by Ranjit Devraj Ê
(IPS) NEW DELHI --
a tourist guide at the Indian capital's 13th century Qutb Minar, Ramesh has a special spiel reserved for domestic tourists who want to see pieces from Hindu temples that have been incorporated into the sandstone tower and mosque complex, which was built to commemorate Islamic ascendancy over India.
"Fortunately, at the Qutb Minar complex, pieces taken from demolished Hindu temples are many and clearly visible and my clients go away satisfied," says Ramesh, indicating a delicately carved "apsara" (celestial being) with a mutilated face.
Islam prohibits idolatry, and zealots of the faith have destroyed Hindu and Buddhist monuments -- the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan last year being the latest major episode.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has classified the Qutb Minar complex a World Heritage site, the adjacent Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam) mosque was built with material taken from 20 Hindu temples.
But according to respected historians such as Romila Thapar and Bipin Chandra, both of whom teach at the prestigious Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU), Muslim rulers were not all despotic. Many were in fact noted for their tolerance and some even contributed to the construction of temples, they said.
Still, nobody stops Ramesh and other unauthorized guides from making a living with the improvised history of the actions of Muslim rulers who left behind innumerable fortresses, palaces and mausoleums, among them the famed Taj Mahal.
At well-known Hindu pilgrimage centers and towns, such as Mathura and Varanasi in northern Uttar Pradesh state, guides aggressively call out to tourists and offer to show them remnants of demolished temples and regale them with plaintive, exaggerated versions of more than 500 years of Islamic rule over India.
Caring little for the sentiments of India's 200 million Muslims, who are still a minority in the country's billion-plus population, these guides add grist to the myth-making mill on which thrive fundamentalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Forum.
The VHP is a close affiliate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which has taken upon itself the hugely controversial task of rewriting India's history to make it more flattering to majority Hindus and thus give them "self-respect."
It was the VHP's campaign to build a temple on the site where it demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid at Ayodhya town in Uttar Pradesh -- in the process rousing religious fervor among majority Hindus -- that paved the way to national power for the BJP and Vajpayee.
Leaders of the VHP insist that the Babri Mosque demolished in 1992 was built by 16th century Muslim rulers on the site of a temple that they believe to be the site where the mythical warrior deity Rama was born some 10,000 years ago.
The ownership of this holy site is being disputed in court and the issue of actually building a Hindu temple in Ayodhya remains an explosive issue. It has sparked communal riots in the past, and most recently, in the last few weeks.
The demolition of the mosque in 1992 unleashed communal rioting that left more than 3,000 people dead across the country.
On Feb. 27, a mob of around 2,000 Muslims stopped a train carrying people who went to Ayodhya to support the temple-building cause at Godhra town in western Gujarat state. They firebombed the train, killing 58 people including 25 women and 12 children in the town whose 150,000 people are almost evenly split between Hindus and Muslims, and where communal tensions have erupted before.
That incident went on to trigger India's worst religious violence in a decade. The next day, Gujarat -- the state where Mahatma Gandhi, known as the Apostle of Peace, was born -- erupted in communal frenzy. According to the latest estimates, more than a thousand people were killed before the BJP government decided to act against the arson and carnage by calling in the army.
Caught between trying to appease its fundamentalist supporters in the VHP, the secular allies in the ruling, 21-party National Democratic Alliance, and the powerful and avowedly secular opposition Congress party, the BJP is now reaping the whirlwind for its divisive policies in the world's second most populous country.
In provincial elections held last month, the BJP was voted out of power in Uttar Pradesh, in spite of its fundamentalist campaign at Ayodhya and at other historical sites in states like Mathura and Varanasi, where Muslim structures are being targeted for demolition.
As with the guides at tourist centers, the VHP cares more for myth than fact and Ashok Singhal, the firebrand leader of the VHP, has repeatedly said that "whether or not a temple actually existed at Ayodhya is a matter of faith and national sentiment."
In the aftermath of the violence in Gujarat, Vajpayee, known as a moderate, has found it difficult to get the VHP to agree to any compromise with the Muslim community on the Ayodhya issue. "They (the VHP) say something in the morning and something else in the evening," he complained.
The VHP has now taken the stance that construction of the temple will proceed mid-March, in spite of a court order requiring the government to maintain status quo at the disputed site.
Besides the rule of law, a casualty in all this is the idea of India as a secular country.
"To say that the aspirations of one section of society (majority Hindus) represents national sentiment is a contradiction in terms -- it is contradictory to the concept of secularism enshrined in the Constitution," says Kapil Sibal, member of Parliament and spokesman for the Congress party.
India's founding fathers conceived the republic as a pluralistic society, which emerged from colonial rule in 1947 and the accompanying bloodbath that resulted from the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for minority Muslims.
A million people died and many times that number were displaced as Hindus who were relocated in India and Muslims in Pakistan crossed each other's path and fell upon each other or were slaughtered in their homes. Gandhi himself was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists in 1948.
More than half-a-century afterwards, the wounds of the "ethnic cleansing" of the partition are yet to heal, and the animosity now threatens to erupt into a nuclear conflagration as relations between the two neighbors steadily worsened after they carried out rival series of nuclear-weapons tests in May 1998.
Blaming Islamabad for an attack on India's Parliament building on Dec. 13 last year, Vajpayee ordered the deployment of close to a million troops to the two countries' common border. Observers say this achieved little, except the sharp escalation of the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
The communal violence in Gujarat, which borders Pakistan, has not helped the BJP leadership in its attempts to cool the tempers it has been accused of stoking in order to come to power.
India's Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who once personally led the Ayodhya movement, has had to warn the VHP to shelve the temple-building plan and order police to turn back thousands of its volunteers streaming into the northern town to help begin actual construction this month.
March 10, 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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