Living and not dying in Ayodhya
While the two-and-a-half decades of religious and political conflict produced special issues of magazines and several weighty books, none offered me any insight into what it’s like to live one’s humdrum, non-sectarian life in Ayodhya: birth, growing up, marriage, children and death.
The battle for Ayodhya is almost as old as I am. My life until this moment is practically bookended by two events: the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and writing this column - which starts off with the former event. I do not remember the first time I became aware of the inescapable, binary dilemma of mandir or masjid; it was born around the time of my birth and exploded into national consciousness not long after. Seldom have I heard mention of a third option.
Like most Indians, I have an opinion on Ayodhya; also like most Indians, I’m not sure exactly where it is. Sure, it’s a part of Uttar Pradesh (UP), but place a map of that state before me, and I’ll jab hopefully at some point near Delhi and hope for the best (and be off by a few hundred kilometres). But years spent reading reams of newsprint about it have tricked me into believing I know all there is to know about Ayodhya.
I know nothing. Because while the two-and-a-half decades of religious and political conflict produced special issues of magazines and several weighty books, none offered me any insight into what it’s like to live one’s humdrum, non-sectarian life in Ayodhya: birth, growing up, marriage, children and death. I’ve never visited the town, so I can offer no moving narratives about the lack of doctors, a crumbling healthcare system and no end in sight. Instead, I dug up government data from the National Family Health Survey - a periodic health-based census - from Uttar Pradesh, that I then pinned to a timeline of the mandir vs masjid mess. Draw your own conclusions.
The beginning of the tragedy
In 1992, when hundreds of angry men clambered onto the Babri Masjid and hammered it to the ground, two out of every five 19-year old women in Uttar Pradesh were already married. An 18-year old adolescent girl being wedded off was not an exception in that state, but the rule. Every tenth marriage was between a woman and a man related to her in some way.
When the Liberhans Commission was set up to investigate what happened that terrible day, Uttar Pradesh had the highest birth rate in the country. Every married woman gave birth to three or four children. This isn’t a generalisation; the precise, funny but unfunny figure is 3.6 kids per mother. If a solitary woman was to represent all of UP’s married women, that woman would have her first child before she was 20 and still be having children when she was 33, spending more than 14 years of her life either pregnant or between pregnancies.
When the ineffective BJP chief minister who failed to prevent the demolition was thrown out of power, fewer than one in six women of his state used any modern method of contraception. And when the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party commenced a game of political musical chairs, three-fourths of all mothers who already had four or more children did not intend to use any form of birth control in the future.
In 1993, when the CBI filed a charge sheet against scores of alleged perpetrators, less than one-fourth of all women in UP had access to a latrine; over three-fifths of them had to use smoky, indoor-air-polluting wood as cooking fuel. And while Congress PM Narasimha Rao belatedly acquired for the government, the land surrounding the disputed site, about 60% of UP’s kids were alarmingly short and underweight for their age. Of every hundred tots added to their number, six didn’t survive beyond a month.
But we were more interested in Babar than in babies.
The in-between years
Until the end of that decade, the typical UP woman became a mother at just 18; a few years into the new millennium, this had improved to the ripe old age of 19. Only one-fifth of all women of child-bearing age were found to employ birth control when a special CBI judge declared that there was a prima facie case against the accused; a couple of years after the Archaeological Survey of India began excavations at the site to determine whether the mosque had been built over the ruins of a temple, two-thirds of all married couples in the state still abhorred contraception. In the interval between these two time-posts (that also included three years of BJP chief ministers), the number of children who showed signs of wasting actually increased, as did those who showed signs of anaemia. More pregnant women were anaemic than before, endangering the life and health of their unborn children as well as their own.
A few years after kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya were charred to death after their train was set on fire, and mobs butchered hundreds in Gujarat, only every fifth kid in UP was born in a hospital; the rest were born medically unsupervised, at home. As the Allahabad High Court began hearings to determine who owned the plot that could be occupied by a temple or a mosque but not a hospital, only one in four children had been fully immunised.
But Ayodhya was visited by lawyers, not doctors.
Recent medical history
Only 27 years after it was constituted, the Liberhans Commission submitted its report; surely, this was too fleeting a period for any government to establish a medical school in Ayodhya. When Government Medical College, Ayodhya finally opened recently, CM Adityanath left no stone unturned in equipping it with the best possible infrastructure by renaming it Raja Dashrath Medical College.
The most up-to-date health statistics for the state were published in 2017, and for the first time, revealed district-wise data. Not long after the UP government tackled infant mortality by renaming Faizabad district as Ayodhya, less than 20% of newborn children in Ayodhya were examined by a medical professional at birth. A measly 3% of expecting Ayodhya women received complete antenatal care, but the right-wing celebrated at the time because three of the high-profile accused were discharged by the court. All the other wings rejoiced when the Supreme Court struck down their discharge; who mourned for the 60% of Ayodhya’s women and children who were still anaemic? And in the year the UP government jubilantly announced its plans to set up a Ramayan museum in town, a grand total of no men underwent vasectomies in the entire district.
The latest numbers from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey are expected next month. So is the formation of the trust for building a temple, and the assignation of a site for the construction of a mosque. You will hear all about the latter. The former is - obviously - unimportant.