job. Religious tourism is the core source of revenue in Ayodhya. The town doesn’t even have a half decent hotel. The streets are unpaved. Sanitation is poor, and the temples are not weathering well.

The young men believe that if Mr. Modi’s party builds a grand Ram temple, it will bring a significantly greater number of tourists, better hotels and markets and create jobs. Yet they understand that the violence unleashed on their town was purely for political expediency.

Ayodhya’s desolation today is difficult to reconcile with memories of my childhood. Even the Sarayu River has shrunk over time.

Mr. Modi’s B.J.P. has contested the election on an exclusionary idea of India, propelled by the assault from which Ayodhya has yet to recover. If its Hindu nationalist conception prevails over one of inclusion, my hometown and my country as places embodying accommodation and coexistence might only live in our memories.

Pragya Tiwari, a writer based in New Delhi, is working on a book about the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the parent body of India’s various Hindu nationalist organizations.

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