AYODHYA, India — On Dec. 6, 1992, a horde of Hindu zealots razed a mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya. Early the next morning, about 300 men showed up at Imran Azar’s house. The mob broke in, dragged his father out, and burnt him alive.
Azar and his brother escaped out the back of their house. Days later, when it was safe to return, they found charred pieces of their dad scattered out front.
“We never got justice. It’s not just us, no Muslim here will ever get justice.” Azar told VICE News. “Muslims in India are only safe if God keeps them safe. Otherwise it’s on us.”
His father was amongst thousands who were killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots that swept India after fundamentalist leaders, including founding members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party, agitated a movement to demolish the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in the 16th century. Those Hindu leaders believed that the mosque was intentionally built over the Ram Janambhoomi, or birthplace of Lord Ram. They wanted a mandir — a Hindu temple — in its place.
Almost 30 years later, that fight continues to polarize the country. Earlier this week, Modi visited the site of the demolished mosque. The Hindu nationalist politician came not for the sake of Muslims like Azar, but for his massive base of Hindu supporters. At the ruins, he laid a 50 pound silver brick as part of a prayer ceremony for the foundation of a new mandir in honor of Lord Ram.
The construction of the Ram Mandir over the Babri Masjid is a major milestone for Modi’s Hindu-first agenda, and a testament to his dedication to his far-right base. Many of his supporters are seeking to revive a history they feel was lost under centuries of Islamic imperialism.
Last November, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the mosque had been illegally destroyed in the 1992 riots, but its 1,045 page verdict also said the land rightfully belonged to Hindus, and cited an archeological survey which unearthed evidence of an indigenous structure beneath the ruins of the demolished mosque.
Building a Ram Mandir is so important to some, they believe it could usher a new era and may even save India from the coronavirus.
“[Modi] is a saint himself, so as he wishes, Lord Ram will be seated here. Slowly but steadily, by Ram’s mercy, everything will be finished. The virus will be finished.” Phalahari Baba, a popular priest in Ayodhya, told VICE News.
If the symbolism of building a mandir over a razed mosque wasn’t clear enough, Modi chose to inaugurate the temple construction on an important anniversary of another Hindu nationalist undertaking. On August 5, 2019, Modi stripped Muslim-majority Kashmir of its political rights. He then fortified the territory with tens of thousands of troops, jailed the political opposition, and blacked out communications for months.
Hundreds of Pakistanis, who claim Kashmir as their territory, marked the anniversary by joining their leader in protest of a “Black Day” for Muslims in India.
Prime Minister Imran Khan warned of an impending genocide in India as hundreds marched against human rights violations in Kashmir, where internet access remains restricted, local politicians are still detained, and a new curfew order was in effect.
Though most of Modi’s supporters won’t take Pakistan’s criticism of their religious freedoms seriously — in part because of Pakistan’s own track record towards its dwindling population of religious minorities — there are many Indians who don’t want to see their government choose favorites between Hindus and Muslims.
“At this time we should be fighting corona, we should be saving our lives from corona, we should be preparing our facilities for corona.” Imran Azar said. “We should not be dividing ourselves over mandirs and mosques.”
Cover: A group of Modi supporters congregate to "Hail Lord Ram" a day before India's prime minister inaugurates the construction of the Ram temple over the ruins of a 16th century mosque demolished by zealots in 1992. Photo credit: Supreet J. Bargi.
Video by: Angad Singh, Akash Bisht, Supreet J. Bargi, Zayer Hassan, Zubair Ahmed. Edited by: Patrick Mannion, Danny Card.