Ayodhya prays for growth and development

Ayodhya prays for growth and development
A man cleaning a model of the planned Hindu temple in Ayodhya. Residents say the incoming government needs to focus on issues like improving infrastructure and education, instead of focusing on the dispute over the temple.

UTTAR PRADESH, India - Garbage overflows onto the streets and clogged drains line the hundreds of temples in Ayodhya, the town that helped catapult the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national prominence in the nineties.

Little wonder then that Hindus from out of town who come to pray at the big and small temples in the town visit for only a day and then try to leave early.

Even the residents of this town, which has a population of about 50,000, are unhappy with the poor infrastructure. Job opportunities, too, are almost non-existent.There are no factories in and around the city and besides selling tea, food or items like garlands and flowers to offer at the temples, jobs are scarce.

Indeed, finding a job is the main worry for Mr Imran Ansari, 27, a science postgraduate, who belongs to the 6 per cent Muslim minority in Ayodhya, which Hindus regard as the birthplace of Lord Ram.

"There are no options. There is no private sector, so the only way is to get a government job, which is what I am trying to do," said Mr Ansari.

Similar worries plague his Hindu neighbour Suresh Kumar, who dropped out of school years ago and sells tea in front of a temple.

"Politicians come during election time to ask for votes and then we never hear from them. They haven't done anything for us," said Mr Kumar, 32, a father of two sons aged three and five. "We want development, better education, factories for jobs," he said, echoing the things that are also on the wishlist of the people in the town.

But Ayodhya's link to one of India's most explosive communal issues since independence threatens to overshadow these basic demands of its people.

It was this town that propelled the opposition BJP to national prominence in 1992 when its leaders led Hindu hardliners to destroy a 16th century mosque built by the Muslim ruler Babar, and which they claimed was standing on the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Ram.

The demolition of Babri Masjid not only triggered one of India's worst riots, in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died, it has also fanned communal tensions ever since and brought the BJP and its message of Hindu nationalism into the political mainstream.

While the disputed site is now cordoned off and a court case over claims to the land is still raging, the BJP has used Ayodhya as a rallying point for Hindus in the populous north.

In its manifesto for the ongoing general election, the party has said it will "explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya".

"When the BJP formed the government (in 1998), it had allies (it had to listen to), so it could not do it. This time, in 2014, the BJP will be strong and will not be dependent on its allies," said Mr Triloki Nath Pandey, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), a right-wing Hindu group associated with the BJP.

Expectations of the party's hardline supporters for a temple at the disputed site have been further bolstered by prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. At a rally on Monday about 10km from Ayodhya, he stood in front of a portrait of Lord Ram and said: "I bow before the pious land of Lord Ram."

Mr Modi is seen as a polarising figure and has fended off allegations he did little to stop anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002, which broke out after Hindu pilgrims travelling from Ayodhya died in a train fire. He has also shown little remorse over the events since.

But in Ayodhya, which falls under the Faizabad parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh state, there is fatigue with temple politics.

Hindu priest Satyendra Das, who oversees a scaled-down model of the proposed Ram temple, expressed disappointment that the issue was once again featuring in elections. "Due to the dispute, a place of shanti (peace) is now a place of ashanti (disquiet). The Ram mandir (temple) should not have been brought into politics," said Mr Das.

While the BJP aims to consolidate the Hindu vote, the Congress is wooing the Muslims. But Hindu priest Bhaskar Das just wants the garbage on the road to be cleared.

"The Ram temple is important but basic facilities are equally, if not more, important," he said. "The Ram temple is for my spiritual health but if I don't have actual physical health because of the filth, what's the use?" he asked.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.

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