Growing up as a native of Lucknow in Gujarat, I had heard of Ram Mandir a lot of times - while on breakfast tables, the grown-ups discussed the 'rioting' and the 'encroachers' and a lot of other foreign words that a 10-year-old doesn't comprehend. Years later, it was the visit of Uddhav Thackeray that got me the opportunity to actually witness the Ram temple on Sunday, November 25 to understand what the fuss was all about.
But the real problem, I learn very quickly, is not the bricks and stones and structure that is so largely debated upon. The real problem starts from a 100 metres diameter of the temple where thousands of people are lead by local leaders who erupt in slogans made of abusive language for the Muslim community. As I and my crew stood there to report when Uddhav Thackeray was to arrive in a matter of minutes, the small lane that leads to the temple was filled with people chanting abuses for 'Muslims' (and derogatory words used for the community) and 'Babar'. These are leaders of the VHP, Shiv Sena and several other local organisations who bring their cadre to the temple once in a while "to keep the momentum on the issue and pressure on the government", some of them tell me.
As I stood there witnessing hundreds of devotees line up and chanting what can only be described as barbaric language, I spoke to some of the civilians who were coming to visit the temple. Mukesh Sharma, a cobbler from Varanasi shares with me that he puts aside some money every month to visit the temple with his children but the reason left me speechless. "To show them (his children) what they did to our beloved ram temple", he tells me with a toothy grin. I can only imagine who he meant by 'they'.
A contradiction of this statement came from a 20 something old shopkeeper Pradeep Yadav who owns the shop smack in front of the gates of the temple. While serving tea and hot aaloo pakodas to media and police personnel,
he said "this is all stupidity (he used a stronger word). I sit here and I see politicians from all parties come here and do the same drama every fortnight and whenever we hear a buzz of elections. Why can't they just use the money they spend on campaigning on actually doing something about the temple?" '
At this point, all other neighbouring shopkeepers also join the conversating and I quickly realise that all the debates and the holier than thou fight for their beloved is really brainwashing and repeated speeches given by politicians. Since the general sentiment of the people who live a few meters away from the actual structure that is under dispute is that they want this sorted out and they want to get on with their life.
One of the Samagri Bhandar shopkeepers tell me, "there are many leaders who don't even know about the issue properly , but they are lead by their leaders to chant and sloganeer and riot. In essence, the controversy around the issue is bigger than what the problem was. But this keeps the business going."
While roaming the stages that were set up for Uddhav Thackeray's 'Ashirvadotsav', I met with several civilians who came specially to visit the temple site from other states. All of them, as though had a meeting before they spoke the same sentences claiming that it (spectacle organised for and by Shiv Sena) was a matter of faith in a political party, not faith in any god to make temples. Retired sessions judge from Chhattisgarh, Sanjay Mishra said, " we only came for entertainment. We went to the mandir- that was a matter of Aastiks but this is for the nastiks who have made a mockery of the Gods. These people don't care for emotions. Why have they started talking about the Mandir all of a sudden? It's events like this, that remind me elections are approaching."
During my a few days visit, I must've spoken to at least 70 workers of Shiv Sena who were smuggled from Maharashtra to Ayodhya and while all of them showed loyal enthusiasm about the entire two day event, but came up short, and stuttered when I casually asked them about the supreme court verdict and the line of action that will be taken by Shiv Sena.
Naresh Srivastava, a local leader of Thane, Mumbai claimed, "there is a discussion on ordinance but the Sena will alone resolve the temple problem. We don't need the help of the BJP nor the Yogi Government. Uddhavji will do everything." He said as he ushered more workers towards Sarayu Ghaat where Uddhav Thackeray and other Shiv Sena leaders took part in the Maha Arti.
At this point, there isn't a shadow of a doubt that the leaders who descend upon Ayodhya once in a while for their surrogate election campaigning, are either detached from reality or are choosing willful ignorance to their advantage. Even as I was going back from Lucknow - along with some hundred Shiv Sena workers who were also departing - I spoke to some who I recognized meeting in the earlier days. While reviewing the entire 'trip' the workers seemed really happy that their leader had come to the battleground and that he is 'getting the national spotlight for his work for Ram Temple.
When spoken about Sanjay Raut provocative statement where he said it took Sena only 17 minutes to destroy the mosque, Mahesh, a lean yet loyal Sena worker who is met in Ashirvadotsav countered me aggressively.
"Madam you were reporting wrong. Sanjay ji said the right thing. this is a moment of pride. We were the ones who destroyed the mosque. The BJP has been given too much credit for doing nothing. We know the place in and out and thus we can fight for it," he said rather charged up.
So, maybe Uddhav Thackeray was after all able to get away with only making generic statements about the temple. His cadre was happy for the free trip at least. But while departing, I asked Mahesh how he found the temple and disputed area around it and if he'd seen it all. To this, his answer was a resounding: no. I pick up my bag and leave for home as I shake my head and smile lightly: politicians.
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