Land Lords

The windfall gains made in the name of the Ram temple

The Ram temple at Ayodhya will be inaugurated on 22 January 2024. Deepak Gupta / Hindustan Times
31 December, 2023

AT 12.44 PM ON 5 AUGUST 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The silver brick, weighing 40 kilograms, had been donated by Nritya Gopal Das, the mahant—high priest—of Ayodhya’s largest temple, Maniram Das Ki Chhavani, located near what had once been the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid. Since 2003, Nritya Gopal had been president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust set up by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, following the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, to work for the creation of a Ram temple in its place.

In the litigation that followed over the disputed site, the VHP members who acted as “next friends” of Ram Lalla Virajman—the embodiment of the infant Ram, who was considered one of the petitioners—asked for the Nyas to be charged with building the temple. However, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Ram Lalla, on 9 November 2019, it asked the Modi government to set up a new trust within three months. On 5 February 2020, the government established the Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra. Nritya Gopal was initially excluded from the RJTK but, after he threatened to launch an agitation in response, the trust elected him its chairperson at its first meeting, on 19 February.

The silver brick donated by Nritya Gopal—worth Rs 26 lakh at the time—was merely a prop. After Modi placed it in the ground, it was removed and transferred to a bank locker belonging to the RJTK, adding to the trust’s rapidly expanding coffers. The Modi government had made a symbolic donation of one rupee, on 5 February, to kickstart the fundraising process. The RJTK announced at the time that it would accept contributions in cash, kind or property, without any conditions. By August, it had Rs 42 crore in the bank. As of March 2023, it had raised over Rs 3,500 crore from all over the country and spent around Rs 900 crore on the temple complex.

In October, the trust was granted a license under the Foreign Contributions (Registration) Act to solicit additional donations from abroad. Such a license is an exceedingly rare commodity in Modi’s India. The home ministry told the Lok Sabha, in December 2022, that it had cancelled the FCRA registration of nearly two thousand NGOs between 2019 and 2021. Unlike other NGOs, the RJTK has faced very little scrutiny from the government over how it raises and spends money. A study of the transactions it conducted reveals that some of the donations were used to help certain individuals connected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party make windfall gains.