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Ahead of key polls, India’s ruling party revives Hindu-Muslim dispute

A ban on meat last year by the chief minister
of Uttar Pradesh state, a Hindu monk who issued the order on religious grounds,
has decimated their trade.

Now the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, up for
re-election in key state polls next month, has turned his attention to the
temple itself, suggesting he will champion the Hindu cause in a long-running
dispute with Muslims over who owns the site.

The issue has become a central part of the
ruling party’s campaign to extend its grip on power in Uttar Pradesh, home to
200 million people and the bellwether of national politics.

Hindus and Muslims have argued for decades
over who should control the site, echoing other disputes in India that have, on
occasions, flared into deadly riots between the two communities.

While communal violence in India is sporadic,
clashes erupted across the country in early 2020 over a citizenship law that
Muslims said was discriminatory. Dozens of people died.

Now mention of the Mathura dispute during
campaign rallies and on social media has the city’s Muslims worried, according
to interviews with more than 20 residents.

“An old case which has been settled …
is being revived because we have a new, triumphalist Hinduism,” said
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of several books on Prime Minister Narendra Modi
and the Hindu nationalist movement.

“There is a greater emphasis on playing
the temple card.”

Opinion polls suggest that the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Adityanath belongs, will win
the vote in Uttar Pradesh, despite broad discontent over the economy and the
government’s handling of the pandemic.

The chief minister, seen by some analysts as a
potential successor to Modi, has cast the ballot as “80% versus 20%”,
figures he did not fully explain. The percentages closely match the Hindu and
Muslim share of the population across the state.

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Adityanath’s office did not respond to a
request for comment on the situation in Mathura.

‘NOTHING TO FEAR’

The BJP swept to power in Uttar Pradesh on a
Hindu-first agenda in 2017, and did not field a single Muslim candidate.
Indians vote for powerful state legislatures separately from nationwide
parliamentary elections.

That victory reflected the party’s dominance
nationally, since Modi stormed to power in 2014 after appealing to the Hindu
majority.

The main opposition Congress party complains
that by putting Hindus first, he and the BJP discriminate against minorities
and risk stoking violence. Modi has defended his record and says his economic
and social policies benefit all Indians.

Jamal Siddiqui, head of the BJP’s minority
commission, said the party was working to increase the number of minority
candidates in Uttar Pradesh and the four other states going to the polls next
month.

“I hope the minority community will
participate both in elections and in government,” he told Reuters.
“The Modi government has protected religious sites for all religions. Now,
instead of being afraid of saffron, Muslims are coming closer.”

Suspicion of the BJP among Muslims in Mathura
had been caused by misleading claims from opposition parties, Siddiqui added.

‘NO COMPROMISE’

Among the holiest cities in Hinduism, Mathura,
some 150 km south of New Delhi, is believed to be the birthplace of Krishna,
one of the most important Hindu deities.

A temple standing on the reputed site of his
birth was razed and replaced by a mosque, known as the Shahi Eidgah, in the
17th century during the Islamic Mughal empire. A Hindu temple complex built in
the 1950s now backs on to the mosque.

An agreement was brokered in 1968 to settle
the use of the land, and the two structures stood like “two sisters”
until legal action to demolish the mosque began in 2020, said Z. Hassan,
president of the trust that runs the Eidgah.

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“I have been here for 55 years. I have
not felt tension between Hindus and Muslims,” he said. “Only in the
last few years this idea has come that there are two communities.”

The case, brought to a local court by several
Hindu priests, says the 1968 agreement was fraudulent.

“This land is very important to us,”
said Vishnu Jain, the lawyer acting for the petitioners. “I don’t believe
in any kind of dialogue. There is only one compromise which can happen – that
they will be out of this property.”

Both sides expect the case to last for years.

The local dispute has been taken up by
Adityanath and several other BJP leaders during campaigning.

He told a rally last month that work on
constructing a temple in Mathura, along the lines of a similar development in
Ayodhya, was “in progress”, without giving more detail.

Ayodhya was the scene of communal violence in
1992 and 1993 in which more than 2,000 people died, after a mob demolished the
16th century Babri Masjid mosque that many Hindus claimed was on the birthplace
of Lord Rama – another important deity.

A court ruling allowing the construction of a
temple on the site of the Babri Masjid was a major campaign issue in the 2019
general election, when the BJP increased its majority.

THE LAND IS OURS’

Many Hindu residents of Mathura support plans
to reclaim the land from the mosque.

“The land is ours and should be given back,”
said Bipin Goswami, an 19-year-old with his face daubed saffron with sandalwood
paste.

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Local authorities mobilized thousands of
security personnel in December after fringe Hindu groups announced an attempt
to place a statue of Krishna inside the mosque on the anniversary of the Babri
Masjid’s destruction.

The attempt failed, but at the mosque, ringed
with barbed wire and lookout towers since the early 1990s, police now check the
ID cards of everyone entering the complex.

Aved Khan, a 30-year-old Muslim who has a food
cart in Mathura, said he changed the name of his business from Srinath Dosa to
American Dosa Corner after a group of men demanded that he stop using a Hindu
name.

“You are Muslim, how can you have this
name?” one of the men asked, tearing down the stall’s signs, according to
a police report of the incident in August.

Rajesh Mani Tripathi, national president of
the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Mukti Dal – a hardline Hindu group that was also
behind the attempt to install the statue – told Reuters he was one of the men
involved in the altercation.

“If he was Muslim then he should write
his name on the banner and should not cheat people by mentioning a Hindu
name,” he said.

Muslims in Mathura also complained about
Adityanath’s decision in September to ban meat within a 3 km radius of the
temple.

At the empty Royal Restaurant, one of the few
in the area remaining open, cooks fashion traditional lamb kebabs and chicken
tikka out of soya.

“Before the BJP there was no tension
here,” said Sajid Anwar, standing before his shuttered Labbaik Restaurant.

Anwar said there was no demand for vegetarian
food among Muslims. He is waiting for the election results before deciding
whether to close permanently.

“If Yogi returns, I will have to find
another trade.”

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