Ayodhya: The Controversy of India’s Jerusalem

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Ayodhya is the boiling point of the Hindu-Muslim rumpus in India. Being the historic site of both a mandir and a masjid (religious places of both religions), this city has been often notoriously called the “Jerusalem of India”. With two super deadly riots (1993 and 2002), thousands of casualties, and damages worth crores of rupees, the Ayodhya dispute has garnered global popularity.

Three religions and a baby

It all boils down to a plot of land in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. This site is regarded among Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Rama (a deity in Hindu mythology). But rumour has it that the Mughal dynasty, during its rule, demolished a Ram temple in the city and constructed the Babri Masjid. This led to the attack and demolition of the masjid by ring-wing Hindu groups in 1992, leading to one of the most chilling and deadliest riots in Indian history since 1947.

And despite the gruesome deaths, in the 25 years that have followed, the masjid vs mandir debate has only escalated. To add to this is a recent Buddhist claim (backed by evidence from historians and archaeologists) that Gautam Buddha resided in Ayodhya for years and so the land should be given to the Buddhist trust.

Three communities fighting for claims over a land with “ancient religious significance”. Remind anyone of Jerusalem? 

A brief history of conflict

No god or goddess in the Hindu mythology has played a more prominent role in modern Indian politics than Lord Rama.

According to the Hindus, the Mughal king – Babur, is said to have destroyed a pre-existing temple of Rama and built a mosque called Babri Masjid (Babur’s mosque) at the site in 1528. And apparently, there was no anger or opposition against the masjid then. For over two centuries, both the communities worshiped at the “mosque-temple”, Muslims inside the mosque and Hindus outside it.

However, the problem started in 1885 when a petition was filed by the Nirmohi Akhara asking for permission to offer prayers to Ram Lalla inside the masjid. The permission was not given, but in 1886, the district Judge of Faizabad court gave the following verdict,

“It is most unfortunate that a masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that event occurred 356 years ago, it is too late now to remedy the grievance.”

But petitions against the masjid didn’t stop with this. In 1992 public anger had peaked and the masjid was attacked with stones and demolished, with several Hindu groups cheering and clapping. Riots ensued in Ayodhya killing thousands and creating a forever blob on the Hindu-Muslim dynamics in India.

But the story didn’t end there. The mission wasn’t just about destroying the masjid, it was also to build a temple in Ayodhya. After 10 years of the incident, in 2002, Hindu sevaks started transporting raw materials (stones and cement) to Ayodhya to construct the Ram mandir. And this is what led to India’s real-life version of the “Burning Train”.

The Sabarmati express carrying Hindu sevaks was returning from Ayodhya to Ahmedabad when it was torched by Muslim rebels at Godhra station. 59 people died in the train, leading to another round of deadly riots, this time in Gujarat. This is when Ayodhya went from being a local problem to a national problem knocking. It is also when the public started seeing the fault lines in India’s Hindu-Muslim coexistence narrative.

The fault in our courts

So after years on investigations and arrests, in 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the disputed land in Ayodhya be divided into seven parts (in the ratio of 2:2:1). Of the 2.77 acres land, two parts were given to the Hindus, two to the Muslims and one part to the Nirmohi Akhara.

But neither side was happy with this judgment. Naturally, they didn’t want to settle for only a part of the land when they could grab the whole using murder and destruction. A bench of Justices – Aftab Alam and R.M. Lodha – stayed the 2010 judgment after reviewing a batch of appeals from both Hindu and Muslim organisations.

The bench considered the verdict by the Allahabad High Court as ‘strange’ as no party prayed for it.

And so Ayodhya, once again opened as a rioting playground.

Wag the dog 

Earlier this year Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) announced a nationwide drive to collect stones for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Two trucks of stones arrived in the city and the president of Ram Janam Bhumi Nyas, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das told PTI that there was a “signal” from the Modi government to build the temple “now”.

Not just this, but on 24th November, the VHP and Shiv Sena organised a “dharma sabha” in the city to rally for the temple construction. Over 50,000 people, waving saffron flags, gathered for the rally. This was the largest assembly of people in Ayodhya since the 1992 masjid demolition and it brought a lot of uneasiness among local Muslims who feared a breakout of riots. Since then, the All India Muslim Board has filed several petitions asking for presidential intervention in the matter.

Meanwhile, Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of UP (also referred by some as India’s Vin Deisel), has been playing fast and furious with the Supreme Court to pass an Ayodhya judgment before the 2019 elections. And the Congress has been campaigning for just the opposite – to delay the Ayodhya verdict until after the elections.

Both parties have exchanged some juicy barbs in the issue like;

“You keep your Ali, we have Bajrang Bali,” – Yogi Adityanath

“No good Hindu would want a Ram Temple built by demolishing somebody else’s place of worship,” – Shashi Tharoor

It’s no surprise that BJP is using the Ayodhya controversy as its trump card to win next year’s elections. The Babri masjid demolition, though a dark time in Indian democracy and secularism, redefined the politics of social identity. And BJP has a clear-cut strategy to woe right-wing Hindu voters who make up over 50% of India’s population. But the Congress, on the other hand, in its opposition to Ayodhya, is trying desperately to juggle between its loyal Muslim and Christian voters and the potential liberal Hindu voters.

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