In Modi's Hindu supremacist India, Muslims fear for the future
On 22 January, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the consecration of a controversial Hindu temple on the site of a demolished historic mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.
The ceremony inaugurating the Ram temple was attended by top business tycoons, Bollywood stars, and political figures from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies.
The consecration was widely celebrated by a large section of Hindus, who saw it as the culmination of their decades-long struggle to construct a temple at the site, which they believe is the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.
But the temple's origins are intertwined with years of political turmoil and violence that have exposed the religious divisions in Indian society.
"The construction of the Ram temple has emboldened Hindu nationalists, who view it as a symbol of the rise of Hindu supremacy under Modi's leadership"
Making a Hindu nation
In 1992, a mob of over 150,000 people led by leaders of Hindu nationalist groups, including the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist volunteer movement, descended on Ayodhya and demolished the Mughal-era Babri Mosque.
In November 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favour of Hindu demands, paving the way for the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the razed mosque.
Building the temple at the former site of the Babri Mosque was among the BJP's key electoral promises, the other two being the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's semi-autonomous status in 2019 and the establishment of a uniform civil code for personal laws.
But for the country’s 200 million Muslims, the mosque's demolition three decades ago and the recent consecration of the Ram temple are a source of lingering pain.
“Jan. 22, 2024, is not merely a date but marks the dawn of a new era,” Modi said during the ceremony.
The construction of the temple has emboldened Hindu nationalists, who view it as a symbol of the rise of Hindu supremacy under Modi's leadership.
They are also stepping up their efforts towards the goal of making India a Hindu nation.
The Ram temple and India's new era
On the day of the consecration, frenzied mobs marched in towns and cities, harassing Muslims and attacking Muslim graveyards, neighbourhoods, and mosques across the country.
Law enforcement officials took part in the attacks, arresting young Muslim men and demolishing several Muslim-owned homes and shops.
The consecration ceremony was strategically timed just weeks before national elections and is anticipated to enhance Modi's electoral prospects by resonating with the religious sentiments of the 80% Hindu majority in India's 1.4 billion population.
Transforming the event into a nationwide celebration, live screenings were organised throughout the country, and a half-day closure of offices was declared.
"Amid all the celebrations, Muslims across India have reported physical and verbal attacks by Hindu mobs over the past week, raising fears of communal tensions across India"
Several states designated the day as a public holiday, and in an unusual move, stock and money markets remained closed for the day. Saffron flags, symbolising Hinduism, adorned the streets in multiple cities.
Speaking to The New Arab, journalist and author Kunal Purohit said there was no talk at all about the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, or the deaths of over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, in communal violence that followed.
“By creating a collective atmosphere of hysteria and euphoria around the Ram Temple inauguration, the context surrounding the event was completely erased from public consciousness,” he told The New Arab.
Mainstream media outlets, meanwhile, were cheerleaders of the event. Television news channels provided continuous coverage and some movie theatres even broadcasted the event live, offering complimentary popcorn.
Widespread anti-Muslim violence
Amid all the celebrations, Muslims across India have reported physical and verbal attacks by Hindu mobs over the past week, raising fears of communal tensions across India.
In south-central India’s Telangana state, a Hindu mob with saffron flags harassed Muslims by dancing in front of a mosque. They also burnt down a Muslim man's shop while chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (victory to Lord Ram) and "Mullah (Muslim) go to Pakistan”.
In Delhi, anti-Muslim slogans were heard during rallies in the capital while buildings in Muslim-majority localities were vandalised. In Bihar, northeast India, participants in a rally celebrating the inauguration of the Ram temple set a Muslim graveyard on fire.
Anti-Muslim attacks were also reported in Uttar Pradesh, where three Hindu men climbed onto the roof of a mosque and replaced its green flag with a saffron one. In the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state, a member of a Hindu mob climbed to the top of a church and vandalised it by planting a saffron flag with Hindu imagery on top.
The worst of the clashes took place in Muslim-majority suburbs in Mumbai, where mobs of over 200-300 Hindu men descended on the streets on bikes and armed with sticks and large stones.
Muslim women were also harassed by a Hindu mob chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, a religious slogan commonly associated with mob lynchings. Another mob in Mumbai beat up a Muslim man and forced him to repeat the chant.
“Rallies often pass through Muslim neighbourhoods to stir up trouble and provoke Muslims [...] so that they can then portray Muslims as villains and sell their propaganda of Hindus being threatened by the Muslim minority,” Raafid Shahab, a local resident and member of the Students Islamic Organisation, told The New Arab.
Sahel Badshah, 18, was attacked by a Hindu mob while he was returning from prayers. He was beaten with sticks after the mob identified he was Muslim due to his skull cap. “I managed to get away quickly, but many other Muslim men were grievously injured,” he told TNA.
"Activists warn that because the Ram temple is linked with the destruction of a minority place of worship, Hindu nationalists will now be further emboldened to attack Muslim and Christian structures across India"
The rally also vandalised a Muslim-owned apparel store by throwing stones at it, shattering its glass panes and destroying mannequins. “We are the only Muslim-owned business on this lane and only our shop was targeted. All other stores were left untouched,” Shamser Alam, the owner of the store, said.
Following these clashes, several businesses were bulldozed by civic officials in what Amnesty International called an “arbitrary and punitive” demolition drive targeting Muslim-owned structures in the city.
Alisha Iqbal, 25, was among those whose businesses were destroyed. Bulldozers demolished a restaurant and an apparel store that she owned, without any prior notice. “The atmosphere is hostile and we are afraid to even step out of our homes, let alone work towards starting over our businesses,” she said.
Although local media has reported clashes in small towns and college campuses, police have seldom arrested or filed cases against Hindus, opting instead to target Muslims or dissenters.
Across college campuses, students were beaten and harassed when attempting to arrange screenings of the 1992 documentary film "Ram ke Naam" ("In the Name of God"), which explores the contentious history of the Hindu nationalist movement’s intention to construct a temple in Ayodhya.
Emboldened by Modi’s inauguration of the Ram temple on the site of the demolished Babri Mosque, right-wing groups and religious leaders have begun calling for replacing other historic mosques with temples in Kashi and Mathura cities.
On Wednesday, a local court allowed Hindus to pray in the sealed basement of the historic Gyanvapi Mosque, which Hindu nationalists have been seeking to take control over and convert to a temple for years.
The court order was followed by the public release of an archaeological survey report, where the lawyer representing Hindu litigants claimed that the mosque was constructed after demolishing a pre-existing temple.
“Staking claim to the places of worship belonging to other religious communities … or the alleged presence of another pre-existing religious structure will open a Pandora's box of claims and counter-claims,” Malik Moatasim Khan, the Vice-President of a prominent Muslim group, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, told TNA.
He pointed to India’s Places of Worship Act, a law that provides a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on 15 August 1947.
At present, court disputes exist for at least three historical mosques in northern India, with Hindu nationalists claiming that they were constructed over temple ruins. Additionally, Hindu nationalists have initiated legal proceedings in courts, seeking ownership of numerous historic mosques.
Activists have warned that because the Ram temple is linked with the destruction of a minority place of worship, Hindu nationalists will now be further emboldened to attack Muslim and Christian structures across India - a worrying vision of India's future under Modi.
Rushda Fathima Khan is an independent journalist. She covers human rights and religious freedom in India
Follow her on Twitter: @Rushda_Khan_