Ancient Hate Has India on Edge of Chaos

Feb. 28 was the worst day in Imran Topiwala's life and he hopes it will stay that way.

A businessman from a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Topiwala and his family had to flee their apartment that fateful morning when a mob of thousands of enraged Hindus stormed their apartment complex.

But harrowing as that experience was, Topiwala fears Friday could be a lot worse.

In a religious row that threatens to plunge the subcontinent into yet another horrific round of mass slaughters, Hindu hard-liners have set March 15 as a date to hold a controversial religious ceremony on a disputed site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

Indian Muslims have opposed the ceremony because they fear it will pave the way for the building of a Hindu temple where a 16th century mosque was smashed to rubble by Hindu hard-liners in 1992.

On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that "no religious ceremony of any kind" could be performed on the site until several legal cases were settled.

But the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the right-wing Hindu organization at the heart of dispute, indicated it would go ahead with the controversial ceremony near the site where the mosque was torn down. Earlier today, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee vowed to uphold the court order and the government has launched a huge security operation around the disputed site, which is now under government control.

For Topiwala, a 28-year-old Muslim owner of a software business firm, legal rulings and political assurances made in the Indian capital of New Delhi offers him no real protection.

"We're still scared, very scared," he says during a phone interview with "The public is not going to protect us and the police is not going to protect us. It's very tense here, but all we can do is just wait and watch and pray for the best."

Attacked by a Mob

For Topiwala, New Delhi, with its wide boulevards and manicured gardens, is a world away from the madness his family has to cope with in volatile Ahmedabad.

It all began on Feb. 27, when a Muslim mob, heckled by Hindu hard-liners returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, torched a train in the town of Godhra in the western Indian state of Gujarat, killing 58 Hindus.

When news of the torching reached Muslims in Ahmedabad, the state capital of Gujarat, they knew trouble was ahead.

And trouble arrived the next day for the Topiwalas in the form of an incensed, armed mob of Hindu extremists hurling petrol bombs, crude anti-Muslim invective and screaming for revenge.

"They came with talwars [swords], guptis [daggers], trishuls [tri-bladed locally-made spears] and petrol bombs," recounts Topiwala. "They were burning cars, throwing stones and shouting maro, maro [hit them, hit them]. We were terrified. I recognized three of my [Hindu] neighbors [in the mob] but the rest were all outsiders."

While the mob moved down the street to torch some Muslim-owned shops and businesses, Topiwala's family fled their apartment complex from a back entrance and ran to their uncle's house about half a mile away.

From his uncle's terrace, Topiwala could see the mob burning down his apartment block as well as his offices down the street. Two weeks later, the Topiwalas have joined the ranks of thousands of Indians rendered homeless by the recent violence.

And the toll on human lives was devastating with more than 700 dead, hundreds missing and thousands injured.

Religious Hatred and Political Gains

Religious hatred, called odium theologicum, has been with us throughout history and while it may have subsided in some parts of the world, it continues to haunt societies across the globe.

But in India, a nation of 1 billion mostly impoverished people that was born in bloodshed after the British split the continent into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan sparking riots that killed half a million people, the fear that religious tensions could blow up into mass slaughter is a very real one.

Many Indians also worry that the old odium theologicum is now being used as an instrument for gaining power in a country where the state's secular ideals take a regular bashing.

Following a campaign launched by the VHP in the mid-1980s to build a temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya, Hindu mobs demolished the 16th century Babri masjid sparking off riots throughout the country that left around 2,000 people dead.

‘Like the Tooth Fairy’

But the antecedents of this conflict stretch back to 1528, when the Babri masjid was constructed under the reign of Emperor Babur, a warrior prince of Turkic origins who invaded the Indian plains from Central Asia and founded the mighty Mughal dynasty.

Some Hindu groups, like the VHP, claim the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. While the VHP and other extremist Hindu groups say archaeological evidence supports their claims, many experts argue there is no historical evidence to substantiate claims that either Ram or the temple ever existed.

"There is no archaeological or historical evidence that a temple existed on the site or that Ram was born on the spot," says Richard Eaton, a renowned South Asia historian at the University of Arizona. "These things are like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus — they have no substance to them."

Contesting History

Evoking history and religion for sectarian political ends is not exclusive to India. The current intifada in the Middle East was sparked in September 2000, when current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon marched onto Jerusalem's most disputed religious site, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram-al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary).

But India's religious disputes are further complicated by its ancient history, a history often not as well documented in records and texts as it is transmitted — and embellished — through lore and myth.

"What's happening is a fiercely contested dispute over India's pre-colonial history," says Eaton. "The real question is what was India's state before the British came. The Hindu right wing tends to believe, as a matter of assumption, that for thousands of years before the British came, Muslim rulers were devoted to wiping out temples. But there's no historical basis to the claims."

Ayodhya is not the only contentious piece of real estate on the Hindu right agenda. According to Shyam Tiwari, a spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the organization estimates that there are between 30,000 and 60,000 temples across India that were destroyed by Muslim invaders. But the VHP has placed Ayodhya and two sites in the northern Indian towns of Varanasi and Mathura on its agenda of sites to be "liberated."

"We don't want to rake up a controversy on all these sites except in Ayodhya, Kashi [Varanasi] and Mathura," says Tiwari. "Ayodhya is unique because it is the birthplace of Lord Ram and we are never going to give up claims to the site. And Mathura is important because it is the birthplace of Lord Krishna [another popular Hindu deity]. India is known as the land of Ram and Krishna, but their birthplaces have been desecrated and we have failed to honor them."

Temples of Power

While historians do not deny that temple desecrations did occur throughout history, Eaton notes that temples, unlike mosques, were embodiments of the legitimacy of a Hindu monarch's regime and were understandable targets for invading armies.

What is less understandable for people like Yusuf Hatim Muchchala, a lawyer from the All India Muslim Personal Board — the organization that legally represents Muslim claims to the site — is why, despite an earlier 1994 ruling by the Supreme Court banning all religious activities near the mosque, history continues to be raked up and stoked.

"In a civilized society, one has to abide by the courts' verdicts," fumes Muchchala.

That's exactly what Topiwala is not sure will happen on Friday. And he is afraid. "There are all sorts of rumors around here," he says. "People are saying there will be a civil war on Friday. My relatives are saying leave this place before March 15, but we can't just leave everyone here. We can only wait and watch."