Controversial Ayodhya temple raises memories of murder

Controversial Ayodhya temple raises memories of murder

MUMBAI (AFP): For many Indians the opening of a grand new temple this month is a long-held dream come true but for Muslims like Mohammed Shahid, the day will evoke only blood-soaked memories.

The shrine in Ayodhya has been built on ground where a mosque stood for centuries, before it was torn down by Hindu zealots in a campaign backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.

Shahid, 52, vividly remembers the day in 1992 when hundreds of men demolished the Babri Masjid with pickaxes and sledgehammers in a religious frenzy, leaving a trail of death in their wake.

“My father was chased down a street by a mob. They hit him with a broken glass bottle before burning him alive,” he told AFP.

“My uncle was also brutally killed. It was a long, dark night for our family.”

Shockwaves from the demolition of the mosque were felt around the country and triggered riots that killed 2,000 people, with most of the victims Muslim.

Modi will this month inaugurate the shrine built to replace it in a grand ceremony that will burnish his image as a custodian of the Hindu faith, a de facto campaign launch for national elections later this year.

Shahid shudders at the thought of the thousands of pilgrims expected to throng the quiet riverside town each day once the temple’s doors are thrown open.

“For me, the temple symbolises nothing but death and destruction,” he said.

– ‘Given my blood and sweat’ –

The temple is dedicated to Ram, one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon, said to have been born in Ayodhya around 7,000 years ago.

Devout Hindus believe the Babri Masjid was built on top of his birthplace in the 16th century during the Mughal Empire, under rulers they say oppressed their faith.

Carved from pink sandstone and marble, the temple complex has been constructed at an estimated cost of 20 billion rupees ($240 million), which the government said was sourced entirely from public donations.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had campaigned for decades to build the temple and its activists were instrumental in the demolition of its predecessor.

Santosh Dubey, a member of the mob that destroyed the mosque, said the temple’s opening on January 22 would be a “more significant” day for his country than when India declared independence from Britain in 1947.

“I have given my blood and sweat for the temple,” Dubey, 56, told AFP. “A lifelong dream of all Hindus is coming true.”

Dubey, then in his mid-twenties, recalled how thousands of religious volunteers had gathered in Ayodhya on the eve of the 1992 demolition.

“It was all well-planned,” he said. “We were determined to bring down the mosque, come what may.”

Around 50 men including Dubey climbed up to the mosque’s central dome with ropes and used sledgehammers to reduce it to rubble.

Dubey fell from the roof of the mosque during the fervour, breaking 17 bones.

He spent nearly a year in prison afterwards on charges of criminal conspiracy and promoting religious enmity before a court released him.

“But I have no regrets,” he said. “I am proud of what I did. I have been born to serve Lord Ram… He is the living soul of India.”

– ‘So what if Muslims died?’ –

Dubey said he was untroubled by the bloodbath that followed.

“I can give up my life for Ram and I can also take a life for Ram. So what if Muslims died? So many Hindus have also sacrificed their lives for the cause.”

The site where the mosque once stood lay vacant for decades before India’s top court gave permission for the temple’s construction in 2019, after years of legal wrangling.

Land has been earmarked for the construction of a new mosque mandated by the court verdict, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the city.

A vacant field greets visitors to the site, with a poster on an otherwise bare wall announcing a “masterpiece in making” alongside an image of the proposed design.

Fundraising for the project has not begun, as many within Ayodhya’s Muslim community are unhappy with the isolated location.

The court verdict greenlighting the temple has emboldened activist groups to pursue other claims against Islamic houses of worship they say were built over Hindu shrines during Mughal rule.

Last month an Indian court permitted a case to proceed on whether a mosque in the holy city of Varanasi should be opened to Hindu worshippers, with a ruling expected later this year.

Azam Qadri, the president of a local Muslim body in Ayodhya, said he feared more mosques would meet the same fate as the Babri Masjid.

“Muslims should be allowed to live in peace and their places of worship should not be taken away,” Qadri told AFP.

“The rift between Hindus and Muslims should get finished. Only love and brotherhood should prevail.”