The heady mix of faith and law in ‘new India’

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A policeman stands guard near Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi on Feb. 1. Hindu worshippers began praying inside a disputed mosque in the Indian city of Varanasi just hours after a court order gave them the go-ahead at the deeply sensitive site, media reported.

A policeman stands guard near Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi on Feb. 1. Hindu worshippers began praying inside a disputed mosque in the Indian city of Varanasi just hours after a court order gave them the go-ahead at the deeply sensitive site, media reported.

By Nirendra Dev

India has now plunged into a new debate on the interplay between judiciary, faith, and politics and its impact on society after a district court last week ordered that Hindus be allowed to pray in the basement of a mosque.

After the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Hindus began pressing for worship rights in the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, which happens to be the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in northern India.

Hardline Hindu groups have been claiming for decades now that the Gyanvapi mosque was built by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb after demolishing a Hindu Shiva temple. They want it to be removed.

The Varanasi district court allowed Hindu prayers to be offered inside the sealed basement area of the mosque complex and directed the district administration to make arrangements to start the worship within seven days

The basement was sealed in December 1993 in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid which led to sectarian violence across the country.

Muslims are rattled. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) called the district court’s decision “totally unacceptable” and drew parallels to the opening of the locks at the Babri Masjid in 1986.

“It seems after establishment of Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid, many other mosques are being targeted, no matter how old they might be,” AIMPLB spokesman S.Q.R. Ilyas was quoted as saying by The Hindu newspaper.

Modi’s  political opponents say courts in his “new India” are backing the Hindu side.

“Even the Supreme Court ensures to pronounce verdicts that do not cause any harm” to Modi’s pro-Hindu policies, said M. A. Baby, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from southern Kerala state.

The Marxist leader said that Modi was getting the job done “without resorting to fascism directly.”

Asaduddin Owaisi, a lawmaker and president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a political party dedicated to protecting the rights of Indian Muslims, agreed.

“Narendra Modi wants to write a new history of India… He wants to write that it is I [Modi] who has made India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu Rashtra,” he said in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the Lower House of parliament.

Analysts fear that the sense of reasoning based on facts is fast vanishing in new India. Faith is gaining the upper hand even in courts. How much importance should be given to faith-based reasoning while resolving conflicts, particularly when majority and minority religions are involved, they wonder.

Whether faith is justified or not, in effect it lies beyond the ken of the courts of law. It is beyond any judicial probe, some argue.

But even the 2019 court verdict resolving the Ayodhya temple-mosque controversy was essentially based on faith. Now, another such controversy has surfaced some 220 kilometers south in Varanasi. 

Then there are other mosque-temple controversies such as the one in Mathura, believed to be the birthplace of Krishna, another revered deity in Hinduism. Again, it is Aurangzeb who stands accused of building a mosque there.

All three flash points — Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura — are located in India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh state, which is notorious for religious polarisation.

Hindus want to take over some 3,000 mosques across the country and replace them with Hindu temples, according to some estimates. The Hindu claims date back several decades but the country’s constitution and courts did not entertain such claims then.

On Feb. 1, local authorities used bulldozers to knock down Masjid Akhonji in New Delhi, India’s national capital. The mosque was reportedly 600 years old and housed 22 students enrolled in an Islamic boarding school in its complex.

Government officials claimed it stood on public land and had to be demolished.

This violated the Place of Worship Act, enacted in 1991 by the then Congress-led coalition government. which mandated the government maintain the “status quo” on all places of worship in India as they existed in 1947 when British colonial rule ended.

However, new ways and means are being found to circumvent the law in favor of Hindus. The moot question is which way are things moving and where will this ultimately end?

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an umbrella organization of Hindu groups, expressed “optimism” about India’s rise and self-identification as a Hindu nation after the “arrival of Ram Lalla [infant Ram] at the newly constructed temple in Ayodhya.”

He said while India gained independence 75 years ago, it took considerable time for the nation to truly embrace its self-esteem and Indianness.

“Neglect of Indianness either by governments or the people themselves must end,” he added.

Hardline Hindu leaders, including from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believe adopting secularism after India’s independence was a misstep.

 

“Religion has been India’s ethos and its strengths. Western influence under Jawaharlal Nehru made people irreligious. We started fighting among ourselves. We blamed religion and not ourselves,” according to political analyst Ashutosh Talukdar.  

He believed the present churning would ultimately lead to Hindu-Muslim unity as prophesized in 1898 by Swami Vivekananda: “The perfect India of the future will arise out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islamic body.”

India has a unique cultural history. No one knows whether Kabir, one of the greatest poets, was a Muslim or a Hindu. As the nation turns 77 in 2024, it also stands at a turning point in its civilizational history, Talukdar said.

PM Modi’s political acumen lies in making this debate possible without any major changes to the Indian Constitution. The prime discussions on Indian television channels now revolve around the new era of Hindu pride and cultural nationalism.

But religious minorities, including Muslims, remain skeptical of this project. “It’s sad, the BJP leaders, chauvinist men and women who mobilized Hindus against Muslims are now treated as India’s national heroes,” remarked an Urdu scholar in Mumbai.

He said this albeit on the condition that his name should not be revealed.

The Muslim scholar was particularly disturbed by the Modi government’s decision to confer India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), on L. K. Advani, a BJP patriarch who led the temple movement that culminated in the Babri mosque demolition in December 1992.