This is one book that every Ayodhya reporter probably wanted to do but never had the opportunity to return to the temple-town with time in hand. More than a quarter of a century has passed since Ayodhya emerged as one of the core concerns of India. Since that fateful day in February 1986, when in a haste rarely exhibited by the Indian judiciary the lock on the disputed shrine was opened for Hindu devotees, this small city has periodically grabbed headlines.
The myriad lanes of the town drew journalists from both the state capital and the national capital either to cover a round of confrontation or to assess the mood. The episode over, they inevitably returned to their main beats leaving behind promises made to themselves. In the past two decades, however, the town remained more or less forgotten because, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, there was nothing more to be done. The ramshackle structure, called the makeshift temple, will possibly remain in a similar state as the vacant canopy in New Delhi’s India Gate: forgotten and no longer a contentious issue.
In the life of Ayodhya there are two epochs: pre-demolition and post-demolition. Since 1986 there have been several books on the temple-town, its history, the nature of conflict over it, the ideological dimensions of the agitation and, above all, what all this meant for the idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution. Books prior to the one under review tended to restrict their scope and canvas to the pre-demolition epoch, with a few adding a hastily cobbled postscript to make a few points about the post-demolition era. For all purposes, the story had moved on after the demolition.
It is this premise that the author wants to question. Her contention is that the Ayodhya story has remained in the town despite the fact that it is no longer drawing the hordes of yore. The book, however, begins on an opaque note — best manifest in the title itself. Does the title indicate that the book delves into contemporary India’s contradictions, or does it suggest that the author has lived through India’s inconsistencies?
Every book – especially one either on Ayodhya or with the temple town as a major amphitheatre of action – needs a strong narrative or analytical frame as a central theme to hold it together. To put it figuratively, every book of this sort has to be yet another Ramayana. Instead of being a narrative that is strung together by a powerful chord, this book presents a slice of Ayodhya. For those who are not intimately connected with the town or are not able to relate with the subjects by drawing on past experiences, the task of relating to the subject gets difficult.
This slice of Ayodhya could still have been appreciated if the writer had stuck to one genre: journalese, political analysis, oral-history or even mainstream history. Unfortunately, we end up nibbling at every genre without getting a full morsel of any of these. This may sound figurative but every historical and literary account of Ayodhya has had liberal doses of the figurative. If this has changed dramatically in the post-demolition epoch, it must be established consciously.
The problem with accepting oral history as the gospel is fraught with dangers of diluting the truth. Oral historians must keep the Rashomon effect in mind before accepting narratives of people. Minor checks and balances can spot obvious contradictions. Dates, for instance. The presidential election in the early 1990s was not held after the demolition but a few months before that. This could be a simple typographical error but in anything to do with Ayodhya, the authors need to be most careful with dates.
Accepting oral history without any cross-checking also runs the risk of citing contradictory figures for the same object. Take, for instance, the Ram Shilas — those consecrated bricks taken in processions that set large parts of the country in flames in 1989. How many were there in the first place? Twenty million? A few hundred thousand? And what happened to them? More importantly, whose estimate is to be believed?
In the post-demolition epoch, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad programme of February 2002 that drew an unspecified number of activists from different parts of the country – including Gujarat – has so far been the most violent chapter. Yet the story of Sabarmati Express and the people who perished in the carnage that caused a bigger chain reaction in the entire state Gujarat gets bypassed.
The usual suspects are there. Hashim Ansari, the assortment of Mahants from Nritya Gopal Das to Lal Das, the official head priest of the disputed shrine who was murdered just months after the demolition, all find a mention either in detail or in passing. Even journalists of a respected local paper, Jan Morcha, feature in the book. But all these portraits add little to the reader’s understanding beyond what is already known — that given a chance the town would have either resolved the conflict or allowed it to simmer without ever coming to a boil.
Good editors routinely advise reporters to keep it simple and straight. This advice was either not given or not followed. The book, therefore, ends up being a hotchpotch, despite intentions to the contrary.
PORTRAITS FROM AYODHYA
Living India’s Contradictions
272 pages; Rs 295