The Supreme Court is yet to settle the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliate, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, appear to be planning to take the issue beyond Ayodhya, to a 270-kilometre radius around the city. By using the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg—a religious pilgrimage circuit around Ayodhya—the organisation seems to be laying new ground for its Hindutva politics, only a few months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Between 4 and 6 January, the central government-funded Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, in Delhi, hosted the Ayodhya Parv, or Ayodhya Fest. Lallu Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of parliament from Ayodhya district, organised the event. Singh told the media, ahead of the event, that the fest aimed to introduce visitors to the “broader cultural and religious significance” of Ayodhya, and that it would offer a glimpse into Ayodhya’s “past, present and future.” The event featured various installations and exhibitions with references to sites associated with the legend of Ram and the Ramayana. Though Nitin Gadkari, the union cabinet minister for roads and transport, was scheduled to inaugurate the Ayodhya Parv, he failed to make an appearance. Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister for rural development, inaugurated the fest instead. Several prominent sadhus from Ayodhya, who are associated with the Babri Masjid, were in attendance. Nritya Gopal Das, the head of the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas Parishad, a trust set up by the VHP to oversee the construction of the Ram temple, was seated on stage, as was Champat Rai, the vice president of the VHP.
Mid-afternoon, Ram Bahadur Rai, an RSS thinker and a former secretary of the organisation’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, took the stage. Rai heads the IGNCA’s board of trustees and its executive committee—a post he was appointed to in April 2016 amid much scandal. He is presently the chief editor of the news agency Hindustan Samachar and a member of the Nehru Memorial Museum Library’s society. During his speech, Bahadur Rai made a remarkable statement. He said that the Sangh aimed to identify “141 or more” sites around Ayodhya that were associated with the legend of Ram and the Ramayana, and that these would form “badi Ayodhya”—big Ayodhya.
Bahadur Rai added that there was no need to view the history of the Ayodhya region through the lens of secularism. “There is a difference between Awadh and Ayodhya,” he said, referring to the princely state that existed in the region before India was colonised. “The culture of Awadh is along the lines of Nehru’s secularism—the line of an inept understanding of history.” He described the purported 141 sites as crucial, and added that “the nation, the world and society” should be made aware of these. He further said that Singh, the BJP MP, had alerted him to the existence of “badi Ayodhya.”
The VHP’s claim, evident from the event, is that these 141 sites fall on the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg, an 84-kosi circuit that begins and ends at Mukhauda Dham, a site in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, near Ayodhya. (One kosi measures a little over three kilometres.) Many Hindus believe that the Ayodhya of the Ramayana, which was ruled by the king Dashrath, spanned 84 kosis around present-day Ayodhya, and that the king once performed a yagna at Mukhauda Dham after completing a circuit around his kingdom. Believers gather every year to traverse the same route, about two hundred and seventy kilometres long, claiming it will free them from 84 lakh yonis—cycles of birth and death.
The Sangh’s vision for these sites and the Marg was depicted in an architectural model displayed at the event, of Ayodhya and several surrounding districts. About eighty of the 141 sites supposedly associated with Ram were marked on it, as were the six districts it would cut through—Ayodhya, Gonda, Basti, Bahraich, Barabanki, and Ambedkar Nagar.
The Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg has long figured in the RSS’s plans for Ayodhya. The magazine Frontline reported in 2013 that in January that year, the RSS set in motion a plan to launch its own Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama yatra. The responsibility for this task was handed to the VHP, which then decided to launch the yatra in August that year, ahead of the pilgrimage’s usual schedule. The VHP announced 25 August as its start date—it attempted to begin a procession from Ayodhya. But the state government refused permission for the yatra, citing a possible threat to law and order and communal harmony. The Lucknow high court subsequently upheld the government’s decision, foiling the VHP’s plan.
In August 2015, a little over a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government took over at the centre, Gadkari breathed new life into the RSS’s project, this time in the form of state sanction. He announced that the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg would be converted to a four-lane highway. Then, in December 2016, just ahead of an assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Gadkari declared at a rally in Ayodhya’s Faizabad city that the four-lane roadway, which was slated to cost Rs 1,056.41 crore, would be a designated national highway. Gadkari also declared that two bridges would be constructed across the Sarayu river in the region—at a total cost of Rs 200 crore. He noted that this development project would change the face of the districts it passed through.
To understand the RSS’s focus on the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg, it is important to understand the social, cultural and political history of the six districts through which the circuit will travel. These six districts form an essential part of erstwhile Awadh’s secular history. None of the rulers of this land be it the Mughal kings or the nawabs of the Awadh princely state, impacted the cultural and religious make-up of the area.
The region is home to nearly two crore people, comprising Hindus and Muslims, as well as large numbers of people from the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class groups. Setting aside Gonda and Ayodhya, the BJP and the RSS have failed to establish a consistent hold over the region. After the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, the BJP was briefly successful in capturing nearly all six districts, but it has since faced tough challenges from the parties that represent the backward castes and Muslims—the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. In 1993, when the BSP’s founder Kanshi Ram agreed to an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, headed then by Mulayam Singh, a popular slogan found many takers in the villages in these districts, all of which record high numbers of Dalits and Muslims—“Mil gaye Mulayam-Kanshiram, hawa mein udd gaye Jai Shri Ram.” (Together Mulayam and Kanshiram, are erasing all traces of Jai Shree Ram.)
Barring the Modi wave that swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in the last two decades, the BSP and the SP have maintained a strong presence in the region. Ambedkar Nagar—which was previously named Akbarpur—has long been a stronghold of the BSP, and the party’s current head Mayawati, a four-time chief minister of the state, has been elected to the Lok Sabha as many times from the constituency. Dalits and Muslims comprise about forty percent of Ambedkar Nagar’s population, and the BJP had not won a single election here before 2014.
In the last 30 years, the BJP won the Barabanki Lok Sabha seat only twice—in 1998, for a period of a year, and in 2014. The ruling party is currently fighting a tense battle for the Bahraich seat, which is reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Caste communities. In 1967, KK Nayar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Bahraich on a Jan Sangh ticket—as the district magistrate of Ayodhya, in 1949, Nayar had aided Hindu men in placing an idol of Ram inside the Babri Masjid. Prior to 1967, Muslim candidates such as Rafi Ahmed Kidwai were also elected to the Lok Sabha from Bahraich. In both Bahraich and Barabanki, Dalits and Muslims together form more than fifty percent of the electorate.
In his speech at the Ayodhya fest, Bahadur Rai noted that the Sangh was identifying 141 “or more” Ayodhya-like sites. It is possible that in the coming months, the Sangh’s plan will extend to Raebareli and Amethi—both of whose social make-up and political history are not unlike those of the districts that the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg cuts across. The Congress has maintained a hold over both for the better part of the last two decades—Sonia Gandhi, the former Congress president, is the current member of parliament from Raebareli, and her son, Rahul Gandhi, is the member of parliament from Amethi.
Another point worth noting is that Gadkari designated the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg a national highway—a classification usually reserved for roads that connect one state to another. The transport minister, however, did not mention how this circuitous route, which begins and ends near Ayodhya, will be connected to other states.
Though Gadkari’s plan claims to be aimed at the development of the region, the paths to this remain unclear—Bahraich, Barabanki and Basti were previously named among India’s most backward districts. Much of Bahraich’s population, for instance, is dependent on agriculture, and unlikely to benefit from the mere establishment of a national highway. Amid this, it is important to ask what salvation the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg will bring to the residents living around these 141 new Ayodhyas, and what the Modi government hopes to achieve by giving government sanction and public money to this RSS project.
This news report first appeared in Karwan, The Caravan’s Hindi website. It has been translated and edited.