Politics meets religion: The Ayodhya dispute

Religious violence and contention is by no means unfamiliar to India. Conflicting religious beliefs have been rife for centuries, with historians tracing problematic relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country as far back as the thirteenth century, the time in which the formation of Islamic communities in India began. There is equally a consensus, however, that significant Hindu-Islamic tension is a more recent by-product of Partition in 1947, an event in itself driven by contemporary religious disputes. Nevertheless, conflict between the two religions in India is not confined to history, as recent controversies make it more pertinent than ever in the twenty-first century.

A specific conflict over land, known as the Ayodhya dispute, serves to prove this. A dispute prolific for causing riots and political tension over the last century or so in India, it has arguably caused the most political rupture within the past three decades. This one hundred and fifty year old debate between Hindus and Muslims across India concerns a disputed sacred area of land in Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, the northern region of the country. The debate involved a supreme court case in which members of the two religions were both fighting for control and authority over this same plot of land. Indian Muslims are of the belief that a mosque was built on the site by a commander of Babur in the sixteenth century, and thus the site is sacred to them. However, the site is equally sacred to Hindus, as they believe the same site was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a sacred Hindu deity and reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Not unlike other examples of Hindu-Islamic contention across India’s history, violence has been central to this specific dispute from the very beginning. Fears of an outbreak over the case were evident in 1949 when the Indian government made orders denying permission for Muslims to be within two-hundred yards of the site. Concern over potential outbreak turned to violence in 1992, when unrest over the lack of progress in the case broke, and the sacred Ayodhya mosque was torn down and destroyed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu activist group, acting under the belief that the site was rightfully theirs. This event had national repercussions, triggering a mass of communal riots which left over 2000 dead, most of them Muslims. The Indian government even detained crowds of citizens in Ayodhya amid fears of violence following the final court ruling in 2019.

Hanuman Garhi, a major Hindu temple in Ayodhya close to the site mentioned in this article. Credit

The official end to this case shows the deeply political roots of Hindu-Islamic antagonism. The dispute came to an end in the eyes of the government in 2019, when India’s supreme court finally ruled in favour of the Hindus. This result was no surprise, however, considering the lack of independence of the Indian judiciary – former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi having been appointed by Modi – coupled with the aims of India’s ruling right-wing political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to define a national doctrine characterised by Hindu nationalism. Thus, it can be argued that this lengthy dispute illustrates a deep modern politicisation of India’s religious conflict, and furthermore, it has infiltrated the heart of the nation’s identity politics. Following the 2019 ruling, Modi, the Prime Minister of India, tweeted that the verdict “shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody”. Considering this concerns a debate that has severely exemplified the continuation of the polarisation of the country’s two dominating religions in the modern day, this statement blatantly implies sympathies towards Hindu nationalism, particularly as social and religious divisions have only deepened nationally since the BJP came into power in 2014.

Therefore, tensions between the two religions in India are undoubtedly far from over, and mosque-temple disputes are still central to Indian Hindu supremacist politics. Since 2019, other examples of similarly structured temple disputes have risen over similar issues, such as recent court orders in Varanasi this year to investigate whether there is any structural overlapping between Gyanvapi mosque which is adjacent to a Hindu temple. This particular example has unsurprisingly been a decision made by the court following petitions from Hindu nationalist groups, claiming a Muslim emperor demolished part of the Hindu temple in the seventeenth century to build a mosque.

Although antagonism between the two religions is clearly historically rooted in India, right-wing Hindu nationalism is what is continuing to fuel this conflict in the modern day. Thus, until crucial notions of right-wing Hindu nationalism cease to dominate the political landscape of India, further antagonism between the two religions will only continue. 

By Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

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