Ravindra Prasad Dharkar stands at the end of a narrow street in Ayodhya, his hand pointing towards a yellow metal gate. "This wasn't here in our childhood," he reminisces. "Back then, this was just open ground, a shortcut for us kids to the Ram Janmabhoomi - our playground."
The gate, which is always locked, is a post-1990 addition, a year marked by personal tragedy for Ravindra: the loss of his elder brother, Rajendra Prasad Dharkar, during a 'karseva' incident. Rajendra, nine years older than him, was just 17.
The October 30 of that year was pivotal. It was the first of two days when police, under the orders of the then-state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, opened fire on karsevaks. The second occurrence was on 2 November.
Rajendra, along with his chacha (uncle) Kamal, was at the Janmabhoomi-Babri mosque site on a call given by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to ‘Rambhakts’. He, along with several young men, had climbed up the domes of the mosque. It was noon.
Kamal narrates: A helicopter appeared overhead. It gave a red signal and, almost immediately, the policemen on the ground fired tear gas shells and bullets at the crowd. Rajendra was hit by a bullet and fell on the ground. He tried to escape but fell into a nearby deep, dry well.
Kamal, who was already on the ground, escaped the bullets and ran to his safety. Within minutes, he learned from the other karsevaks what had happened to his nephew.
Rajendra’s body was recovered by the police in the evening.
At the time of his death, Rajendra was married, but his wife had not yet moved in with him. She was awaiting 'gauna' - a traditional ceremony in some north Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, marking the wife's transition to a new life at her husband's home. This practice, often associated with child marriages, may occur several years after the actual wedding.
Fortunately, Rajendra's widow was soon remarried, sparing the family further anguish.
Ravindra’s house is in Kajiyana mohalla, about 500 metres from the Ram Janmabhoomi site and a walking distance from the house of late Hashim Ansari, who was a petitioner in the dispute from the Muslim side. Hashim’s and Ravindra’s families are on friendly terms, Ravindra said.
The eldest of Ravindra’s six children, 18-year-old Priya, brought a framed picture of her late uncle. "I never met him, but my father often speaks of him," she said.
Surprisingly, none of the siblings have ever visited the Ram Janmabhoomi site. In small towns such as Ayodhya, parents often restrict their children's movements, and being school dropouts, the siblings lack a valid reason to venture there.
Poverty forced Priya, her 14-year-old sister Ruchi, and her 13-year-old brother Lucky to leave school after Class 8. Their younger siblings are enrolled in government schools.
The Dharkar clan has four houses in a row, each constructed on an uneven stretch of land. Kamal and Ravindra’s cousin Mangal, seated outside their one-room houses, were busy shaping bamboo sticks into materials for cane baskets and trays.
The Dharkar community, belonging to the scheduled castes, traditionally makes bamboo products and are also called ‘Bentbansi’. Their craft is being increasingly overshadowed by plastic alternatives.
The men said they barely earn Rs 6,000 a month each.
Their expertise lies in creating sturdy bamboo stands for keeping shoes or bags, capable of holding up to 50 kilos. "But these days, people prefer plastic," Mangal said with regret.
Now, the men sell raw bamboo sticks to small manufacturers who use the sticks to fashion various bamboo products.
During the wedding season, however, their craft finds relevance. They make colorful 'dal' trays for the brides' families to present gifts to the grooms, a tradition still cherished. “Thankfully, those are still in demand. The tray is considered an important custom and cannot be done away easily,” he says.
They also make ‘Titthi’ mats for laying out bodies before cremation.
Rajendra's funeral was hastily arranged without traditional rituals. Ravindra recalls his father, Ram Ashray, receiving a call from the police about the body's discovery. "All my father could do was light the funeral pyre," he says.
Kamal, who accompanied his brother to the funeral, said the administration refused to hand over the body to the family. So they rushed to Faizabad, where a post-mortem was carried out and body cremated at a nearby ground.
Following Rajendra's death, Ravindra’s house saw visits from several political and social leaders. Ravindra remembers the name of only one person - Lal Krishna Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader who was running a nationwide campaign to get a Ram temple constructed on the disputed site, with 30 October as the deadline. Thousands of karsevaks from across the country were in Ayodhya that day.
Advani provided a Rs 10,000 grant and unfulfilled promises of a government job and a street named in Rajendra's honour, he said.
A month later, a mysterious cheque arrived through post. The person who delivered it to Ravindra’s father, advised him to deposit the money in a banking scheme, assuring the amount would double to Rs 2 lakh in a year. Ravindra’s father did as advised.
Ravindra does not know what happened to that money. “Pitaji bank mein jama kiye they. Bank paisa nigal gaya (my father deposited the money in the bank. The bank swallowed the money),” he says.
Ravindra is thrilled about the inauguration of the Ram temple, but is too preoccupied with overcoming poverty to visit the construction site. Three years ago, he received an invitation card to attend the bhumi pujan of the Ram temple, done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi
“Karsevakpuram se aya tha. Peela sa card tha. Mere paas abhi bhi hai (it came from Karsevakpuram. It was a yellow card. I still have it),” he says.
Karsevakpuram is a colony in Ayodhya that houses the office of the VHP in Ayodhya. At its entrance, two large portraits of the late Ashok Singhal, former VHP chief and in charge of the Janmabhoomi movement, greet visitors.
In a karyashala (workshop) near Karsevakpuram, set up by the VHP in 1991 to carve pillars for a temple at Ram Janmabhoomi, a painting of Rajendra Dharkar is kept.
As for the upcoming 22 January ceremony where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the installation of the idol of Ram Lalla at the temple, Ravindra awaits an invitation.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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