Dalit, OBC devotees in Ayodhya oppose attempt to displace them for tallest Ram statue

Residents of Majha Barhata, a gram panchayat in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya district, found in January 2020 that the administration planned to acquire land from their village to build a grand statue of Ram. Residents, most of whom are from backward-caste groups and work in the agriculture sector, said they did not want to give up their land. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 January, 2021

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.” 

A farmer works at a field in Majha Barhata. Sanjay Kumar Yadav, another farmer in the village said, erecting the statue at Majha Barhata by displacing poor people was unnecessary. “We are already oppressed,” he said. “There are anyway several issues that people from backward castes and farmers face.” SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

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?” 

Arvind appears to be leading the fight against the statue now. Shortly after the notification was released, he approached the high court. On 28 January 2020, the Allahabad High Court directed the state government to act in accordance with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, relying on a precedent set by an order passed in a similar matter last year. The July 2019 order had said, “In case no consent is arrived, respondents will take recourse as provided in Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.” The 2013 act states that compensation for land is decided on a host of factors, including market value and how the acquisition would affect the original land owner’s earnings. Based on this, Arvind said, “We should be given a house in exchange of house, land in exchange of land. And the residents who are landless, they should get a job.”

Arvind said that a case had been registered against him and fourteen other villagers for holding a sit-in protest about the matter on 14 February. The first-information report in the case mentioned that 200 others were also present at the protest in violation of rules invoked under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows certain administrative officials to pass orders imposing restrictions on the assembly of persons. A second FIR was lodged against Arvind and Avdesh Kumar Singh, another resident, in September. The two were booked under four sections of the Indian Penal Code, pertaining to intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace, punishment for assault or criminal force otherwise than on grave provocation, assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty, voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty. Arvind said the police told him, “We will get the administration to lock you up,” “We will get you killed an encounter.” 

Residents said that they had lived on this land for decades. Arvind told us that his ancestors had taken this land during the British Raj. He said till date, the administration had not resolved other issues that the residents were facing concerning their land. “Our land-record operation has been pending since 1984,” he said. “The Sita Rampur village,” in Basti district, “is next to us—even our border is not demarcated. How will they manage to take the land?” 

Vimala Devi, a member of the Chamar community, a resident of Majha Barhata, shows her “patta”—a land document—of her house. Referring to Adityanath, she said, “He does not have children, which is why he doesn’t understand the value of these patte.”  SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Multiple people from the Dalit community told us they got the land as a result of the Bhoodan movement of the 1950s, which urged communities and individuals to give some of their lands to the landless. The land distribution that began then carried on over the coming years. Ramjit Gautam, a member of the Chamar community, was among the people who received this land. “We were given the patta”—a land document—“for this land during Indira Gandhi’s time, in 1976. The Modi-Yogi government wants to dismiss this. The administration is believing that ‘These Dalits will not be able to do anything,’” Ramjit said. He told us he thought that the government intended to dislocate them without adequate compensation—this could be possible as they did not originally purchase the land, it was donated to them in the Bhoodan movement. “They want to occupy it, for free. This is an upper-caste government. They are not thinking of us,” he said. “They want to drive away Chamars and Yadavs.”

Residents told us that erecting the statue at Majha Barhata by displacing poor people was unnecessary. Sanjay Kumar Yadav, a resident and a sugarcane farmer, was one such resident. “Now when the temple is being built, there is no justification to install a statue also. It will not be worshipped either. His face will be placed so high that he will not be visible properly,” Sanjay told us. “We are already oppressed,” he said. “There are anyway several issues that people from backward castes and farmers face. Farmers get paid for sugarcane years later.”

Villagers said that the administration had ignored several other locations which appeared to be viable for erecting the statue. Arvind said, “If the administration wants land, it should first take the thousands of acres of non-agricultural land lying with sants and bhagato”—referring to saints and their followers. “If you want land, many matts have more land than us,” he said, referring to monasteries. According to him, the akhadas—ascetic orders—in Ayodhya are also known to own a lot of land. “If that is not enough, we will give our land,” Arvind added. Anara Devi Yadav, a resident, also said, “There is a river embankment nearby. There is an empty piece of land there, they can install the statue there as well.”

Lack of clear communication by the administration appeared to be fuelling residents’ anxieties. Anara said that the administration is not willing to give any clarity about whether the 86 hectares of land which was mentioned in the notification was being acquired or more. “No one from the administration is even talking to us, or telling us anything properly—if they will take our house or land or what,” Anara said. “They don’t talk to us. Even if old people ask them, they scold them and drive them away.” Sanjay reiterated that there was a lot of confusion about the administration’s plan. “Sometimes they say our farmland will be taken, sometimes they say both our land and house with be taken,” he said. “A new notification should be issued saying neither our house nor our land will be taken.” 

A portrait of BR Ambedkar at the home of a resident of Majha Barahata. Vimala said that the government is ignoring the residents’ concerns. “This is a government for upper castes,” she said. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Anara emphasised that the residents did not have any say in what happened to their land. She told us when the officials came to the village to measure the land, “Hundreds of families were standing here, with folded hands, saying, ‘Do not measure our house.’” Last year, Majha Barhata was made a part of the Ayodhya Nagar Nigam, or municipal corporation. Anara said, “There was no hearing. Our village was made a part of the Nagar Nigam by force.” We emailed a questionnaire about the villagers’ allegations to Jha, the district magistrate of Ayodhya, and Deepak Kumar, the Deputy Inspector General/Senior Superintendent of Police, Ayodhya, but did not receive a response.

Anara said that it was a struggle for her family to live in Majha Barhata. “No drain has been made in our village, no bulb has been installed till date. This government has done nothing for us,” she told us. “Whether foreigners come here for tourism or a temple is built or a mosque is built, what benefit will we get?” she said. “Drowning with our families would be better than this. After that, they can put up this grand statue.” Her despair did not appear to shake her resolve to stay put in Majha Barhata. “I was married into this village, and I will die here,” Anara said. 

Shivnath Yadav, another resident, said that three generations of his family had lived in a thatch hut in Majha Barhata. “If we leave that also, what will we be left with?” he said. “The statue is of no use to us. Had they planned it on some barren land, then maybe our children could have gotten jobs nearby and earned a living.” He added, “We are not getting any support from Modi and Yogi. They want to see us homeless. By removing the entire population of all four areas, how much development will you be able to do?”

Vimala Devi, a member of the Chamar community, said that the government is ignoring the residents’ concerns. “This is a government for upper castes,” she told us. Referring to Adityanath, she said, “He does not have children, which is why he doesn’t understand the value of these patte. Aren’t we Ayodhyawaasi?”—residents of Ayodhya. “Don’t we worship Ram?” Vimala added, “We will all die, but we will not leave our home.”