In her latest book In Search of Ram Rajya: A Journey Through UP Politics, journalist Manjula Lal explores the political history of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh. That the state is marred with a history of communal violence and caste tensions is a visible fact. In the book, Lal attempts to challenge this malignant and hurtful connotation. She explores in greater depth the roots of political culture in the Pradesh, which explains why politicians behave like feudal lords instead of democratically elected representatives of the people.

An excerpt from the book reads, “At the national level, the war of words rages at a high decibel between Muslims and Hindus arraigned on opposite sides of the communal divide. But it is also between Left secularists and the right-wing intelligentsia, and between the SP-Congress allies and the BJP. If you turn down the volume, Hindus are facing an existential dilemma, unresolved issues of national pride that is not mere ego, as muscular Hindutva makes it out of be.”

What does the youth of UP really want?

“What does the public of UP really want?” she questions. The NGO Yes Foundation asked youngsters to put together a list of 100 demands before the 2014 general elections. These were then narrowed down to 10, which were as follows: Enhance civic and political participation by the public, especially youth; Make education relevant and impactful; Create safe spaces for youth people to interact and learn about others; Ensure safety and dignity of women; Create viable employment options for all; Bring transparency in public spheres; Reform the health sector; Give access to quality government services, especially electricity; Give due importance to environment conservation; Stem urban migration and make agriculture viable.

The NGO presented every party with its wish list. It remains to be seen if any party is responsive to the aspirations of the people or only wants power at any cost.

“Whoever wins the Assembly elections, it is hoped that UP doesn’t lose, the way it has done so often, with rulers pursuing happiness and prosperity while denying these to the general public. The party—or alliance—that wins should go down in history as the one that turned UP’s fortunes around.”

The past has a bearing on the future

Lal reflects on archaic anecdotes while discussing the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in one of the chapters. “[To] conclude the tale of the Shia Nawabs, Asaf-ud-daulah transferred the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. He is also recorded as granting one acre of land to Dayaram for the establishment of the Khakhi Akhada. The shifting of the capital to Faizabad gave the Bairagis more breathing space. Till his death in 1797, he did not let the Shia clergy prevail and made Lucknow a centre of poetry and learning that put Delhi in the shade. Many Hindu and Jain temples were built during his reign, among them the Jagannath temple at Lucknow with a crescent on the spire. Those who are emotional about the matter of the Ram Janmabhoomi would do well to remember that religious hatred is not the only reason for demolition of temples, as was the case with Ghazni-Ghori and Mughal rulers. In July 2015, the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in Rajasthan incurred the wrath of the RSS when 86 big and small temples were demolished by the municipality and Metro authorities in Jaipur. Hindu outfits called for a chakka jam (stop the wheels) protest. In Vijayawada, they called Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu ‘Aurangzeb’ when 30 temples, some of them fairly big, were demolished by civic authorities. And when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, Ashok Singhal had to intervene to stop the demolition after about 90 temples were demolished during Gandhinagar’s development and 200 others in other cities. Critics noted with glee that LK Advani, whose constituency is Gandhinagar, did not utter a word of protest! Maybe he felt that the temples at Somnath and Ayodhya had particular relevance in mythology, and were demolished as acts of religious bigotry—hence the need to right a historical wrong.”

She is anything but reluctant in her controversial revelation that it could not have been Babur who ordered the building of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which was demolished by a Hindu mob almost twenty-five years ago on 6 December 1992.

Hindutva: Good or Bad?

“The BJP’s project of promoting cultural nationalism, which started with the Ayodhya movement, will continue irrespective of whether it comes to power. But there are also other pulls and counter-pulls, that of forging a cosmopolitan outlook, of looking beyond caste and creed to embrace modernity. The RSS might continue to hold its shakhas in every neighbourhood, but there are boys like Ritwik C, studying for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) at Lucknow University, who ask, ‘If the government itself breaks us up, who will work for the community?’ Because of his interest in religion, he says, he used to give speeches on Hinduism at the RSS shakha near his house. But he doesn’t want to join the organisation because he doesn’t want to give up independent thinking. He says the RSS rules are too strict, and they only bow to their saffron flag, not the tricolour, which makes him uncomfortable. He says if he deviates from the line, they immediately mock him as ‘Ritwik Khan’. ‘We have to think of what the future of the country will be if we think like this,’ he says.

He is not alone. Swati M, 22, did her Master’s in social work at Lucknow University after her Bachelor’s in Management Studies. Her father has been in the RSS for 35 years, was a pracharak when they lived in Chitrakoot and is now in the education sector. She rejects RSS philosophy because they believe women belong in the kitchen. It does have a women’s wing but their only agenda is to teach self-defence with bare hands and lathis. She has seen them try to prevent inter-faith marriages but encourage inter-caste matches, and she wonders who gives them the right to force their value system on others.”

No wonder, a quarter century after the Babri Masjid demolition, as UP goes to the polls, voters are reexamining the tide of events that altered the country’s politics, bringing the BJP to power at the Centre. Time never stands still, attitudes and priorities change. Modern India now bristles with malls, mobiles, global influences and a younger generation keen to get ahead. Many of the stalwarts of the movement have died, including Ashok Singhal and Hashim Ansari.