The temple town’s perceived instability has stagnated its progress despite its rich cultural heritage, industry and handicrafts

For residents of Ayodhya, the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar stands as a grim reminder of the time of when the Babri Masjid was demolished. “The rumour machinery is nearly identical — tales of scores of dead bodies having been thrown into the Saryu [during the demolition] have been mirrored in Muzaffarnagar, where authorities actually had to drain the canal at Nagla Mandaur to disprove the rumour,” says Scharada Dubey, author of Portraits from Ayodhya — Living India’s Contradictions, a collection of profiles from the temple town. The pall of fear seems to have installed a state of stagnation in the town today.

A walk around the heavily-guarded precincts of Ram Janmabhoomi introduces you to the uneasy calm that prevails in the area. You are likely to hear the locals rue, “Sab tham sa gaya hai [everything seems to have come to a halt].” Despite a rich cultural heritage, the twin towns fare miserably in comparison to other holy cities such as Varanasi and Allahabad, which thrive on tourism all year round. Even neighbouring districts with lower profiles are generally more dynamic. In fact, in the last two decades, Ayodhya has barely grown. Like many times in the past 20 years, all media cameras zoomed in on the town for the VHP’s controversial 84 Kosi Yatra recently. But they zoomed out just as quickly.

Tourism in a bad way

At two separate functions last year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav promised that Ayodhya-Faizabad would be upgraded to a muncipal corporation and developed as a tourist hub. Tez Narayan Pandey, currently a Samajwadi Party MLA from Ayodhya, who had campaigned on the promise that he would get the status of “tourist city” conferred on Ayodhya. Neither of these promises has materialised. The highly-anticipated 2013-14 State budget has not done much by way of regenerating hope. It paid little attention to improving the dismal state of medical facilities in the town or repairing its crumbling infrastructure. The disenchantment with political parties has only seemed to have grown.

“I have sent several proposals to the CM. There are plans to develop Shulabh toilets, improve the ghats, make changing rooms for pilgrims, and repair the dwars and guesthouses,” Mr. Pandey explains.

The MLA blames the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for regularly conducting programmes that disrupt trade and normal life. “They create controversies and hurdles in development and try to disrupt harmony. Just recently, traders in large numbers met me and complained about them.”

Notably, there are sections in Ayodhya who are on course to suing the VHP for all the financial losses suffered by the town over the last two decades.

There seems to be nothing substantial on the cards for locals, besides religion-based tourism. However, Mr. Pandey’s solution for improving livelihoods may well come as a disappointment for locals. “Building more guesthouses will directly benefit traders as pilgrims will flock here and the sale of ritual items will increase,” he says.

Locals recall how the “Dastkari Haat [handicraft exhibition]” which would be held on the banks of the Saryu, would bring them rich dividend. Faizabad’s footwear industry is also a shadow of its thriving past. Traders recall a time prior to 1992 when the industry was comparable to those in Agra and Kanpur. Traders from Bengal, Bihar and Nepal would come here for business and raw material. But today, entrepreneurs have stayed out due to the absence of a stable environment.

Education has suffered too. Each time the Ram Mandir issue surfaces, schools and colleges turn into rest-houses for security personnel. Locals do not present a favourable opinion of the various Sankrit degree colleges in the region.

Revamp Buddhist Culture?

Vineet Maurya (41) — the first person to be profiled in Ms. Dubey’s book — has campaigned, for many years, in favour of revamping Ayodhya’s Buddhist culture. Mr. Maurya believes restoring such spots is the only way of attracting large number of tourists as well as grants from foreign countries.

“Only the mutts benefit due to pilgrims. What about rest of the residents? And why only talk of Hindu-Muslims? Will a place with such a polarised atmosphere ever become a tourist hub?” he asks.

Mr. Maurya has written letters to the archaeological department, the Chief Minister and the Home Ministry to carry out carbon-dating and declare historical locations such as Mani Parbhat and Sugriva Tila as Buddhist tourist spots.

Mr. Maurya’s idea is not that far-fetched for all the outrage it may seem to generate. In 2001, the Mayor of South Korean city Kim-Hae invited Ayodhya to sign a Sister City Bond. According to Korean folklore, Queen Heo Hwang-Ock — daughter of an Ayodhya king and who is said to have later become Queen of the ancient Kaya kingdom of Korea — travelled there from Ayodhya around 2000 years ago.

Buoyed by this, researchers have, over the past decade, been busy in substantiating the link between Ayodhya and Korea. Ayodhya even came close to receiving a Rs.200-crore grant from Korea as a mark of friendship.

However, for all that hype, Ayodhya had to settle for a memorial on the Saryu’s banks to commemorate the birthplace of Queen Hwang-Ock. It does not even find mention in any tourism brochures or websites.

Land disputes

Meanwhile, there is an emerging controversy that right-wing groups are allegedly not allowing any sort of repair work on old religious places belonging to minority communities. An RTI was filed in this matter and locals are mulling over filing a PIL in the Allahabad High Court, says Anil Singh, a Faizabad-based professor and social activist.

“These mosques are being converted into khandhars [ruins] and not even the smallest repair work is being allowed by right-wing elements,” Mr. Singh said.

A land dispute concerning the site is already in court. According to Mr. Maurya, who is the petitioner, 43 out 67 acres of acquired land for the Ram Janmabhoomi is disputed. “It was farming land. Compensation for the land in 1989 was Rs.15 per sq. foot but we got only Rs.2.40. We are demanding for Rs.20.”

The court is also hearing a case seeking that VHP account for all the money it has collected for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.