AYODHYA, Uttar Pradesh — As they made their way from the banks of the Saryu river to their ashrams in Ayodhya, two Hindu priests expressed different opinions on whether the Ram Temple land scam would hurt the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prospects in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
Dileep Das, a swami with a bushy beard and a towering bun of dreadlocks, said that the alleged scam was the election issue.
“This is not an issue. This is the whole election. The votes that they used to get in the name of Lord Ram, they will not get those votes any more,” he said. “You steal, make money, and then fight an election. That is not the way?”
Walking behind him at a more leisurely pace, an evening breeze gently tugging at his flowing white beard, Satyendra Das, the head priest of the Ram Temple since 1992, was dead set against linking the scam with the state election, still seven months away.
Das, who is called maharaj by the people of Ayodhya, said, “Why are you linking this to the election?”
“This is not about the election. This is a matter of faith,” he said. “It is our faith that has been shaken, not our politics. It is the faith of people around the world that has been shaken.”
While the 82-year-old head priest would rather not sully a “matter of faith” by talking politics, the allegation of corruption in the construction of the Ram Temple is a powder keg that could do some serious damage to the BJP in UP. The question is why hasn’t it.
The allegation, raised first by Aam Aadmi Party and Samajwadi Party leaders, was that the Trust set up for the construction and management of the Ram Temple, the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, was buying land at an inflated price in Ayodhya. Champat Rai, the General Secretary of the Trust, has denied any wrongdoing, saying that the land was bought at the rate lesser than the market price.
The boatmen on the ghats of the Saryu said they had heard the news of two individuals buying 1.2 hectares of land for Rs 2 crores, and within a matter of ten minutes, selling the same land to the Trust for Rs 18.5 crores. “’Two crores to 18.5 crores’” was all that anyone could talk about for a few days, but the buzz petered out as suddenly as it started,” said 26-year-old Vikram Mahji.
Mahji and the other boatmen said they were angrier about the Covid-19 lockdown. They used to earn around Rs 1,000-1,200 per day before the pandemic. They were now earning Rs 300-400 every day. Their savings were gone. There were no tourists. The few customers who came their way were people returning after cremating their loved ones further down the ghat.
“That there should be corruption in the name of Lord Ram is something that we cannot accept in Ayodhya, but honestly, we are too busy trying to survive. What can we say or do at the moment?” said Mahji. “No one is really talking about the scam anymore.”
It isn’t surprising that Mahji lost track of the scam, when Opposition leaders like Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi, after making some initial noise and putting out a few tweets, have failed to galvanise public sentiment over an issue that holds the promise of pulling at the heart strings of millions of Hindus.
Until February 2021, people had donated Rs 2,000 crores for the construction of the Ram Temple.
In a second alleged scam, Deep Narayan, nephew of Rishikesh Upadhyaya, a BJP leader and the mayor of Ayodhya, bought land from Devendra Prasadacharya, a Hindu priest, for Rs 20 lakh and sold it to the Trust for Rs 2.5 crore.
Sachin Gupta, a 25-year-old tea seller, said that everyone was talking about “two crores becoming 18.5 crores” for a few days, but when nothing happened, and there was hardly any media coverage, people lost interest. “I don’t think any media is covering it now,” said Gupta. “Why did the media stop covering it? You tell us.”
Shivam Gupta, his 22-year-old brother, said, “If the political leaders were so concerned about it, they would not have come here. At the end of the day, which party has done more for Thakur ji (Ram) than the BJP?”
Even as the boatmen and tea sellers said they were not quite sure about whether the alleged Ram Mandir land scam would have any far reaching implications for the BJP, the saffron-robed Hindu priests of Ayodhya gathered for a dialogue, organised by India Ahead at the Ram ki Paidi, on the banks of the River Saryu, to talk about the allegations.
In its November 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court allotted 2.77 acres of disputed land, which included the plot where the Babri Masjid stood until it was demolished in 1992, to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas for the construction of a temple. In August 2020, the 67 acres of land adjoining it — acquired by the PV Narasimha Rao government following the demolition of the 16th century mosque — was given by the Narendra Modi government to the Trust for the construction of the Ram Temple. The Trust, however, plans to build the temple over 107 acres and continues to purchase more land in Ayodhya.
The Hindu priests asked why the nearly 71 acres given to the Trust by the Supreme Court (2.77 acres) and central government (67 acres) was not enough to construct the Ram Temple, and why was there need to make a colossal structure that would cannibalise other places of faith around the once disputed site. In May, Kaushalya Bhawan (named after the mother of Ram) was reportedly purchased for Rs 4 crore.
The Ram Temple, some said, had been “tainted” by scandal.
“What is the point of making a huge structure with flesh and bones, but no spirit?” said Mahant Pawan Kumar Das.
“Do you want to make god the master or a statue? Do you want to make god your master or your follower?” said Mahant Dharam Das.
“The Ram Temple will be constructed but there will always be mistrust in our hearts that it was tainted corruption,” said Karaptari, a religious leader who the people of Ayodhya call “Maharaj.”
“The central government has made this Trust. They need to investigate. What is going on? How does Rs 2 crore become Rs 18 crores,” said Satyendra Das, the head priest in Ayodhya.
“Should the Ram Temple that was inaugurated by Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) be so tainted,” said Dileep Das, the swami.
What is the point of making a huge structure of bones and flesh, but no spirit?
An afternoon with the Hindu priests of Ayodhya
Holding his rosary beads in one hand, Mahant Dharam Das kicked off the discussion by saying that Hindu god Hanuman and people around the world were watching the corruption unfolding in Ayodhya.
Dharam Das asked why the Supreme Court could not have supervised the construction of the Ram Temple, and lashed out at the Modi government for the people it chose for the Trust.
“It is not a trust, it is brasht,” said Dharam Das. “Gol maal hai, sab gol maal hai,” he said, referring to the 1979 smash hit starring Anmol Parrikar and Utpal Dutt.
It is not a trust, it is brasht.
In reference to the UP government continuing to slap FIRs (First Information Report) on its detractors, despite the Supreme Court telling state governments to stop cracking down on dissent and criticism, Dharam Das said, “I’m not afraid of an FIR.”
The BJP, when at the receiving end of criticism by the Hindu priests of Ayodhya, calls them politically motivated or just bitter for not being included in the Trust.
Mahant Janmejay, who, from the lines of kumkum on his forehead to his slippers with a Nike tick, was sporting the colour yellow, said, “The Ram Janmbhoomi land is somewhere. They are purchasing the land somewhere else. They want to make their own palace with the money of Trust, the money that the people have donated. This is unjust.”
Mahant Pawan Kumar Das said that people who had devoted themselves to Ram and the movement to get a Ram Temple constructed were devastated by the allegation of corruption in his name.
Touching on the beautification of Ayodhya under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, including the Ram ki Paidi where India Ahead hosted the dialogue between the Hindu priests, Pawan Das said, “The tiles that you are seeing, the glitz that you are seeing, is just decorating the body. If there is no spirit or life in the body, what is the point in decorating it?”
Mahant Brij Mohan Das said, “People’s faith is being played with.”
The Supreme Court, Brij Mohan Das said, had not ruled in favour of the Hindu litigants, paving the way for the construction of a Ram Temple, only for corruption and commercialisation to prevail in the name of Ram.
Mahant Dharam Das accused “Champat Rai and company” of corruption and commercialisation in the name of the Ram Temple.
The Hindu priests called for an investigation into the Trust and all the allegations of corruption that had surfaced this month.
Responding to our question as to whether he was playing politics or speaking as a matter of faith, Dharam Das said, “From Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi, we do not consider them. We are sadhus.”
But Adityanath, we pointed out, would say that the Hindu priests were playing politics. He responded by saying, “Yogi ji is playing his own politics.”
Karaptari, who the people of Ayodhya call “maharaj,” asked, “Why are Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath still silent?”
Why are Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath still silent?