The right and the future of India’s masjids

In the aggressive quest for electoral gains using the trump card of religion, there ought to be a quiet realisation that masjids are central to the religious lives of Muslims

Updated - April 27, 2024 11:11 am IST

Published - April 27, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘No other Masjid has been connected with Muslim history as closely as Delhi’s Jama Masjid’

‘No other Masjid has been connected with Muslim history as closely as Delhi’s Jama Masjid’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s frequent attempts to allude to the Ram Mandir in the ongoing election campaign as his major achievement indicates the Bharatiya Janata Party’s desire to seek electoral benefits from the subject. Seen in the wider context of the ongoing survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and claims over the Shahi Idgah Masjid in Mathura, it is apparent that the mandir-masjid conflict may enter a new era in the post-2024 election period.

In June 2022, in the wake of the Gyanvapi controversy, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat made an appeal in Nagpur — that the present generations of Muslims should not be held responsible for the wrongs committed in history by Muslim rulers. “Why look for Shiv linga in every Masjid,” Bhagwat asked. It was a sensible statement but nothing substantive has followed since then.

Instead, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has remained most vocal with regard to Kashi and Mathura. In a speech in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in February 2024, while drawing parallel with the Mahabharat, he said, “Krishna asked for five villages, today’s Hindu society asks for three centres: Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura.” He appealed to Indian Muslims to give up claim in Kashi and Mathura. During the Ayodhya movement of the 1980s and 1990s, there was a slogan ‘Ayodhya to Jhanki Hei, Kashi Mathura Baaki Hei’. It is now certain that the “Kashi Mathura Baaki Hei” part of that slogan has been politically activated.

History and the Jama Masjid

Though the oldest Masjid in India is located in Kerala, no other Masjid has been connected with Muslim history as closely as Delhi’s Jama Masjid. During the 1857 Rebellion, it was a site of enormous activities and was defiled and desecrated by the colonial army. We learn that on September 20, 1857, the British sepoys danced around a victory fire inside the Masjid. It was transformed into a military barrack.

Unspeakable forms of defilement took place inside the Masjid premises during its military occupation. In numerous ways Muslims paid a disproportionate price with their lives and property. They were humiliated for their participation in what many historians call India’s First War of Independence. Sadly, the Hindutva right barely recognises Muslim sacrifice. Many months later, the Jama Masjid was returned to Muslims. Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst’s book, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion, provides vivid details about various aspects of the uprising and how it has impacted Muslim identity.

Interestingly, there were discussions to demolish the Jama Masjid during the 1857 rebellion. It was revealed by William Howard Russell, who served as the Indian correspondent for The Times during 1857-59. In his diary titled My Diary in India, in the Year 1858-9, Russell wrote: “It has been warmly suggested that we should destroy the Jumma Masjid. The fact is that the Mohammedan element in India is that which causes us the most trouble....” Mr. Russell goes on to add, “if we could eradicate the traditions and destroy the temples of Mahomed by one vigorous effort, it would be well for the Christian faith and for the British rule.”

The Jama Masjid still stands in Delhi and has been a witness to the challenges that Indian Muslims have faced ever since. On December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished, hundreds of Muslims gathered that evening at Delhi’s Jama Masjid and were addressed by the Shahi Imam. Nothing much was reported on January 22, 2024, the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Ever since the Supreme Court of India’s verdict in November 2019 on the Ayodhya dispute, Muslims all over India have conducted themselves with great dignity in the hope that it would close the mandir-masjid conflict chapter forever. But that does not seem to be the case given the way the issue is still raised in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign by its tallest leaders.

For the Jama Masjid’s renovation, a request was made to the United Progressive Alliance government to approve financial assistance from abroad, which was turned down on the ground that it could have security concerns. No security concerns are seen in the global mobilisation of resources by the Hindutva right for its activities. In 2021, in response to a question raised in Parliament on the state of the Jama Masjid and its need for renovation, the Modi government declined to do so.

The danger of further polarisation

The fact remains that masjids are central to the religious lives of Muslims. The first Masjid of Islam was built in Madina called Quba during the Prophet’s time. At this point, the Hindutva right has a template based on politics, mobilisation and judicial intervention to grapple with future mandir-masjid disputes based on what took place between December 6, 1992 and January 22, 2024 or even prior to it.

Standing in its way is the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 that aims to maintain the religious character of places as they existed on August 15, 1947. Given that changing this Act of 1991 is far easier than the dilution of Article 370, it is not hard to imagine what its fate could be. Whatever it may be, the mandir-masjid controversy may take centre stage and go beyond Kashi and Mathura, deepening religious polarisation even further and undermining India’s fledgling secularism.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the author of a forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims and teaches at the Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi

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