India's Ayodhya still unsafe for Muslims after riots

Peace prevails 26 years after deadly clashes sparked by demolition of mosque but Hindu mobs make Muslims fear for lives
India's Ayodhya still unsafe for Muslims after riots

An activist of the right-wing United Hindu Front shouts slogans while holding a trishul (trident) during a demonstration calling for the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished 16th century Babri mosque located in Ayodhya, which sparked rioting that killed thousands, on the 26th anniversary of the incident in New Delhi on Dec. 6. (Photo by Sajjad Hussein/AFP)

Mohammad Shafiq, 55, remembers hurriedly packing his bags on Nov. 26 and dragging his children from their home in Ayodhya town in India's Uttar Pradesh as they sought safe refuge while fearing for their lives.

Trouble was brewing in his hometown as the days fast approached the 26-year anniversary on Dec. 6 of the demolition of a mosque there by Hindu hardliners, sparking Hindu-Muslim riots.

Expecting a repeat of the violence seen after the demolition, Shafiq and his wife and three children raced away in a rickshaw bound for the nearest interstate bus station as they began making their way to West Bengal state.

He said he plans to "stay away for at least a month" fearing more riots as thousands of Hindus began to converge there on Nov. 25 reviving their demand the government build a Hindu temple on the controversial site. Hundreds of Muslims have already moved out of the town. 

In the end, Dec. 6 passed peacefully. But Muslims in Ayodhya say they still feel unsafe as communal tensions between them and the thousands of Hindus who live there remain precarious.

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The tearing down of the mosque triggered month-long riots across India that claimed an estimated 1,000 lives, driving a wedge between communities and instilling a strong sense of fear among Muslims, as Shafiq can attest.

Its demolition capped a nationwide campaign by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claimed the mosque had been built in the 15th century by the Muslim invader Babur after he had ordered the destruction of a Hindu temple in the same spot.

Hindus consider Ayodhya the birthplace of their lord Ram. Scholars are still debating which century this took place in.

The BJP's campaign presented the mosque as an affront to Hindu pride and exhorted the party's followers to regain their "lost honor" by reversing this historical wrong and slight to their religion by resurrecting the former temple.

In the ensuing riots, Shafiq's brother and several relatives and friends were killed.

For the BJP, the campaign was a resounding success as it propelled the party to political prominence and finally helped it rise to power in New Delhi.

However, the new temple has still not been built as litigation drags on over who owns the land.

Shafiq believes the BJP used the temple issue as "a live wire to electrify" the Hindu masses and attract more votes at the expense of Muslims like himself.

As India faces national elections in May 2019, Hindu groups have begun to revive their calls for the temple to be established.

But many Muslims, who make up just 6 percent of Ayodhya's population of 55,000, have already fled in search of safer abodes elsewhere until things cool down.

No one knows exactly how many have upped and left as they do not report their departure to the police.

"We have nothing to tell you except that we are moving to Kolkata, where my sister lives. We hope a state of normalcy returns soon so that we can go home. If not, we may never go back," said Shafiq, an electrician by trade.

Idrees Hussain, a university student in Ayodhya, recalls the terror that struck the heart of the community when the riots broke out. At the time, Idrees was just 5 years old. 

He remembers seeing angry mobs of Muslims attack Hindu homes and bludgeon people to death as both sides went on the rampage.

"When these large mobs gather, anything can happen," he said. "Rumors of a Muslim attack can easily trigger clashes. And we don't want to die for no reason. It would be insane to live here any longer. Better to stay away until the issue gets resolved amicably and we can restart our loves afresh." 

Fatima Bano, 43, remains haunted by the violence, death and pillaging that tore through the town when the mosque was demolished. 

"I haven't seen this level of suffering that we Muslims face anywhere else in the world, even on TV," she said.

"Our family spent days without food and water locked down inside our houses. I lost my uncle in the riots but no one has ever been arrested for his murder," she told ucanews.com, adding that she is taking her two sons and moving to stay with some relatives in New Delhi as tensions resurface.

"We won't come back here until this mess gets sorted out," she said.

Meanwhile, some Hindu organizations are asking Muslims not to leave and saying their fears are overblown.

Sharad Sharma serves as a spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parshad, or World Hindu Council, which is spearheading the calls to rebuild the temple honoring Rama. He said Muslims have nothing to fear.

He even invited local Muslims to move to Hindu temples temporarily if they feel unsafe in their own homes.

The crowds are not angry mobs but "just a congregation" of Hindus who have assembled to "discuss the construction of the temple. Muslims have no reason to feel scared," Sharma said.

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