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The Guardian, Friday, March 01, 2002
Violence flares on a nation's holy ground

The novelist Pankaj Mishra reports on the town which is at the heart of India's sectarian violence

Pankaj Mishra

A few weeks ago I was in Ayodhya, the north Indian pilgrim town where in 1992 an uncontrollable crowd of Hindus demolished a 16th century mosque that they claimed had been built by the Moghul emperor Babur over the birthplace of one the most revered Hindu gods, Lord Rama.

I had travelled there to see Ramchandra Paramhans, an elderly Hindu abbot who has dedicated his life to the struggle over the disputed mosque territory, since initiating a legal battle in 1949 to wrest control of the mosque back from local Muslims to return it to the Hindu community.

Mr Paramhans, who heads a militant sadhu sect, looks every bit the irascible ascetic of Hindu legend, with his dense white beard and matted locks.

He had not done too badly for himself when, in the mid-1980s, he was enlisted by Hindu nationalist politicians as they attempted to capitalise on an old and once-minor dispute as a way of boosting their popularity, after being on the margins of Indian politics for much of the last half century.

Mr Paramhans is now more than 90 years old, and full of rage. In the decade since the demolition, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party finally came to power in Delhi, if only with a small percentage of the national vote.

The idols of Rama stand on the site of the demolished mosque and are regularly worshipped. Much of the grand temple - a garish fantasy of marble and gold - that Hindu nationalist politicians promised to build on the site of the mosque has been steadily prefabricated in construction sites across India. But Mr Paramhans still feels that the BJP government has to act faster to fulfil its commitment to restoring the temple.

That morning, he told me, he had upbraided L K Advani, the home minister, on the phone. Mr Advani was one of the senior BJP leaders who had witnessed the demolition in 1992, if less ecstatically than Mr Paramhans. "I asked Advani", Mr Paramhans said, "'Have you forgotten the time when you came here begging for my support on the temple issue?"'

When I mentioned the two key constraints stopping the Indian government from rebuilding - a supreme court ban on construction and the strong Muslim opposition - Mr Paramhans exploded: "There are only two places Muslims can go: Pakistan or Kabristan [graveyard]."

I had almost forgotten this popular slogan of the 1980s and early 90s that Hindu nationalist processions chanted as they passed through Muslim ghettos. One did not hear it any longer; but this may be because, as a Muslim scholar I met in Benares last month pointed out, "the people who used it to incite anti-Muslim violence and gain Hindu votes are now the rulers of India. They have to be more careful now."

Not much more careful, perhaps: the extremist Hindu group Shiv Sena that a judicial commission indicted for organising the killings of hundreds of Muslims in Bombay in January 1993 remains a close ally of the BJP, its anti-Muslim rhetoric as strident as ever. According to a report in the Indian Express yesterday on the killings in Gujarat, railway officials had arranged for Hindu activists to travel free to Ayodhya, and changed regular schedules in order to accommodate them.

In the last decade, the Indian media has been so dominated by the concerns of the Hindu middle class which has been created by the newly globalised economy that one gets hardly any sense of what Muslims feel about their fate in a nation whose official ideology is now Hindu majoritarianism.

To speak as a Hindu to Muslims is to get stock responses. At one of the village Madrasas, or places of study, currently accused of being staging-posts for Pakistani spies near the Indo-Nepal border, Muslim teachers spoke frankly and movingly of being harassed by the local Hindu-dominated police force, until they realised that I only looked like a Muslim; they then tried to assure me that they felt perfectly safe and happy in India.

Much more such nervousness and fear lies behind the latest manifestation of "Muslim rage". It is certainly no accident that it should occur in Gujarat. The Hindu middle class there was the first in India to make the BJP its party of choice, and stays loyal. The BJP's campaign for the temple caused horrific riots in the cities of Surat and Ahmedabad, where the police joined and sometimes led (as they appear to have done yesterday), the mobs of unemployed Hindus in anti-Muslim pogroms.

The violence in Gujarat has finally broken what now seems a long, sullen peace. The responsibilities of power will force the BJP to keep a certain distance from such volatile old fellow-travellers as Mr Paramhans. But it would be optimistic to expect that the hardline members of the BJP would give up the fascistic vision of their ideological father, Guru Golwalkar: an India cleansed of the corrupting influences of Arabia, Persia, and the perfidious Pakistanis.

 

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