Secularism up in smoke: Hindutva mob torches century-old madrasa and incinerates Indian pluralism

Hindutva mob incinerates 110 year mosque and Indian Muslim history
5 min read
09 May, 2023

On 31 March 2023, during the festive spirit of Ramadan, Mohammad Amir, 22 was preparing iftar when he heard a group of women crying. Panicked, he went outside to see what it was.

"The whole village was engulfed in smoke," he said. 

People were rushing towards the market of Khanqah Mohalla, 200 metres from his home, where a few Muslim shops had been set on fire.

"A mob burnt down a Muslim-owned marriage hall," the Bihar resident told The New Arab.

"The moment I saw the destruction was heart-wrenching. Everything was lost. I still get nightmares"

At around the same time, Imam Mohammad Sahabuddin was busy reciting the Quran in a mosque along with 20 other Muslims, 100 metres away from the famous Madrasa Azizia.

Then a large mob entered the mosque's courtyard.

Mohammad said that the mob hurled stones and started chanting a Hindu slogan, 'Jai Shri Ram', to intimidate and disrupt their recitation.

“We hid in the mosque for hours. The mob was extremely violent. Anything could have happened to us,” he told The New Arab.

On the Hindu festival Ram Navami in India, a Hindu mob carrying stones, petrol bombs and swords attacked the historic educational and religious site, Madrasa Azizia - located in the mosque's compound - and burnt the 110-year-old library to ash. 

Madrassa Azizia was burnt down by a mob of Hindu nationalists [photo credit: Meer Faisal]
Madrasa Azizia was burnt down by a mob of Hindu nationalists [photo credit: Meer Faisal]

Eyewitnesses told The New Arab that a mob of around 5000 allegedly shouted provocative anti-Muslim music and slogans near the madrasa, vandalised the madrasa, and injured pilgrims.

One was killed in the firing and several were injured. Internet services were shut down and restrictions were enforced in violence-hit areas of Bihar Sharif.

For Mohammad, saving his family from the fire was no less than a miracle. But the madrasa's precious library didn't survive. 

"The religious books were 500 years old," said Mufti Abdul Khalid, a 62-year-old former teacher at Madrasa, who kept a written record of the madrasa's books.

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According to him, destroyed books included Islamic, Persian and Hindi literature.

He said at least 5900 books, including ancient manuscripts and handwritten Islamic texts, were destroyed. 

Latest reports say that Bihar Police has arrested 130 people and registered seven FIRs on this.

Madrasa Azizia, which received recognition from the British government in 1920, was built by the Muslim philanthropist Bibi Soghara in memory of her husband, Abdul Aziz.

She set up the Soghra Waqf Estate in 1896 and took over as a Motawalli (manager) of the Waqf.

First established in India’s Patna city, it was later shifted to Bihar Sharif, an area known for its important heritage sites. In March 2020, the madrasa received a special mention from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Since its inception, Madrasa Azizia has been a well-known hub of Islamic education for students.

Soghra donated all her property - including 14,000 acres of land - to charity in order to set up a trust to provide education for society's poorest.

Mufti Khalid said that around 500 students were studying at the madrasa. Luckily they were all on holiday when the mob arrived. 

"We are thanking Allah that our students were at home," he said.

For the staff at the madrasa, motivating the students to continue their studies in the madrasa is now a huge challenge.

“Fear is still prevalent among Muslims. Students will now rethink re-joining the madrasa. The documents and records of students are gone.

A woman crosses a burnt mosque set ablaze during communal violence over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), at Ashok Nagar on February 27, 2020 in New Delhi, India.
A woman crosses a burnt mosque set ablaze during communal violence over the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi, India [Getty Images]

Maulana Shakir Qazmi, 32, in charge of Madrasa Azizia, told The New Arab of the pandemonium. "It was a burning situation. Police wouldn't let us go to the mosque, but I was worried about the Imam's safety as he was stuck," Shakir told us.

When he went to the mosque the next day, he broke into tears after seeing the charred pages of books lying on the floor–burnt to ashes.

"The moment I saw the destruction was heart-wrenching. Everything was lost. I still get nightmares," he told The New Arab

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Eyewitnesses believe the violence was committed for political gains. The New Arab was told by eyewitnesses that a WhatsApp group was made by Bajrang Dal to plot a conspiracy to initiate violence ahead of Ram Navami.

 The Bajrang Dal is a Hindu nationalist militant organization that forms the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). It is a member of the right-wing Sangh Parivar. The ideology of the organization is based on Hindutva.

The New Arab tried to reach out to officials and the Superintendent of Police in Nalanda, Bihar, but were left unanswered.

As per reports, police have said that the violence was well-planned.

Over the past few years, incidents of violence around Ram Navami have been reported in many states of India. Muslims have accused Hindutva groups of changing routes of processions and of playing provocative Hindutva music in front of Muslim religious sites to disrupt prayers.

“We respect all religions but how can they force Muslims to chant Jai Shri Ram (Praise lord Ram),” said Sahabuddin, a preacher at the mosque.

“You don’t need an instigator to incite violence. You set the tone, you set the track and the hate will rock. You play the music and violence will reverberate in the streets across the states,” said Brahma Prakash, author and an assistant professor at India’s Jawahar Lal Nehru University.

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Experts feel that Hindutva forces aim to rewrite history which aligns with Hindu mythology while they also want to demolish the Muslim structures, demonize, and erase the history of Muslim rulers so that they fabricate and rewrite their own history.

Top ministers in India's ruling government have been accused of giving provocative statements to destroy the mosques to rebuild temples.

"The attack on Muslim architecture during these processions is meant to demolish the claim of Muslim citizens on public spaces, and is part of a larger strategy which also includes renaming the towns and cities," said Asim Ali, a political researcher at the Centre for Policy and Research, a leading think tank in India. 

Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir and reports on politics, health, insurgency, human rights and gender

Follow her on Twitter: @ainulrhbr