AYODHYA, Uttar Pradesh — Blocking traffic just outside the temple town of Ayodhya, a motley crew of protestors chanted slogans condemning the killing of at least 40 soldiers in Kashmir. “Death to Pakistan,” they shouted, last week.
An hour later, Acharya Satyendra Das, chief priest of the “makeshift” Ram Mandir for nearly a quarter of a century, said it was not often that one heard slogans other than ‘Jai Shri Ram’ raised in Ayodhya.
One other break from tradition, Das anticipates, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not have to peddle dreams about constructing the Ram Mandir while campaigning for the 2019 general election.
“The BJP will replace the Ram Mandir issue with the attack in Kashmir. They used to chant Ram, Ram, Ram, but now they won’t,” he said. “Ram Ram rat rat kar, BJP mara mara ho gayi.”
In any case, the 80-year-old priest said, the BJP has cashed in its rhetorical chips as far as the Ram Mandir is concerned. “If the BJP try and run on the Ram Mandir, they will lose. The public will not believe them. They have lost the trust of the people,” he said.
For now, the makeshift Ram Mandir, which stands where the Babri Masjid once stood, is four idols reposing under a waterproof and fireproof tent, surrounded by armed security personnel in black and white fatigues. Pilgrims, after four rounds of security checks and a circuitous walk, are allowed a glimpse from behind a barrier, 50 meters away.
Das, who oversees one of the most controversial religious sites in the world, was made a pujari in 1959 and he was appointed as the chief priest in March, 1992 by the state government of Uttar Pradesh.
His father was a farmer and there was no school where he grew up in Basti district, the chief priest said. He started school when he was 21-years-old — after he became a pujari at the Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya. “The Hanuman Garhi folks used to make fun of me. I would say where is it written that you cannot go to school after becoming a pujari,” he said.
Das went on to teach Sanskrit at the Government Sanskrit College in Varanasi. The “government pass” he carries today says “Pradhan Pujari, Ram Janmabhoomi.” He is called “maharaj” by the locals. The former Sanskrit lecturer is known to be blunt and provocative. He has often said that destroying the Babri Masjid had hurt Hindus more than it had Muslim.
“There was no need to do it,” he said, while speaking to HuffPost India.
“Ram Ram rat rat kar, BJP mara mara ho gayi.”
When it comes to the BJP turning the attack in Kashmir into political opportunity, the chief priest just might have a point.
The political fallout of the deadly attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir was immediate. The Opposition’s bashing of the Modi government for failing to create jobs came to a halt for a few days. So did jibes like “chowkidar chor hai,” leveled at Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the context of alleged improprieties in the Rafale deal.
There are, however, two months left for the general election. The Opposition is already picking up where it left off, but whether issues of unemployment and alleged corruption resonate with the same intensity, remains to be seen.
If the election was held today, a snack seller in Ayodhya observed, BJP would win and Modi would be prime minister.
On 14 February, a 19-year-old Kashmiri, Adil Ahmed Dar, rammed a vehicle filled with explosives into a convoy of security personnel in Pulwama district. It was the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir in nearly three decades.
Das believes there is no going back from Pulwama.
“The country has changed drastically. Such a big thing has happened that no one can say anything against the government because it is the responsibility of the government to fix this,” he said.
In UP, which sends 80 lawmakers to Lok Sabha, and where the Ram Mandir issue has the most traction, the BJP is facing a formidable caste-based alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, which count Dalit, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslims among their supporters.
Ashutosh Mishra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, says that the attack in Pulwama would have “mixed consequences” for the BJP. The problem of joblessness, he said, was a big one and was not likely to be overshadowed. “Pulwama could be temporary and transitory,” he said.
Now, like in 2014, Das believes, the ball is in Modi’s court. In other words, a lot rides on whether Modi, a powerful orator, can emerge as the strongman and how the media projects him.
“It is up to Modi. If he can assure the public that he can respond strongly, people will forget the Ram Mandir,” he said. “If the public is satisfied with Modi’s response to attack, it will have a huge political impact.”
“The BJP will replace the Ram Mandir issue with the attack in Kashmir.”
‘Ram has given me no indication’
With the Supreme Court delaying the title dispute hearings in January, the Hindu right was finding it difficult to get the Ram Mandir ball rolling for the 2019 election. The Opposition, meanwhile, persisted with highlighting the Modi government’s failure to generate jobs.
There were several attempts to revive the Ram Mandir issue. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath renamed Faizabad district as Sri Ayodhya and announced that he would build the largest statue dedicated to Ram in Ayodhya. In an appeal to the Supreme Court, he said, “If Supreme Court can give its verdict on Sabarimala Temple, then we appeal that a decision on Ram Mandir should also be taken as soon possible, to ensure peace in the country.”
Leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) called on the BJP to pass an ordinance that would get around the Supreme Court and allow for the construction to begin immediately. There was a “Dharam Sansad” at the Kumbh Mela to push for the construction of the Ram Mandir.
Modi, however, ruled out an ordinance. “Let the judicial process be over,” he said in an interview. A month later, the Modi government moved the Supreme Court seeking the return of the land around the disputed area to a Hindu trust.
And then, Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati, who heads two of the four mathas in India, and is close to the Congress Party, said that he would lay the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on 21 February.
Adityanath, who has promised to build the Ram Mandir, was at his wits end after Saraswati called on his followers to reach Ayodhya.
It wasn’t just concern about the “Congress Swami” stealing his thunder.
The optics of the Hindutva hardliner trying to stop the 93-year-old seer would have gone down badly. Saraswati’s decision to call off the program following the Pulwama attack was a big relief for the chief minister.
Laughing out loud at how the “drama” around the Ram Mandir is playing out, Das said, “This is turning into a joke. What the BJP says, it does not mean. What the BJP says, does not matter. Eventually, the Supreme Court will decide. The BJP needs to be honest about it.”
In any case, Ram, the god in question, Das said, appeared to be seriously displeased about the state of affairs.
“Lord Ram has given no indication, not the slightest sign, that the Ram Mandir will be built,” he said. “It will only be built when Lord Ram wants. So what is the point in doing hai, hai?”
The chief priest then mimicked Adityanath promising that he would build the Ram Mandir.
Just last week, the chief minister said, “Do not worry, we have made it clear the the temple of Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram will be constructed at the very place, at the very spot. Let there be no confusion.”
In Lucknow, Adityanath told a student to trust Modi, who could “turn the impossible into possible.”
He might not vote BJP
Modi, while campaigning for 2014 Lok Sabha election, did not speak of the Ram Mandir. The prime minister has not visited Ayodhya since coming to power, but he raised the cry of “Jai Shri Ram” in the run up to the 2017 Assembly election in UP. The Ram Mandir also found place in BJP’s manifesto for state polls. It won by a huge margin.
Das says he is tired of the “untruths” about the construction of the Ram Mandir, and that is why he does not want to vote for the BJP, this year.
“How can I support someone who came to power saying that the Ram Mandir would be constructed but did not do it,” he said. “Now, they say that the Supreme Court will decide. You are saying it today. Why did you not say it back then?”
When pushed on whether he really did not plan on voting for the BJP, Das said, “To be honest, I don’t know. It depends on the circumstances. When it is good for the country then one has to make friends of an enemy.”
Das refused to elaborate any further.
Despite the VHP’s pledge to not raise the Ram Mandir issue until the election is over, Das believes that the VHP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal would campaign on the Ram Mandir.
“The BJP will not do it, but its partners will. They will say that give the BJP five more years and the Ram Mandir will get built.”
On whether he intends to believe the Ram Mandir pitch this time around, Das said, “When you feel desperate, you have no choice but to believe. When you feel desperate, you have no choice but to hope.”
Destroying Babri Masjid was a mistake
Das, who believes that Muslims should not have been given a choice to live in India following the partition in 1947, blames the Congress Party for “this entire mess.” Now, he refers to Hindus as the “elder brother” and Muslims as the “younger brother.”
After discussing the fate of the Ram Mandir, the chief priest explained what he meant when he said that destroying the Babri Masjid was a mistake.
Das had performed Hindu rituals inside the mosque, when the makeshift temple was under its middle dome. He had done this for almost a year before the mosque was demolished on 6 December, 1992.
In 1949, a group of Hindus placed idols inside the mosque. In 1950, a court in Faizabad allowed for a Hindu priest to offer prayers and for the public to do darshan from behind the the iron grills of the mosque gate. On 1 February, 1986, a district judge in Faizabad ordered the lock on the gate be opened. Two years on, the VHP escalated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
On the day of the demolition, Das said that he was preoccupied with rescuing the idols from under the middle dome of the mosque.
The chief priest, who believed the mosque to be a temple, said that it was far better setup than the makeshift tent he goes to everyday.
As things stand, Das says offering prayers has become mechanical.
“I cannot deviate in the slightest from what prayers have always been offered. I cannot do a havan. I cannot even add a stick or a pole to the structure that already exists,” he said.
All the demolition had achieved was the loss of life in the communal violence that followed, he said. “Hindus and Muslims were killed,” he said.