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The religious rift in India widens with Ayodhya as a historical flashpoint

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India is a changing country, says Syed Muhammad Munir Abedi, a country he no longer recognizes.

It is a country where Muslims are ignored, where increased attacks against them are encouraged, says the 68-year-old, and where an emboldened Hindu majority government seizes its opportunity to put the minority in its place.

Swami Ram Das thinks otherwise, echoing a belief system central to Hindu nationalism.

The 48-year-old Hindu priest says India is seeking to redeem its religious past and that the country is fundamentally a Hindu nation where minorities, especially Muslims, must subscribe to Hindu primacy.

Abedi and Das are ordinary citizens living in one city in a country of over 1.4 billion people that is on the verge of becoming the most densely populated country in the world.

Together, they embody the opposing sides of the entrenched religious divide that presents India with one of its greatest challenges: protecting the freedoms of its Muslim minority at a time when the rising tide of Hindu nationalism is eroding the country’s secular foundations.

India’s population is expected to reach 1.4286 billion from 1.4257 billion by mid-2023, according to United Nations projections. It is home to about 200 million Muslims who make up the largest minority in the Hindu-majority country.

They are spread across nearly all parts of India, where systemic anti-Muslim anger has erupted since Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014.

Although sectarian divisions in India date back to the bloody partition of 1947, most Indians trace the roots of the latest religious fault lines to a small temple city in northern India, where the Hindu nationalist movement was galvanized in 1992 after a Hindu mob demolished a historic mosque. Make way for a temple.

Since then, the city of Ayodhya has become, in many ways, a religious microcosm of India, where a diverse and multicultural past has been gradually engulfed by the fractured relations between Hindus and Muslims.

It is also a city called Abedi and Das.

They wandered its narrow, winding streets overrun by temple monkeys and Hindu monks begging for alms from passers-by in exchange for blessings. They walked through crowded bazaars where miniature Ram idols were sold to pilgrims visiting India’s vast hinterland. They started their mornings with calls to prayer from the mosque loudspeakers and Vedic hymns in the temples.

Behind these shared experiences lie stark differences.

For Das, the broad-shouldered man with a strong frame, Ayodhya is the birthplace of Ram, the most revered of Hindu deities. The city also hosts one of the most sacred sites in Hinduism – the Great Ram Temple – which will open to pilgrims next year. Das says it is essential for the city to stick to its Hindu character.

“Our ancestors fought for this temple and sacrificed their lives for it. Today their dream is being fulfilled,” he says surrounded by a group of devotees.

The temple is being built where the 16th-century Babri Mosque was demolished by Hindu militants who claim it was built by Muslim rulers on the exact spot where Ram was born.

When it was destroyed on December 6, 1992, Das was there, watching frenzied Hindu mobs climb its round domes and tear it apart with axes and crowbars.

“There was so much excitement at the destruction of this disgraceful structure that no one cared about the falling debris,” he recounts, prompting his disciples to chant “Jai Sri Ram” or “Hail Lord Ram,” a mantra that became his battle cry. for Hindu nationalists.

The 30-year campaign to build the temple saw subsequent religious violence and a bitter legal battle over the site, which Hindus were victorious in 2019. The Muslims were given alternative land on the outskirts of the city to build a new mosque. A year later, Modi attended the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the temple.

For Abedi, a tall man with clothes hanging down his body, it was a sad chapter for India’s Muslims.

Erase the past

“Muslim hearts are broken. No Muslim is against the construction of the Ram temple, but such unilateral changes affect the culture of India,” he says, arguing that the earlier mosque was essential to the city’s Islamic identity.

As for his city, it had already gone through great changes.

For decades, the city of Ayodhya was part of the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh. But in 2018, the authorities changed the name of the entire district from Faizabad to Ayodhya, a move that reflected the Modi government’s pattern of replacing prominent Muslim geographical names with Hindu names.

For Abedi, it points to a troubling trend: “the erasure of everything that remotely reflects Islamic culture.”

Today, Ayodhya is taken over by the frantic construction of hotels, bringing tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims. Construction workers are busy making way for wider highways. All this is expected to boost the city’s economy. But at what cost, Abedi believes.

“The relationship that Hindus and Muslims used to have is not visible anymore,” he says.

Religious fault lines in India have become apparent under Modi. Dozens of Muslims have been murdered by Hindu mobs over allegations of eating beef or smuggling cow, an animal considered sacred to Hindus. Muslims’ businesses were boycotted, their posts bulldozed and places of worship set on fire. Sometimes open calls for genocide are made.

Critics say Modi’s apparent silence over such attacks has emboldened some of his most radical supporters and allowed more anti-Muslim hate speech.

Muslims were falsely accused of manipulating Hindu women into marriages and having more children to establish dominance. Government data shows otherwise: India’s religious make-up has been largely stable since 1947 and the Muslim fertility rate has fallen from 4.4 in 1992 to 2.3 in 2020.

“It will never be possible if you look at the data. We should forget and ignore this discourse,” says Poonam Mutrija, director of the Population Foundation in India.

Muslims also have the lowest literacy rate of all major Indian religious communities. They have faced discrimination in employment and housing and hold just under 5% of seats in parliament, their lowest ever.

For Abedi, all of this represents a bleak future, where the secular character of India lives on only in the people’s memory.

“Every Muslim in India today finds himself insecure,” he says.

Das disagrees, arguing that Muslims are still free to pray and practice their religion. “But we will correct the mistakes your predecessors made.”

Das refers to the Mughals who ruled India before the British made it their colony.

Disdain for the Mughal rulers, who are not the ancestors of Indian Muslims and only share a similar faith, is characteristic of Hindu nationalists in India, who claim that the Mughals destroyed Hindu culture. This prompted Hindu nationalists to seek ownership of hundreds of historic mosques, which they say were built over demolished temples.

In Ayodhya, the old Muslim locals made concessions to avoid tension with Hindu neighbours.

Last year when the Muharram procession coincided with a Hindu festival, Muslim leaders changed the timing of their march to avoid confrontation. This year, Muslims in the city had to forgo the sale and consumption of meat during another Hindu festival that coincided with the start of Ramadan.

In such an atmosphere, Abedi says, only religious tolerance can stop sectarian divisions in India from festering.

“India will survive only if we mend hearts and not break them,” he says.

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