Demolition of India's Babri mosque - the 'Hindutva project' 25 years on

Indian politics took a radical turn 25 years ago when Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh. DW examines why the watershed event continues to divide India. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.

On Tuesday, the Indian Supreme Court began its hearing in the Babri Masjid (Babri mosque) dispute. It comes seven years after the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed Ayodhya land equally between Ram Lalla Virajman, the Sunni Waqf Board (belonging to Sunni Muslims) and Nirmohi Akhara. Petitioners, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy, have challenged the Allahabad order.

Last month, the Shia Waqf Board (of Shiite Muslims) proposed that the Lord Rama temple be built in Ayodhya while the mosque could be shifted to the city of Lucknow. Not all Muslims favor this proposal.

The Babri mosque dispute remains as polarizing and politically divisive as it was 25 years ago when the 16th century structure was demolished by Hindu activists in the city of Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Hindu fundamentalists, as well as some historians, claim the mosque was built on the site of Lord Rama's temple on the orders of Moghul emperor Zahir Uddin Babur.

Read more: Anniversary of destroyed mosque rekindles bad memories

Asia | 06.12.2011
Bildergalerie 20 Jahre nach dem Herabreißen der Babri-Moschee

The mosque demolition sparked country-wide communal riots that killed over 2,000 people

A watershed moment

The Babri Masjid demolition was the culmination of years of campaigns by Hindu fundamentalists to construct a Lord Rama temple on the mosque's site.

On December 6, 1992, the BJP, the hardline Vishva Hindu Parishad and many of its affiliates organized a rally in Ayodhya. Within hours, over 15,000 Hindu activists, known as "kar sevaks," razed the historic mosque to the ground with axes and hammers.

"I witnessed the demolition. It was meticulously planned. The police stood by silently," Praveen Jain, a photo journalist, told DW.

P. V. Narasimha Rao of the Congress Party was prime minister at the time. His handling of the issue has been widely criticized.

Read more: Indian Muslims who support Hindu nationalism

The mosque demolition sparked country-wide violence and communal riots that killed over 2,000 people and shook the secular foundations of the country. Jihadist groups cited the destruction of the mosque as a reason behind the 1993 Mumbai bombings and other attacks in the 1990s.

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"December 6 was the day when the Hindu nationalism project was launched on the political stage of the country," Rakesh Batabyal, a media studies expert, told DW.

Batabyal was apparently right in his analysis because the event propelled the BJP into mainstream politics. The party won the general election in 1998 on the slogan of "Hindutva," or Hindu nationalism.

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Hindu nationalism a dominant force now

25 years since the Babri mosque demolition, Hindutva has gained tremendous strength under the leadership of charismatic BJP politician and prime minister, Narendra Modi.

"The Babri mosque destruction changed Indian politics forever. The idea of nationalism has been gaining ground and is a dominant force now," says Chandan Mitra, a BJP member of parliament.

Ram Madhav, the BJP's general secretary, recently said the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya is an unfinished business.

The calls for the temple construction have regained momentum as the BJP enjoys a majority in national parliament and also in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly.

"No single event in independent India has polarized public opinion as much as the Babri mosque demolition," historian Ramchandra Guha told DW.

Sociologist Indranil Acharya shares the same view: "It has increased tension between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. In the following years, India witnessed many violent events such as the 2002 Gujarat riots."

Read more: India hands out life sentences for deadly Gujarat riots

Indian liberals accuse the BJP government of deliberately creating rifts between Hindus and Muslims and emboldening right-wing extremists. Several cases of "cow vigilantism" and Muslim killings by radical Hindus have increased communal divisions in India. Experts trace it back to the Babri mosque demolition and the 1990s communal violence in the country.

Mali's iconoclasts

They call themselves Ansar Dine, defenders of Islam, but defense is not their mission. They have been destroying Islamic treasures in the historic city of Timbuktu. At least 7 of the 16 UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage shrines have been badly damaged.

In the name of Allah

The Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine took control of northern Mali a few months ago, but it is Ansar Dine which is responsible for the destruction of the shrines. Once the World Heritage Committee had put Timbuktu on the list of endangered world heritage, Ansar Dine destroyed even more shrines.

In danger

There are three major mosques in Timbuktu; Djingareyber, Sankoré and Sidi–Yahya. Together with the 16 damaged tombs, these three ancient buildings are Timbuktu's contribution to the UN's World Cultural Heritage list. As local residents looked on in bewilderement, the extremists smashed the entrance to the Sidi–Yahya mosque.

Barbarism

Timbuktu has long been a center for Islamic teaching and scholarship. Rare documents, valuable religious and scientific texts are to be found in its libraries. The Islamists have threatened to destroy those valuable manuscripts and have already seized some of them.

Long history of destruction

Historically, Mali's radical Islamists are certainly not the first to commit such deeds. Even in modern times, political or religious fanatics have destroyed irreplaceable cultural treasures. Particularly badly hit were temples and monasteries in Tibet during China's Cultural Revolution. The oldest Samye monastery was among those that were badly damaged.

A temple restored

Almost all Tibetan monasteries were desecrated, looted and destroyed. Oldest surviving Samye monastery was later partly built and was reconsecrated in 1980s. The monastery is now an official monument of the People's Republic of China.

Built on old foundations

The Babri mosque in Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was built on the site of a Hindu temple, probably built in 1528.

Hindu fanatics

Hindu fanatics tried repeatedly to demolish the mosque and replace it with a temple, initially without success. But in 1992 it was destroyed in a nationwide riots that left at least 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.

Buddhas destroyed

Just months before the world was shocked by 9/11 attacks, radical Islamists blew up two statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The Bamiyan statues were among the oldest and largest in the world. Their faces were lost to posterity centuries ago.

On the world heritage list

The explosion opened up a gap in the rocks, revealing religious inscriptions dating back to the fouth century AD. The Bamiyan Valley with its archaeological remains is now on the World Cultural Heritage list. The university of Aachen has recreated the statues with computer modeling, but UNESCO has ruled out any restoration work in the field. Author: Sabine Peschel / al | Editor: Mark Caldwell