Editor’s Note: Since the article was last updated in 2019, there have been a few developments, the most pertinent being that the country’s Supreme Court has ruled that the disputed holy site of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh should be given to Hindus who want a temple built there. As of July, preparations for ‘bhoomi pujan’ (ground breaking ceremony) are being conducted. NDTV reports that the construction will begin after a grand ground-breaking ceremony on August 5 that will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of other VIPS.
When it comes to the writings about Ayodhya, there is little that goes beyond the pro-Ram mandir argument on one side and the pro-masjid on the other. The region has histories spanning over 3,000 years but Ayodhya is forever etched in the pages of India’s collective past for the events of December 6, 1992. A crowd of Hindu Kar Sevaks demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, triggering violence, riots, contempt and forever polarising a once-cohesive society. It has been so incredibly politicised over the years that reading materials, books and reports often seem to fall into agenda-driven brackets.
What we forget, actually, don’t even know is the multi-layered and multi-religious history of Ayodhya, a holy city for people of multiple faiths and traditions that’s been restricted to tension between Hindus and Muslims. Beyond the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute’s controversial headlines, what do we really know about Ayodhya, its people and its past? Valay Singh, a journalist as well as a human rights and child rights activist, recognised this gap in the Indian psyche. He undertook a quest for knowledge about the fraught terrain. In his book ‘Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord’ he traces, with care and balance, the history of Ayodhya. Through intensive research, a deep dive into archives and personal interviews with key people of different communities, castes and religions in the city itself and the surrounding region. He journeys to this battleground of faith, speaking to the citizens and presents a chronological account of the development of the region’s hardened political identity.
With the Supreme Court currently preparing to set a date and hear the Ayodhya case, Singh has been busy keeping track of the updates. We managed to speak to him about his book, the research he undertook and experience of being in Ayodhya. There was so much to learn from Singh, who gave us his eloquent insight into the past of Ayodhya, it people and its streets.
Scroll on to read our interview with Singh, you can purchase the book, published by Aleph Book Company here.
Homegrown: What made you embark on this historic journey that you’ve traced in the book? What sparked such a deep interest for you?
Valay Singh: “I was in the fourth grade when the Babri Masjid (the pro-temple section refer to this as the “disputed structure”) was demolished. Even as a child I distinctly remember those days when shoot-at-sight orders had been issued and a curfew was imposed for many days. I was studying in Daly College at that point (Daly is a boarding school in Indore) and we heard many rumours about the violence raging outside. We could see the army doing flag marches if we snuck out to the edge of the campus, or even from the rooftops of my hostel. When I eventually went home to my family in Bhopal, I heard many stories about my uncles and their Muslim friends banding together and guarding their neighbourhood against mobs from both sides. In brief, I was given a certain consciousness of communalism early on in life.
Every year, during the summer vacation, I used to visit my Nani’s house in Bhopal’s old city. Cousins of other friends in the neighbourhood too used to visit from all over India. We were a large group of friends (Hindus, Muslims, Sindhis, Sikhs etc.), so I was brought up in a very multicultural ‘secular’ environment in that sense, but in the summers following the demolition, many friends from Muslim families stopped coming out. Eventually the invisible faultlines became visible, and every year since then, I feel that India has become a more divided place. The 1992 demolition of Babri masjid in Ayodhya and the riots that followed changed India forever.
So as a journalist, when the opportunity to write this book came up, I grabbed it with both hands, It also helped that I was in between jobs, which gave me the freedom to begin in-depth research. I saw the book as important (and perhaps timely) in that it is an effort to trace Ayodhya’s story beyond the binaries of religion. At the same time it is an attempt to deconstruct the growth of communal polarisation and religion-based politics using Ayodhya as the fulcrum. I had also extensively researched the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict, being a researcher and desk editor with NDTV 24x7 at the time, so, I feel I couldn’t have possibly wished for a more suitable non-fiction subject for what is my first book.”
HG: It has clearly taken immense research by you to compile this book, if you can tell us about it please, how did you go about piecing this all together?
VS: “I was very conscious of the subject matter I was getting into, and I tried to map out how I needed to get to where I had to. It took me nearly thirty visits to Ayodhya over a period of two and a half years, secondary research of manuscripts, myths and legends, pro-temple scholarship and its counter, filing RTIs, accessing archives at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, as well as the National Archives, other libraries, meeting historians, and academics, interviews with people linked with the case and then putting it all together to bring out the story of Ayodhya from pre-historic times till now. Given the prevailing ignorance and often deliberate misrepresentation of facts around Ayodhya, I felt through this book, perhaps I can try to widen the understanding of readers about the city and its multi-layered history.
There were multiple aims in my mind when writing this book, the biggest and most important being that I wanted to write a sort of ‘go-to’ book for Ayodhya, using all sides and points of view, and extant scholarship. Ayodhya is a very difficult subject to write about because a lot of people already think they know everything about it. Unfortunately, what they do know is drawn from the media, which often does not follow an objective path. So, we fail to realise that what we know is drawn from the bias of the person who wrote that content for you. It’s an unconscious reproduction. The other thing, as I mention in the introduction to the book, is that writing on Ayodhya can be neatly slotted into pro-temple and anti-temple boxes. I have striven to be objective (as much as possible) and agenda-agnostic. There needs to be an attempt to ‘humanise’ the city, dial back the political overtones and remove our tendency to reduce it to binaries.”
HG: The demolition of the Babri Masjid has become a landmark moment when it comes to social and religious cohesion of the country – in the coming years, do you feel we, as a society, can truly get past it? What will it take?
VS: “I think we can get past it when we start recognising where our priorities currently lie, and where they should lie. I have used a quote from Orwell’s 1984 in the book’s epilogue. It is not an exaggeration to say that we live in Orwellian times where the ruling class keep our eyes wooled up, and we are happy to go on living in a sort of joyful delusion till something drastic takes place. And then too we see that outrage fade away or morph into something else not quite desirable.
Should the fact that India is one of the most unequal places in the world, that it has the world’s largest burden of child malnutrition, child marriage, people living on less than a dollar a day, entrenched casteism, and a horrific culture of gender-based violence be our top priority, or should it be issues like Ayodhya, and Sabarimala? We can get past it when we have a courageous and conscientious political leadership that doesn’t give in to short-term selfish electoral gains. When we have politics that unites people despite their diverse beliefs and backgrounds instead of playing on narrow differences. We can move on when different religions in India themselves go through a process of reform. Just because something is being done in the name of religion it cannot be blindly condoned or accepted. Religious reform is needed badly in India.
As I write in the concluding section of the book, besides the court process which is yet to take off, resolution of a dispute like Ayodhya is best left to the youth and young people. It is my belief and hope that young Indians, even though they are pilloried for many things like apathy and ignorance, are best placed to resolve this issue. This issue cannot be resolved with a spirit of defeating one party but with a spirit of justice for all as there can be no closure without justice. And, lastly, the people of Ayodhya must be allowed to settle this issue among themselves without any interference from vested interests who have long exploited this place.
How we resolve the Ayodhya dispute can become an example of India’s maturity as a democracy. We can either allow it separate us on religious lines or we can put it behind us and create a new example of India’s plurality.”
HG: What was it like being on-ground in Ayodhya, asking such questions? Were people from different communities as polarised as one would imagine?
VS: “In many ways, Ayodhya is really a lot like any other Indian city or town. What holds true for other places holds true for Ayodhya as well. Muslims are now less than 7% of Ayodhya’s population and mostly mind their own business. However, over the last couple of years they have been living under a constant threat of violence. Relations between Hindus and Muslims remain far more cordial than in many other places but whenever the jingoism centred around the Ram temple increases relations do get strained between the two communities. As any Ayodhya resident would tell you, it’s the outsiders who cause trouble in their city which remains peaceful otherwise.”
HG: People believe that the final Ayodhya verdict will have deep implications for Indian politics and society, do you agree with the sentiment?
VS: “We need to see what happens. The Court has not yet begun hearing the case and it will be a while before we can expect a final verdict. It depends on the verdict, whatever it is and whenever it is pronounced. The most important thing is that political parties and the likes of the VHP and RSS need to stop putting pressure on the judiciary for a hasty verdict. We need to let the Court do its job in peace and let’s agree to accept the verdict no matter what it is.”
HG: We are soon going to have a generation of young millennials who have little knowledge of Ayodhya or the Babri Masjid demolition, for whom a book like this is so important. If there is one key message you’d like people to take away from this book what would it be?
VS: “65 % of India’s population is below the age of 35. Nearly 50 % of us are below 25. The future of India depends on the young and ambitious. I hope they remain thoughtful, mindful, responsible and objective despite many forces who want us to be divided and scattered. The youth are chided for being apathetic and ignorant, but we must also realise that this generation has information at its fingertips like no generation before, which makes them potentially powerful agents of change.
I hope people read this book and realise that the truth is never black or white, rather it is often grey. Grey might seem boring at first but it contains within many shades and colours. We live in times where public sentiment seems to be everything. Those who control it in a sense control us all. We must remain watchful of people misusing peoples’ sentiments for ulterior motives. I’d like everybody to read the book and decide for themselves what their take away should be. For me it has been a journey that has answered many questions, and at the same times posed new ones.”
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