The Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath’s Diwali-eve carnival in Ayodhya has rendered over a thousand people, including about 400 sadhus, homeless. On 6 November, the state government held a mega fete of lights and cultural events on the ghats of the Sarayu River, with a high-profile guest list comprising the governor Ram Naik, Adityanath and South Korea’s first lady Kim Jung-sook, with almost the entire state cabinet in attendance. An eviction drive was conducted along the route to the venue, ostensibly to clean-up the area and improve security for the prominent guests. The victims of this clean-up—mostly daily-wagers or sadhus—have lived in Ayodhya’s Manjha area, the local name for the catchment of the Sarayu, for decades.
The ruthless manner of the demolition has left hundreds of families—with children and old members—and sadhus roofless. “The first lot of bulldozers in the area came along with a large number of police force about fifteen days back,” a sadhu, Shankar Das, said. Das came to Ayodhya as a karsevak in December 1992, when the Babri masjid was demolished, and has been living in Manjha ever since. Das told me that the demolitions continued till 5 November and that “we were not even given time to remove our belongings. Those who resisted were badly beaten up and taken into custody.” Shivprayag Giri, another sadhu who became Adityanath’s victim, told me that around 400 sadhus have been living in the Manjha area. “Some of them came in 1992 and stayed back thinking they would one day participate in the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya while others settled in this area because they had no other place to stay,” Giri said.
Rekha Devi, a daily-wage earner from the slum, said the local administration “told us that we had to go because we were a security risk and made the view dirty.” Devi lives in Manjha with her octogenarian mother-in-law, a handicapped husband and three children between one and five years of age. “We prayed to them but they did not stop,” she added. “There is nowhere we can go now. We are dirty because we are poor but I don’t know how we can be a threat to anyone.” Her husband, Bhagwat Prasad, was beaten up by the police when he sought some time to make an alternative arrangement for his family. “A police constable slapped on my face the moment I asked for some time,” he recounted. “Then he dragged me to his officer who told me: ‘If you don’t leave immediately, I will put all of you in jail.’”
The Diwali-eve carnival was the second of its type in Ayodhya. The first was held last year; just months after Adityanath became the chief minister. This year’s event was organised at a much grander scale, with eminent foreign dignitaries on the guest list. The local administration’s overzealous clean-up drive was apparently conducted under pressure from the state government. Not only were a large number of slum houses demolished, those that could not be destroyed were concealed by massive hoardings carrying images of Adityanath and the first lady of South Korea. The town’s main roads were repaired and restored, old temples facing the river were decorated with colourful lighting and lakhs of earthen lamps were lit on the banks to make a world record. A massive 30-feet statue of Ram was also installed on the banks of Sarayu. All of this, so that the “filth” of Ayodhya would not shock the prominent visitors of the Diwali-eve celebrations.
The Manjha area demolitions are very similar to the ones conducted in Delhi at the time of Commonwealth Games 2010, when a large number of slum dwellers were evicted to spruce up the city for the “high prestige” games. Just as in Delhi, where the authorities targeted anything that they felt could tarnish India’s image, in Ayodhya, all localities close to or on the way to the carnival venue, were cleared of whatever was considered dirty. The police and administration have refused to comment on these demolitions, while the local media is so enamoured with the lighting carnival that it has chosen to look the other way. The state and local machinery claim that the ousted people were illegally squatting on government land, despite being allotted quarters meant for economically weaker sections, about a decade earlier when the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayawati, was the chief minister.
Victims, however, have a different take on this. “True, Mayawati gave flats to some of the poor residents of Ayodhya in Kanshi Ram Colony”—which is located just outside the town—“but most of Manjha area’s affected people do not have any such flat,” said Ram Kumar Nishad, another victim of the eviction drive. “This is a lie that authorities have cooked up to justify their crime.”
The contrast of lighting and darkness could not be starker this Diwali than in Ayodhya.