Ancient Hate Has India on Edge of Chaos

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."

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