Faizabad and the BJP’s paradoxical defeat

The defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s two-time Faizabad MP, Lallu Singh, stunned most observers. However, both the Hindu right-wing and liberals have been imputing misguided reasons for the defeat of the BJP in the Faizabad Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, in the general election results declared on June 4.

Although the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute is of pre-partition origins, Faizabad constituency, which includes Ayodhya, has not always been a Jan Sangh or BJP stronghold. What has been a constant there is the interplay of caste and communitarian dynamics.

The Congress and socialist groups have dominated most of its complicated electoral history. These political groups were, in effect, the Khatris, Kayasthas and Muslims since colonial times. While communal undertones marked their interactions these groups also managed to act as a counter to Sangh attempts in the region.

The Vishva Hindu Parishad and BJP did eventually manage to achieve communal consolidation in Faizabadi civil society, accelerating this process after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, but the same period saw the rise of Dalit politics too, throwing up varied permutations and combinations of voter consolidation.

The BJP’s loss is neither a rejection of the Ram temple nor the negation of Hindutva but a repeat expression of communitarian identities owing to shrewd caste calculations by Samajwadi Party. Paradoxically, this became possible partly because of the large-scale dispossession caused by the grand Hindu revivalist urban redevelopment project in the Faizabad district now renamed as Ayodhya.

Development, bulldozer and religion

A radical Hindu monk who headed his own militia group, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Adityanath came to power as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017. He is popular and controversial for his style of governance that blends a thrust on infrastructural development, normalising the use of extrajudicial measures and a distinct emphasis on political Hinduism in the garb of religious revivalism.

Arguably, the most defining motif of Adityanath’s governance has been the bulldozer or demolition. This bulldozer or demolition governance is better understood as a part of the broader agenda to reclaim “lost” Hindu heritage. Towards this end, in 2018, he embarked on a spree renaming several Uttar Pradesh cities that had Islamicate heritage.

It started with the rechristening of Allahabad to Prayagraj. This change was justified by invoking the ancient name as a site of the confluence of three sacred rivers near Allahabad. Following this, Faizabad city was merged with its twin city Ayodhya and the whole was renamed Ayodhya, erasing Faizabad. These changes were accompanied by the renaming of other places, roads and railway stations in the cities to reflect Hindu heritage and diminish what was seen as the imprints of Mughal rule.

It is not as if renaming is new to India. However, genealogies of name change in India were largely non-controversial until the 1960s. The Congress, as the ruling elite, was able to legitimately reach into its history since 1885 to shore up names of heroes of the anti-colonial struggle, even using these to school Indian citizens into secular, internationalist and socialist values.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement led by Hindutva forces – which demolished the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Faizabad district – came to dispute this representation of India’s past as a composite culture. This “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb” culture became a subject of scorn or lament.

As the mosque-temple controversy raged on, the public sphere discourse and legal pronouncements diluted the strength of the composite culture in the twin cities Ayodhya-Faizabad incrementally. The renaming of Faizabad is thus rightly seen by the Hindutva forces as an important landmark in their success march.

After the name change erased Faizabad, the Supreme Court verdict in 2019 “resolved” the dispute, clearing the way for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya. In the Hindutva imagination, this mandated “restoration” of the “lost glory” of the town and re-consecrating its geography “sacred”.

Anupam Gupta, the Counsel of the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry, remarking on the references to the shilanyas, or foundation stones, at Babri Masjid in 1989 in the proceedings of the committee hearings, wrote:

“Like the consecration of bricks in the name of Ram, the sacred geography of Ram janmabhoomi has a highly ‘creative’ character. Religious imagination and fervour make up for a deficit of rationality, logic and historical evidence. Beliefs and convictions no longer require justification and become their own, and the only, measure of truth. Emotions get an easy and fiery tongue; words, slogans and semantics acquire massive power and momentum. Politicians abandon legislative chambers to lead mobs, clerics turn historians and judges become clerics.”

This “creative” streak now extends to the discourse on the “redevelopment” of Ayodhya by the municipal council, reflected in the vocabulary of its master plan that deftly combines neo-liberal developmentalism and tourism management with Hindu religiosity and communal insinuations.

The mixing of ethno-nationalist tendencies with policy regimes for governing tourism and heritage is nothing new. But in the case of the Ram temple construction and the redevelopment of the old Ayodhya and old Faizabad towns, this tendency was allowed, quite literally, to have a run of the place with devastating consequences.

Through 2023, the erstwhile twin cities, now governed by one municipal corporation, witnessed the demolition of houses, commercial property and numerous temples and mosques for a road widening and “beautification” project of proportions that feels gigantic for the small towns.

In March 2023, the residents of Faizabad estimated the percentage of city spaces where demolitions were underway as more than 40% of the city. In these areas, the city wore a war-torn appearance, as if it had been heavily bombed.

Demolitions, dust and debris

At present, the roads being widened lie on the routes of chaudah kosi parikrama and panch kosi parikrama. These are routes of ritual circumambulations that have traditionally attracted thousands of largely rural devotees from all over the Awadh region. However, locals report that since the Babri Masjid demolition, those undertaking the ritual journey on foot include a large number of youngsters affiliated to or mobilised by Sangh Parivar organisations.

The population of Faizabad city comprised 69.88% Hindus and 28.32% Muslims, whereas in old Ayodhya the proportion was 93.23% Hindus to 6.19% Muslims. Because the absolute numbers of Muslims are less and they live – as in other cities of India – concentrated in some parts of the towns, a lot more Hindus are affected by the demolitions for the road widening project.

The project took off with a phase-wise survey of the properties along the impacted road, which has been re-named Ram Path. This is a stretch of about 14 km between Nayaghat, Ayodhya and Saadatganj in Faizabad. Each property was marked by the survey team with a number indicating how much it would have to be set back from the existing property line in accordance with the new Ayodhya Masterplan. The occupants are then given a deadline to comply with the requirement by carrying out demolitions themselves, failing which the bulldozers of the Ayodhya Municipal Corporation demolish the properties to achieve compliance.

Most property owners or occupants are forced to tear down parts of their own properties, preferring it over the bulldozer, because they can do so with more precision and care, preserving the structural integrity of their buildings better. Moreover, the administration recovers costs for deploying the bulldozers from the property occupants or owners. In many instances, especially shops and in poorer neighbourhoods, there is nothing or hardly anything of the property left after the demolitions.

The entire process is carried out by the Ayodhya Development Authority such that no tenants or owners receive any official documents – whether notices or challans for compensation or receipts for fee charged for bulldozers. Claims for ownership of properties are examined and processed for the purpose of compensation for losses through a survey. It is coming to light that many properties that individuals thought their families owned were actually part of Nazul land on lease.

In several cases, the leases given to the grandparents or great grandparents of the current owners have expired. In either case, the district administration asserts that no compensation can be given because Nazul land is any case public land, hence “owned” by the state government.

Other long tenancies – of either the Raja of Ayodhya, or different temple trusts or even other individual landlords – are not being recognised. Any compensation is going to these property owners, while the tenants are being dispossessed without any provision for compensation or rehabilitation.

The individual occupants are being offered compensation for the “cost of construction”, which many say is the cost of only barebones construction for the area lost in setting-back the property and not the costs they incurred on extras such as tiles, woodwork, or electric and other fittings that are also damaged.

Because the procedure of awarding compensation has been in the hand of district personnel with complete impunity from both the central and state governments, and opaque to the affected people, it has been rife with arbitrariness. The district courts have kneeled over and thrown out most challenges by the citizens at breathtaking speed. Inevitably, caste played a decisive role in arbitrariness with the already poor Dalits getting less or no compensation.

Muslims residents feel completely alienated but often remark that the irony is lost on Hindus who, even when pained, do not stop to reflect on the demolition of Babri Masjid or the glorification of Adityanath as “Bulldozer Baba” for his panache for demolitions as summary punishment for “crimes” committed by Muslims.

The rest of the citizenry, too, is fatigued by the constant demolitions, digging, debris and dust. The inconvenience is of proportions that is difficult to bear and regularly reported in the local newspapers in Faizabad. It was a disturbing sight to see sad and quiet women and elderly sitting amidst the debris of their houses.

The bigger newspapers and national dailies carried only the decisions and developments on the construction of the Ram temple. The large-scale dispossession and demolitions were erased from the public sphere discussions, whether locally or nationally.

Disarming resistance the Hindutva way

When the demolitions for road widening began in Ayodhya, the traders and shopkeepers association of the town, dominated by Bania castes, opposed it. In their petitions to the district administration, they asserted that they were long-time voters and supporters of the BJP and were Ram bhakts, or devotees.

But nothing came of their petitioning.

The Ayodhya sub-divisional magistrate and BJP MLA Ved Prakash Gupta both expressed their inability to do anything. The masterplan was cast in stone and nothing could change it, they said. Many traders and shopkeepers were roughed up during demolitions. GST raids on traders in Faizabad and Ayodhya were targeted to introduce a chilling effect on any resistance.

It needs to be underlined that the demolitions began in the most expensive part of the Faizabad city dominated by traders who are most trenchant BJP supporters. Once the most powerful of the city were overpowered, their example disarmed all resistance. All that everyone could talk about was sacrificing for the noble cause of the Ram temple construction and repeated platitudes about asthai pareshani or momentary discomfort for tourism and economic development

While there was a lot of resentment among the traders, they avoided framing their complaints as a confrontation with the state government and maintained that the officers were “misleading” the government.

Above all, no organised resistance could be mounted because that would amount to opposing the construction of the Ram temple.

After the elections, no common denizens of Faizabad are able to celebrate the SP victory because of fear. Those who are said to have voted against the BJP or those who missed voting entirely are being rebuked. The atmosphere is being built as if a collective and grand paap or sin has been committed which is liable to attract the wrath of the Gods. A pall of depression had fallen on the main Faizabad market the day after the result was declared.

However, the left, Dalit and progressive Faizabadi civil society comprising activists, journalists, writers,teachers, students and poets, is silently and smugly happy to have anticipated and played a part in BJPs debacle.

Prior to the elections and the Ram temple inauguration, in social media posts about these demolitions in new Ayodhya, it was not uncommon to see a couplet from Ramcharitmans being quoted, “Hoihe soi jo Ram rachi rakha, ko kari tark badhawe saakha” – loosely translated it means “Only that will happen which Ram has ordained, has arguing ever improved anyone’s fate” to gesture at the conspicuous lack of opposition.

Today, the words “Hoihe soi jo Ram rachi rakha” have taken on a different meaning though.

Ghazala Jamil is a scholar of urbanisation and culture politics. She was born in Faizabad.

All photographs by Ghazala Jamil.

Also read:

‘Did Ram say kick out the poor?’ The discontent of the displaced in new Ayodhya

In Ayodhya, firm linked to BJP leaders sold ecologically sensitive land to Adani – for a big profit

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