Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Ayodhya’s urban facelift: Development or constitutional overreach?

Anuj Behal with Tushar Kanoi

Following the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya last month, significant strides in development have swiftly taken shape within the historically contested city. The implementation of expansive road widening projects, extensive beautification initiatives, the establishment of the Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram Airport, the revival of heritage structures, and the displacement of residents from their homes collectively drive Ayodhya towards the State’s vision of a ‘New Modern India’.

While the BJP formally launched its 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign on 25th January, it can be argued that the inauguration of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya on 22nd January set off the real clarion call for BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign. 

The entire month of January was shrouded by equally towering images of two men who have captured the minds of the Indian milieu, perhaps second to none in recent times, PM Narendra Modi and Lord Ram. In his speech from the temple on the 22nd of January, Modi stated, “Once the shrine is constructed, not only will the grandeur of Ayodhya multiply, but the entire economy of this region will undergo massive transformation.” To materialize this grandeur, the masterplan of Ayodhya, a vision document for 2047, proposes an investment exceeding Rs 85,000 crore(about $10bn) over the next decade, to be used to the end of urban development of the city—a city with a mere population of around 55 thousand. 

The month of January saw another momentous occasion for the world’s largest democracy, India celebrated its 75th Republic Day. Reading the constitution and assessing Indian constitutional practice on the 26th of January, 2024 raises many questions. This piece deals with one such question, tied inextricably to the two most important days seen by this month, the 22nd and the 26th. 

Article 27 of the Indian Constitution

Enshrined in the third part of our constitution, is Article 27, a fundamental right that reads – ‘No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.’

The article begs to be read in light of the events of January 22nd and the developments that are poised to unfold in Ayodhya in the coming years. The temple itself, having its foundation in a communally mired history, was built out of the proceeds of the ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust’, set up by the Central Government upon the directives of the Supreme Court in the  M Siddiq(D) Thr Lrs v/s Mahant Suresh Das & Ors case. The trust amassed a hefty sum of over Rs. 3500 crore in private donations of which reportedly only 51% was utilized to construct the temple. The rest of the proceeds will be used for the maintenance and administration of the temple in the years to come. Amongst the most crucial purposes, the trust serves is to ensure the prima facie adherence of Article 27. However, one believes that there is sufficient cause to argue that there has nonetheless been, or will be, a subversive breach of Article 27.   

Does the allocation of taxpayer funds towards urban development in Ayodhya, coinciding with the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, constitute a violation of Article 27, a fundamental right?

The breach begins to unravel itself when one looks into the nature and scale of the proposed investment towards the urban development of Ayodhya, and the flavour of urban design curated to this end. A quick rundown of the website of the ‘Ayodhya Development Authority’ gives us a list of ongoing and recently completed projects, with overall expenditures exceeding Rs. 200 Cr, and it appears that a majority of these projects relate directly or indirectly to the promotion and development of sites of Hindu pilgrimage. Perhaps the most emblematic and honest manifestation of the vision can be found in the new ‘Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram Airport’ design, bamboozled with loud Ram motifs and supposedly inspired by the Nagara style of Hindu Temple architecture. Whether the Vastu Shastra, Shilpa Shastras and the Brihat Samhita, all of which are ancient Indian treatises on architecture, prescribe guidelines for the design of an airport is a question we shall leave for the historians to answer. 

The questions that we can ask are such. Has the ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust’ funded the new airport at Ayodhya? Does the ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust’ plan on funding the many projects, of similar flavour as the airport, envisaged within the Ayodhya Master Plan? Evidently, no. The taxpayer will be the one paying for the consecration of the idea of Ram into the very brick and mortar of the city of Ayodhya, manifesting the State’s motto of ‘Ram belongs to everyone’ into the very urbanity of the city. 

The effect of state-sanctioned saffronisation of critical public infrastructure will have far-reaching consequences on the psyche of the non-Hindu demographic of the city. The bitter memories of 6th December 1992 will be bombarded at the turn of every street, it will be paraded under the shade of every tree and it will do everything to the effect of further alienating the Muslim population of the city. Meanwhile, the SC-allocated site for the construction of a new mosque in Ayodhya is 25 km away from its original site, and of which the construction has not even started. 

While it makes little sense to present an argument against the rapid and disproportionate impetus of urban development given to Ayodhya, an argument can and must be made about the nature and flavour of urban development that Ayodhya will see in the years to come. The airport, in its design and manifestation, has already set a precedent for a clear breach of Article 27. The intent and design of all such future projects will go on to decide to what extent the confines of Article 27 have been respected. 

The case of Ayodhya presents a disproportionate amount of attention channelled towards a city, which can be understood along two lines, both of which have the potential for investigation. First, it has received a vastly disproportionate amount of state funding compared to other cities of religious importance in the country such as Ajmer, Amritsar, etc. Second, within the state of Uttar Pradesh, the projected urban development of Ayodhya will be massively skewed when assessed against other urban centres in the state, such as Noida and Lucknow. 

The grounds for this is, irrefutably, religion. Thus, while ‘Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust’ ensures that there’s no prima facie breach of Article 27, the ongoing and proposed urban development plans for the city of Ayodhya tacitly bypass the constitution, raising much cause for concern. The case presented here is not unique in accusing the government of being unconstitutional. It is an allegation rendered upon them time and again, and most recently by the Supreme Court in the matter of electoral bonds. 

On the 75th Republic Day of our country,  these words of Babasaheb echo more loudly than any other: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot.”

Tushar Kanoi is an architect, researcher and printmaking artist, primarily practising in the urban realm. Anuj Behal is an independent journalist and an urban researcher. 

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