Residents of Majha Barhata, a gram panchayat in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya district, were elated with the Supreme Court’s judgment to construct a Ram temple at the disputed Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi site in November 2019. But their joy turned into despair in late January 2020, when the office of Anuj Kumar Jha, the district magistrate of Ayodhya, released a notification stating that 85.977 hectares of land at Majha Barhata was being acquired for constructing a statue of Ram. Further, according to residents of the area, in August that year, seven or eight administration officials visited the gram panchayat and told them that more land from Majha Barhata than what was previously delineated in the notification would be needed for constructing the statue. Residents said that based on what the officials told them, it appeared that the statue would effectively subsume four areas in the panchayat locally referred to as Nyoor ka Purva, Nyoor ka Purva Dalit Basti, Dharmu ka Purva and Chhoti Mujhniya.
Almost one year before the Ayodhya judgement, Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had announced the plan to erect a grand statue of Ram. Initially, the state government had selected Meerpur Majha, another village in Ayodhya, for this task but the plan did not materialise—locals reportedly protested against the proposal and a technical audit team of the Ayodhya administration gave the location a negative report. By July 2019, the media reported that the proposed Ram statue would be the tallest in the world, with a height of 251 metres. Bisht, popularly known as Adityanath, envisioned the statue premises to be a tourism hub which should have a “digital museum, interpretation centre, library, parking, food plaza, landscaping based on the theme of Lord Shri Ram.”
The January 2020 notification stated that the selected land, a part of Majha Barhata, was situated between the national highway and an embankment of the irrigation department. It said that this land will be “bought” with “mutual consent.” But residents of Majha Barhata said there was no mutual understanding, only confusion about the matter. They told us that even though the administration officials who visited them in August had said that land beyond the notified 86 hectares would be acquired, they had not been given any document in this regard. The residents said they could not identify the officials, but knew that they came from a “survey department.”
According to Arvind Kumar Yadav, a resident who filed a case against the acquisition in the Allahabad High Court, the move will impact a thousand families. Most of them are extremely poor, from backward-caste groups and work in the agriculture sector. “When a grand temple of Ram is being built now, what is the need for this statue? Is it okay to uproot farmers from their work?” he said. “We will do jal samadhi”—submerge ourselves—“like Ram, but not give our land.”
Majha Barhata is about ten kilometres away from the Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi site. Everyone we spoke to said that they had been rooting for a Ram temple to be built at the site of the Babri Masjid. Arvind said he was 12 years old when karsevaks, or religious volunteers, had reached Ayodhya in 1991 to dismantle the Babri Masjid. “Our school used to shut down for months at a stretch. We used to go to Ayodhya to shout slogans,” Arvind said. “At that time, thousands of karsevaks lived in our village. They would stop by, and we would arrange refreshments for them. No karsevak would sleep hungry.” Arvind said that when the Supreme Court verdict in the case was announced last November, “Drums and dhols were played. We celebrated with gulaal”—coloured powder—he told us. “But now that the temple is being built, we are being destroyed,” he added. “If we give our house land to this statue, then what will our children do, how will they live?”