May 31, 2020
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Preying At A Mosque

Local politics, power and pelf script another Babri in little-known Asind

Preying At A Mosque
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Preying At A Mosque
Ayodhya to Asind, Hindutva is on the rampage. But we Mussalmans will give Hindutva a fiercer fight than it expects!" fulminates Rafiq Ahmed Sheikh. Head of Asind's Muslim community, Sheikh's battle-cry rings through this dusty small town in Rajasthan's Bhilwara district. To find echo in Laxmi Lal Gujjar's garbled Hindu pride. Head of Asind's Sawai Bhoj Temple Trust, and an influential voice in the area's Gujjar-Hindu community, Laxmi Lal is only raring for a confrontation. He sternly declares the rules of war: "Because we treat them like brothers, Muslims are getting carried away. Now they want to dictate terms. They have forgotten Hindus are their ancestors, Muslims are younger brothers at best. They have to listen to us, or else..."

Such threats of violence are rife in the air as an uneasy calm prevails in Asind (population: 18,500 approx). Communal animosity gripped the town when a mob of Hindu lumpens burnt down tents erected as usual for the annual Urs celebrations in the Badai dargah near the town's Sawai Bhoj temple complex on July 27. As news reached the town's shanty bazaar, angry Muslim men reacted by burning tyres, shutting shops and vowing revenge. Then, ugliness ran riot as the Hindu mob razed to ground a 16th-century mosque (where no prayers were regularly offered), abutting the Sawai Bhoj temple. A marble platform was built and an idol of Hanuman hurriedly installed at the site of the demolished mosque. And the freshly-built temple was provocatively christened Mandir Peer Pachhar Hanumanji (Temple of Lord Hanuman who defeated a Peer-Muslim saint.)

A week later, Asind was inundated with policemen, district officials, human rights activists, politicians and journalists. Enough to unnerve this little-known town. Perhaps, as some Hindu residents crib, it even hyped up the hostilities. The idol of Hanuman was duly shifted, but not very far. And the temple trust has taken to referring to the demolished mosque as "The Wall".

"Not surprising," says a caustic Mojuddin. "In bjp's India, mosques will now either be called 'structures' or 'walls'. To be mauled and broken at whim." He belongs to the 20-member samjhauta (compromise) committee that has been locally constituted to resolve the issue, comprising 10 people each from both communities. Having already met once without any significant result, the committee will meet this week again to iron out differences. Presently though, with positions hardening on both sides, it seems to have an impossible task at hand.

"Nothing short of Hindus rebuilding the mosque for us will do," proclaims 22-year-old Ikramuddin Dyer. "We let them off in Babri, they did Asind. We let them off now, they'll break another masjid tomorrow." Samsher Gujjar, 18, is as inflexible: "We allowed them a dargah on our land, they want a road, next they'll ask us to carry them there like donkeys. Just 2,500 Muslims in Asind and they're holding 16,000 of us to ransom. Give in now, and they'll want to sit on our heads next!"

Meanwhile, elders in both communities dole out reams of photocopied documents to make the same points. Revenue records, old firs, anything to assert ownership of land in the complex. Some Muslims even supply the demolished mosque's photographs culled out of video recordings of an old Urs celebration—to counter the temple trust's denial of the mosque's existence.

"This would never have happened if some haughty Muslims hadn't barged in on a jeep and provoked us," says Kalu Ram Gujjar, temple trust member and former Rajasthan bjp minister. This motley Muslim group, angry at not being allowed to drive through the temple land to access the Urs celebrations, is alleged to have "challenged" Hindus to come to their dargah territory to settle scores. "No Hindu will take an insult like this sitting in his mandir, on his own land," reasons Kalu Ram. The burning of the tents, then, was for him 'valid' Hindu retaliation to Muslim arrogance. It was led by Mansukh Singh, local resident and self-styled 'international president of the Rajesh Pilot Brigade'. Owner of a gas agency, who locals barely know of or care to know much about, he is currently absconding. "Mansukh is a fanatic type of person. We are hot on his trail," assures Bhilwara SP H.C. Bhagat. "He'll be arrested any day now."

But the communal horror that played itself out in Asind betrays realities more complex than a lunatic Mansukh stormtrooping his way into a mosque and demolishing it on impulse. Politics, power and pelf scripted this disturbing story of hatred that climaxed in the desecration of the town's mosque, a symbol of communal harmony for over 400 years.

Legend has it that on their way back from battle in Chittorgarh in the 16th century, a battalion of Emperor Akbar's forces stopped and enjoyed hospitality at the Sawai Bhoj temple dedicated to Dev Narain, god of the Gujjars. Before leaving, they built a Kalandari mosque there, a roofless wall with minarets where saints and travellers could pray. Later, as appreciation, Akbar granted the temple 700 bighas of land. Till 20 years ago, Fakir Sakar Khanji would offer namaaz at the mosque and break bread with the adjoining temple's priest.

Communal amity reigned till money played usurper. A temple trust was constituted in 1981, and it started filling up its coffers. By 1994, construction of a flamboyant temple, costing Rs 1 crore, had begun. It dwarfed the original temple and the mosque. This year, a brick wall was built around the complex, and in April, the new temple was inaugurated with fanfare. Thousands thronged the shrine, and a statue of Gujjar leader, the late Rajesh Pilot, was unveiled.

The wall forbade Muslims easy access into the dargah behind the temple. The temple's grand entrance too was not open to the community. Squabbles over access ensued. The escalating ornateness of the temple over time and its increasingly elaborate rituals also had local Muslims competing in celebratory ostentation. Ceremonial processions, fairs and qawwali nights were added to the Urs festival with time. This made the temple trust suspicious, wary that the Muslims might encroach on more land than they had been given.

"Along with this rivalry between temple and dargah grew political antagonisms within the temple trust," says Jaipur-based Kavita Srivastava, general-secretary of the Rajasthan unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (pucl). Kavita feels that a competition of sorts to aggressively uphold Gujjar interests is on amongst the trust's members. And each is outdoing the other on taking a hardline posture against the Muslims. "After Rajesh Pilot's death, the slot of a pan-Indian Gujjar leader is vacant, and what better opportunity than this to aim for the slot by Muslim-bashing," adds Kavita.

It's no coincidence either that communal bitterness has taken root in the temple complex at a time when two of the most prominent trust members are from the bjp, another an rss pracharak. Chairperson Laxmi Lal is a former Congress mla but is increasingly toeing the saffron line to retain his position in the trust.

"Sanskritisation is at work," says Kavita. "Unlike the original temple with idols only of Gujjar deities, the new temple has idols of mainstream Hindu gods like Ganesh and Shiva. The agenda is to kill plurality." This majoritarian agenda frightens Nasir Ali Naqvi, chairperson of the Rajasthan Waqf Board, the most. Says he, tersely: "The Asind demolition was pre-planned. Marble platform built, idol placed within minutes. Leaving no trace of the masjid." Only a trail that came from far-away Ayodhya.
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