This essay explores a plot of land in Ayodhya, a township in eastern Uttar Pradesh, that was the subject of religious debate between India’s Muslims and Hindus, dating back to the 16th century. Upon mentioning the ‘plot’ or ‘site’ in Ayodhya or referencing a ‘dispute’, I will be referring to the contested site itself, or the Muslim-Hindu dispute over the site, respectively unless explicitly stated otherwise. Built by Mughal emperor, Zahir al-Din Muhammad in 1529, the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babri) stood atop of this plot in Ayodhya (Bachetta 2000, 256). Since its construction, Hindus have contested the location of the Babri Masjid stating that it was built over the Ram Jamnabhoomi, believed to be the exact birthplace of lord Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu (Bachetta 2000, 256). Tensions exploded in December of 1992, when a group of Hindu militants destroyed large sections the mosque (Bachetta 2000, 255). This move was followed by a bid to reinstate the Ram Mandir (Ram’s temple), believed to be the site of Ram’s birth. Following decades of tension surrounding the site’s history, a Supreme Court verdict in November of 2019 granted land rights to the Hindus, followed by an approval of the construction of a Ram Mandir (Ram’s temple) on the site (Murthy 2019). The significance of this plot of land in Ayodhya lies in its disputed history. The religious parity of the site embodied the enduring Hindu-Muslim debate, with ownership claims explored through historical and spiritual avenues. For Hindus, the site is critical in the solidification of the Ramayana pilgrimage that is one of the most influential epics in the Hindu faith. Conversely, Muslims assert that it was the Barbi Masjid that was first built on site, claiming the land on a historical basis (Murthy 2019). I chose to examine the Ayodhya plot as it is a unique example of how the history of a site can be manipulated by a dominant community. My interest lies in the plot’s significance as a critical component in India history that spurred discourse around the growing threat of Hindu theocracy, India’s democracy, and religious relations within the region.
Prominent Representations of the Ayodhya Plot
Literature surrounding the site has been explored primarily through a political lens, as authors are curious to explore the societal implications of the Supreme Court verdict. Authors analyse two dominant representations of the verdict, namely how it (a) significantly impacts the Muslim community, and (b) was an encroachment on India’s constitutional secularity (Murthy 2019; Ghosh 2020, Alam 1993).
For the Muslim community, the verdict reflects the persistent injustice and substantial neglect of religious minorities in India. Ghosh (2020) illustrates that the Muslim community felt unheard, as the decision was strongly influenced by the Hindu nationalist regime, the BJP. The court presented an alternative arrangement, granting a 5-acre plot to the Muslim community for the construction of a new mosque following the verdict. However, the proposition was widely neglected, as the alternate plot is situated 25 kilometres away from the original site (Ghosh 2020). This subpar attempt to establish a compromise was viewed by many as partisan to the Hindu population, perpetuating the neglect of the Muslim community who have experienced decades of injustice following the illegal destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 (Ghosh 2020).
For Hindus, ownership of the site is perceived as a form of religious liberation, as the court’s decision to grant passage for the construction of the Ram Mandir (Rama’s temple) solidifies a critical element of the Ramayana pilgrimage. However, as a Hindu dominated state, the verdict is argued as one that is religiously biased, threatening the secular democratic order. The verdict exemplifies how the Hindu nationalist agenda of the current ruling party, the BJP, is slowly encroaching on India’s political secularity (Filkins 2020; Murthy 2019). The BJP is believed to have used the plot in Ayodhya as a tool to stoke religious tensions, claiming that the Hindu population is a ‘victim in its own land’, rekindling the persistent narrative that frames Muslims as the oppressors (Filkins 2020; Murthy 2019).
Alternative perspectives of the site present that the dispute over the Ayodhya plot is a breach of the foundational principles of democracy (Alam 1993, 51). The ‘unusual’ procedure of assigning the dispute to the Supreme Court leads to a ‘unconstitutional[ly]’ determined verdict that threatens the democratic process (Alam 1993, 51). Through appointing most of the Supreme Court members, Modi ensured a pro-Hindu verdict. Tinkering with a democratic body, Modi’s actions are argued as an executive ‘overruling [of] the institutions of the state and modern society’ (Filkins 2020). In this regard, the verdict highlighted the BJP’s steady encroachment on instituting a theocracy, placing India’s constitutional secularism in jeopardy (Alam 1993, 51).
These dominant representations, however, are to an extent, problematic. Literature around the Ayodhya site typically perpetuates the narrative of severe religious conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. This assertion, however, is largely exaggerated (Deccan Herald 2020). In the Gaddeajijpur village roughly 230km away from Ayodhya, Muslim and Hindus peacefully pray together at either the temple of Lord Hanuman (Hindu temple), or the Jind Peer Baba Mazar (Muslim shrine) that are situated adjacent from one another (Deccan Herald 2020). Despite effectively illustrating the differing responses to the Supreme Court verdict, these prevailing representations of the debate over the site in Ayodhya are largely inflated, leading to a false narrative regarding Hindu-Muslim relations in India.
Tourism and the Disputed Plot in Ayodhya
Historically, the contested plot in Ayodhya has been symbolic for both the Muslim and Hindu faith; as a representation of Mughal history, and a critical site for the Ramayana pilgrimage, respectively (Murthy 2019). The BJP administration in tandem with tourist agencies utilise the tourist gaze to present the site in Ayodhya as a Hindu shrine, promoting the Hindu nationalist agenda. The term ‘tourist gaze’ is characterised as the expectations that tourists attribute to a foreign environment, with the intent to experience authenticity (Urry & Larson 2011, 61). Following the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the BJP established a policy to cover the travel expenses for those who attend 15 Indian tourist locations annually (Economic Times 2020). However, through offering grants to tourism businesses that mostly promote Hindu sites, the administration is clearly seeking to utilise the tourist gaze to slowly align India’s history with the Hindu narrative (Economic Times 2020). This process of selective promotion of India’s heritage sites is an example of ‘staged authenticity’, a method by which locals promote certain aspects of their culture to exhibit an authentic experience, omitting certain qualities (Maccannell 1973, 589). Authenticity itself is a subjective estimation of cultural norms, and reflections of these norms vary based on the intent of the presenter (in this case, the tourist agencies) (Jonas 2017, 120). This subjectivity allows representations to be significantly skewed, as perceptions of the Ayodhya plot largely follow the Hindu narrative and ignore the site’s symbolism as an embodiment of India’s Muslim heritage (Jonas 2017, 120; Maccannell 1973, 589). In multiple tourist websites, Ayodhya plot is presented as the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’, with no reference to the Babri Majid that once stood on the plot. This process shields tourists from the conflicted history of the site and its divisive qualities.
The Hindu celebration of Diwali is an instance where staged authenticity is most prominently exhibited. This festival of lights is a key celebration in India, symbolising lord Rama’s return to the kingdom of Ayodhya after his exile (in the Ramayana pilgrimage) (Johnson 2007, 72). Hindus from around the world travel to Ayodhya to celebrate, and the disputed site is deemed the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ and covered in lights (Johnson 2007, 73). The festival perpetuates the Hindu claim to the plot in Ayodhya, as the site is a critical component of the Diwali festival (Johnson 2007, 73). Tourists visiting during Diwali engage in a structured experience of authenticity, as the site is presented as a historical Hindu temple dedicated to the worship of lord Rama (Johnson 2007, 73; Maccannell 1973, 589). Through promoting cultural celebration and historical beauty, tourist agencies bury the conflict and establish the Hindu claim of true ownership over the Ayodhya plot. Altering a culture to meet the traveller’s expectations of authenticity allows tourist agencies to embed a historical narrative that can reshape a site’s history (Macannell 1992, 1).
The plot in Ayodhya is a significant symbol for socio-political and religious relations in India. The dispute over site illustrates how the mosaic of Indian history is explored in many ways through political discourse. Authors illustrate that the manifestation of religious tensions into political debate can have widespread implications on members of Indian society.
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