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India India on edge as court decides disputed holy land’s future

Discussion in 'Breaking News' started by Archived_Member16, Sep 13, 2010.

  1. Archived_Member16

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    Jan 7, 2005
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    India on edge as court decides
    disputed holy land’s future

    September 12, 2010
    Rick Westhead - Toronto Star

    Muhammad Hashim Ansari, 90

    AYODHYA, INDIA—Muhammad Hashim Ansari is the rare 90-year-old tailor who boasts his own security detail, a group of glowering armed guards who shadow him through the streets of this ancient city of temples.

    While the great grandfather wouldn’t seem like someone with natural enemies, Ansari said he has plenty here in this north Indian city. He has been ensnared for years in a pitched battle over the future of a hilly patch of land in north India on which both Muslims and Hindus have laid claim.

    Some Hindus argue that in 1528, the mogul emperor Babar built a small mosque on the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most powerful gods in Hindu mythology. Hindus say the mogul ruler razed a Hindu temple called the Ram Janmabhoomi in the process.

    In 1947, when India gained its independence, Babar’s mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, was closed to the public and declared a “disputed site.” But in 1986, it reopened after a judge ruled Hindu pilgrims had the right to come here to worship Lord Ram.

    Six years later, on Dec. 6, 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed the mosque with sledgehammers and crowbars, an incident which sparked sectarian violence throughout India that left more than 1,000 dead. Most of those killed were Muslims.

    Now, some five decades after Ansari filed a legal challenge demanding the disputed land be opened to Muslims and recognized as an Islamic holy site, a court in Uttar Pradesh state says it will issue a verdict on his case on Sept. 24.

    “I am not a political person but I am Allah’s son,” Ansari said, fiddling with a hearing aid as his guards shooed away a crowd that gathered near his home. “Allah has given me courage and my inner person has told me to do this.”

    As the court’s decision draws closer, Ansari and his case are coming under renewed scrutiny and India’s government, which is preparing to welcome athletes and foreign dignitaries for next month’s Commonwealth Games, is bracing for the worst. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week said his three biggest worries for his country are violence in Jammu and Kashmir state, Maoist extremism, and the public reaction to the Babri Masjid court ruling.

    The Uttar Pradesh government is similarly concerned. The state government has dispatched some 70 intelligence officers to Ayodhya and for the past three weeks, they have prowled the tea and paan shops to gauge the level of angst on the streets and find out whether any unknown newcomers have arrived recently who might try to provoke violence in the wake of the ruling.

    Some locals say they have started to stock up on onions, potatoes, rice and cooking oil in case they are forced to stay indoors because of a curfew or riots.

    “The right-wingers are already going house to house and to chai shops talking about the glory of Hinduism and how this cause is about pride and independence,” said Jugal Kishor Shastry, a 56-year-old social worker in Ayodhya. “They say that this is Lord Ram’s temple and no one can come here and destroy it. It would be an insult to us.”

    To try and defuse tensions in Ayodhya, a town where even young Hindu boys have had Lord Ram’s name tattooed on their arms, Shastry has distributed 150,000 stickers that say “Masjid or temple? As the court decides.”

    If violence does break out here, Shastry and other social advocates say it will be because of politics, not religion.

    The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party, before the 1992 riots and masjid dispute was a political party with a small following that was anxious to build a national profile.

    But the masjid-temple debacle became the party’s raison d’être and the strategy worked. The Hindu nationalist party, which had won just two parliamentary seats in the 1984 federal election, made huge gains following the masjid’s destruction. During the 1999 election, the BJP won a record 183 seats and would lead a coalition government for five more years.

    But in 2004, the Congress Party regained control of India’s parliament and the BJP has struggled to rekindle its following ever since. Political analysts say the party — whose leaders are mum about their plans — may try to once again use the Babri Masjid issue as a rallying cry.

    “Jerusalem has been the reason for several wars and it’s a good parallel,” said M.J. Akbar, a leading Indian intellectual and editor of the Sunday Guardian newspaper. “This is a place that is holy for Muslims and Hindus argue it’s the birthplace of Lord Ram, a figure that’s as important in the Hindu faith as Jesus is to Christians. It’s an argument that’s sure to inflame passions and now of course there is tension.”

    The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a political group that has been tied to the BJP and has played a role stoking sentiments about the Ram temple, doesn’t recognize the court’s authority to decide the case, said Kaushal, who is the VHP’s secretary in Uttar Pradesh state and who, like many Indians, uses a single name.

    “When India got independence, we abolished statues of King George and Queen Victoria and other symbols of oppression,” Kaushal said in an interview in his Lucknow office. “This is the same. These mosques were built on Hindu sites by mogul invaders.”

    Kaushal said the VHP is also eyeing mosques in the cities of Mathura and Kashi, which, he said, were built on Hindu holy sites. “Even the Taj Mahal was built on a Hindu shrine to Lord Shiva,” he said.

    If the Allahabad court does decide to hand over control of the disputed land here back to Muslims, it’s unclear whether that would mean an immediate handover.

    The site is now under heavy police protection and looks more like a prison camp than a place of worship. It’s surrounded by two tall fences, topped with razor wire. Guard towers are stationed along the perimeter and visitors are subjected to five security pat downs before they are permitted inside. One afternoon last week, a group of pilgrims, including a few elderly Indians and holy men in billowing saffron robes, walked though security checks and navigated a winding caged-in pathway to Ram’s temple.

    After a few seconds gazing at the hilltop temple from a distance of about 10 metres and a chance to sip holy water offered by a Hindu priest, armed guards motioned for the visitors to move to the exit. Several guards who were asked about the location of the Babri Masjid said no such place exists.

    Ansari, the tailor, remembered how his family bolted the area when Hindus rampaged through the city after destroying the mosque. He shook his head.

    “Back before independence, we had this saying, ‘Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, we are all brothers,’ ” Ansari said. “That seems like a long time ago.”

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