Ayodhya has changed over the three decades since the Religious Parliament in 1984. In my recent trips after the 2019 Supreme Court judgment, I notice anger towards the VHP among the locals, sadhus and in akharas. The only akhara that appears hand-in-glove with the VHP is Chhoti Chhavni Akhara, headed by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das.
On their part, most of the VHP leaders in Ayodhya brazenly do not take the opinions of the other akharas into any consideration. In November 2019 when I met Triloki Nath Pandey, who represented Lord Ram as his closest aide in the legal cases, he stated, ‘Nirmohi Akhara behaved strangely. It supported us till the high court verdict but washed its hands off when the case went to the Supreme Court. Perhaps because the mahant of Nirmohi Akhara thought he was the only one who had the rights to singularly claim the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir’s ownership. He never wanted to join us.’
During the same trip, I tell Nirmohi Akhara’s Mahant Dinendra Nath about this. He counters, ‘Let them say what they want to, I really do not want to comment on this.’ Durgesh Shukla who is very close to the mahant, while on his own, says, ‘The VHP should give a new name to the Ram Mandir. They should call it Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) Mandir. It intends to loot the devotees and the public. For the common people it may appear like the Ram Janmabhoomi temple but politically it is becoming another RSS head office.’ He asserts, ‘The sadhus here have no greed like the VHP or RSS.’ The akhara apparently sold huge acres of land to pay for the various cases over the past sixty-nine years. Lately, though, the mahant’s approach has taken a different turn. In August 2020, when the mahant participated in the Bhoomi Puja ceremony, I asked one of his close supporters about this change of heart. Taking assurance that I would not disclose his name, he said, ‘That’s because some of mahant-ji’s family members nurture political ambitions.’
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Mahant Dharam Das of Nirvani Akhara, too, takes on VHP, ‘The VHP has nothing to do with religion. They misuse religion.’ Talking about the vice president of VHP, Champat Rai, ‘Yeh dharam virodhi hain aur Vishwa Hindu Parishad jaise lootere company ke chairman hai (He is against religion and is the chairman of an exploitative company called Vishwa Hindu Parishad).’
Suddenly, his decibel levels go up, ‘Yeh toh Ayodhya ko jakar liye hain aur ab iss shahar ko ek baniye ka dukan ki tarah bana liye hain (They have taken hold over Ayodhya and converted it into a merchant’s trading centre).’ When asked what he means, Dharam Das says, ‘Yeh sab dakait hain, angrezon ke chamche hain (They are all dacoits, they have taken a leaf out of British colonizing tactics).’ During the first lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in one of our many telephone conversations, he analysed, ‘We are all in trouble because of the sins committed by these people.’ The mahant gave a chronological proof, ‘Yeh log swayam Corona hai, jab se yeh log Trust banaye (2019), turant 2020 se lockdown ho gaya (These people are themselves Corona; lockdown was declared in 2020 soon after the formation of the Trust).’
Nand Kumar Gupta, a local merchant from Shringar Market and president of Ayodhya Udyog Vyapar Mandal Trust (Industry Trade Board Trust), Ayodhya, says, ‘The town may (now) progress, as it will become a pilgrim and tourist destination, but we will lose our identities. The VHP has sidelined people like us and many sadhus who have lived here for generations. In the name of Ram, the organization asks for donations, shows concern for our town, but it has huge vested interests, and we are fully aware of it.’
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According to Gupta, the VHP has not only alienated the Muslims of Ayodhya, but also the Hindus. In fact, the locals think that the demolition of the mosque intensified the fissures. On their part, the leaders have no regrets. Dr Surendra Jain, joint general secretary of the VHP, is clear that there is no need to apologize to Muslims or have regrets for the demolition. His logic, ‘Woh dhancha toh hamari gulami ka pratik tha. Hindustan ke Musalmano ko khush hona chahiye ki hum ne usko tod diya (The structure symbolized our slavery; the Muslims should be happy that we destroyed it).’ He adds that those who criticize the efforts of the karsevaks in the demolition should ask for forgiveness.
In the past, Singhal had tried to unite the akharas. Alok Kumar explains, ‘One of the main reasons for creating the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas was to bring the various sects of Ramanandi sadhus under one umbrella.’ However, the fact remains that when Paramhans became its head, it was not taken well by the other sects as the he was perceived to be close to the VHP and Singhal.
Early in 2001, I met Mahant Baba Biram Das, the chief of All India Akhara Parishad, a conglomeration of the aggressive and independent Naga sadhus and ashrams across India. He was critical of, and angry with, the VHP. He disliked the fact that the VHP spoke about Ram Mandir at the sacred Kumbh Melas. ‘It is yet another political stunt of the VHP. It is sad that these people try to gain mileage out of the religious sentiments of the masses. All this noise is aimed at expanding and consolidating the vote bank.
This excerpt from Sutapa Mukherjee’s Ayodhya: Past and Present has been published with permission from HarperCollins.