Destruction and usurping of religious places is one of the root causes of communal tensions in South Asia. Hiding true history and selective reporting are the biggest road blocks for long term peace in the region.
Communal tensions in the Indian subcontinent have a long history going back centuries to the start of Islamic conquests in the region as early as 12th century CE. Although the seeds of Hindu-Muslim disharmony were sowed long ago, the rift between the two communities was systematically widened by the British colonial rulers as part of their divide-and-rule strategy. Communal tensions have persisted even after the end of the colonial rule in 1947 and have resulted in numerous communal riots.
In this context, the December 6, 1992 demolition of the disputed Babri mosque structure in Ayodhya by Hindu activists is often perceived as a turning point in souring the relationship between the Hindu and Muslim community across the subcontinent and beyond. Since then, violent attacks by Islamic extremists have often been justified as vengeance for the demolition of the disputed structure; Mumbai blasts of 1993 where over 250 innocent lives were lost being one of them.
It is worth understanding the history of the disputed structure and the site on which it stood. Since time immemorial Ayodhya city has been a sacred place for Hindus as they consider the disputed site to be the exact place of birth of Lord Ram, the Ram Janmabhumi. The city of Ayodhya is for Hindus what Jerusalem is for Jews, Mecca for is for Muslims and Vatican is for Christians. Indeed, the site of the Babri mosque was earlier home to a grand Hindu temple which was destroyed by Mughals rulers in early 16th century to build the mosque on top of it. Since then the Hindu community has been continuously attempting to reclaim the site. In fact, the Hindu position was even accepted by a British court in 1880 but the matter was not resolved then likely because establishing communal harmony was not in the interest of the British colonial rule. The dispute continued in the courts of independent India as well and the Babri mosque ceased to be an active place of worship in 1949, forty three years before it was demolished.
Following the demolition of 1992, the dispute again entered the courts going up to the Supreme Court of India. The court gave its final verdict on Nov 9 2019 in a unanimous judgement in which the whole disputed land was given to the Hindus to build a Ram Janmabhumi temple and another land was allocated to the Muslims to build a mosque. The Supreme court fully acknowledged the historical significance of the site for the Hindus and the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India that the mosque was built on top of a preexisting Hindu temple. The verdict has largely been well received by both communities.
Widespread Destruction Of Hindu Temples During Medieval Times
Babri mosque wasn’t the only mosque built on top of a Hindu temple. Renowned author Sitaram Goel has listed over 2000 such mosques in his book Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them which is based on the accounts of Muslim historians of the period and inscriptions found on the mosques themselves. In fact he has suggested that the actual numbers of destroyed temple runs in many thousands which seems plausible given that, unlike in the southern regions of India, the north has no Hindu temples predating the arrival of Islam in India. A case in point is the northern most region of Jammu and Kashmir where the scale of destruction has been such that the Indian government ****recentlysaid that as many as 50,000 Hindu temples were vandalized and needed restoration.
In some cases the evidence is not buried under the ground but is staring us in the eye. In this picture of Gyanvapi Mosque in Kashi, India the temple structure underneath the mosque is clearly visible. This article list eight other such mosques across North India.
Recent Destruction Of Hindu Temples In The Indian Subcontinent
Pakistan. While the demolition of Babri mosque has been widely reported in the media, the destruction of thousands of Hindu temples by Islamic extremists is rarely highlighted. Soon after the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya, 30 Hindu temples were razed/vandalized in Pakistan. A 2014 survey of the places of worship of religious minorities in Pakistan found that 95 percent of the minority religious places no longer exist and the sites are now occupied by stores, restaurants and even a toilet. The efforts of local Hindu community to reclaim their lost temples have not received much support from the majority Muslim population or from the government authorities of Pakistan.
In 2013, Amarnath Motumal, Vice Chairperson of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission’s Sindh Chapter, and also a member of the minority Hindu community, told the local Pakistan news agency that “religious extremism” was the main cause of attacks on Hindus and their temples. He held that “These people think that by attacking Hindus or their places of worship, they have earned a place in heaven,” he said, adding that Pakistani Hindus “are very scared and not getting any help from anywhere.”
A Hindu woman crying over Temple demolition incident in 2012 in Karachi Pakistan. Image credit: India Today.
Bangladesh. Similar situation exists in Bangladesh too with multiple reports of large-scale Hindu temple destruction, vandalism and encroachment. This detailed article from 1992 paints a picture of the struggles of minorities since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Among other things, it highlights the attacks on the Hindu temples
“Organized attacks on minorities and their temples, viharas, ashrams, and churches also increased manyfold in the last half of 1980s, with large-scale attacks in 1987, 1989, and 1990. In 1989, over 400 temples were destroyed or damaged. This wave reached its height with the destruction of desecration of perhaps 80 percent of Bangladesh’s Hindu-Buddhist temples and the devastation of thousands of Hindu homes and businesses between October 30 and November 1, 1990.” More recently, in a coordinated attack in 2013, 50 temples were damaged and more than 1,500 houses were destroyed, across nearly 20 districts of Bangladesh. The actual numbers of temples which have been destroyed in Bangladesh runs in thousands as we have reported here. This article reports vandalization of 10 Hindu temples in May 2020.
India. In spite of a secular constitution and a functioning democracy, Hindu temples in India have also not been safe, especially in the Muslim majority regions. For instance, in a 2012 report the Jammu and Kashmir state government reported that Islamic extremists damaged 208 Hindu temples in the last two decades. Panun Kashmir Movement, an organization of exiled Kashmiri Pandits have documented over 127 incidences of attacks on temples between 1986 and 1992; 32 temples were destroyed within 48 hours of the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya.
A Hindu temple being burned down in 2001, Kashmir. Image credit: Outlook India
Lessons And The Path Forward
The numerous stories of the destruction and usurping of the native Hindu structures at the hand of Islamic extremists is a major cause of the tension between the two communities in South Asia. After smoldering for centuries, the conflict over the disputed structure in Ayodhya was finally resolved in 2019. Hopefully this resolution will endure and heal some of the cracks between the two communities.
It is important to reflect on the history and the resolution of the Ayodhya issue. Why did it take centuries to resolve? Even after India became independent and adopted a constitution committed to secular values, why did the resolution took over 70 years? The evidences and the arguments used by the Supreme Court of India to arrive at its verdict have been in public domain for a long time. Why then did multiple attempts of out-of-court resolution between the two communities failed repeatedly? One of the main causes of the failure to resolve the Ayodhya dispute was a deliberate campaign to suppress or obfuscate the history of the Babri mosque and the Islamic history, in general.
While the destruction of the Babri mosque has been widely condemned, and rightly so, the wide spread destruction of Hindu temples has not received proportional attention. The first step to true enduring reconciliation is to acknowledged the facts in totality without bias. This means remembering the thousands of temple destruction, the demolition of Babri Mosque, and the countless victims of such violence. It means acknowledging that Hindus and their sites of worship in South Asia have repeatedly been targeted by Islamist extremists. We must speak these truths because true reconciliation and enduring harmony can only be achieved if the process is based on truth, however inconvenient or painful it may be.
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