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India: Six killed in mosque destruction protest as authorities ramp up demolitions targeting Muslim structures ahead of elections

1st Mar 2024
India: Six killed in mosque destruction protest as authorities ramp up demolitions targeting Muslim structures ahead of elections

Harun Nasrullah

Six Muslims were killed and over 100 more were injured during a protest in India incited by the latest destruction of a mosque in the country.

On January 30, just a week before the demolition of the Mariyam Mosque and the adjoining Abdul Razzaq Zakariya madrasa in Haldwani, Uttarakhand, authorities in the capital, Delhi, razed an ancient 700-year-old mosque.

The twin demolitions occurred months before voters go to the polls in nationwide elections, projected to give Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi his third term.

On February 8, authorities in Haldwani bulldozed the buildings, which they claimed were illegally constructed. The next day, the police opened fire on local demonstrators. Authorities enforced a shoot-on-sight curfew, suspended internet connectivity, closed schools, and prohibited large gatherings. Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, warned that the government would take the “strictest action against rioters.”

Residents assert that shoot-on-sight orders were in place before the curfew announcement, and at least two Muslims fatally shot were not rioting. At 7.30 p.m., Zahid, a grandfather from Gafur Basti in Haldwani, left his home to buy milk, unaware that the protest had turned violent.

His 16-year-old son, Mohammad Anas, left their home to bring his father back after he learned that violence had erupted in their neighbourhood. “When they reached the crossroads, they encountered police,” alleged Zahid’s brother, Arif. “We received a call from neighbours saying they had been shot.

They asked us to collect their bodies. Several eyewitnesses saw it. They said the police thrashed them with lathis after shooting them.”

Residents claimed that the 20-year-old mosque and school had been unfairly targeted, despite a court hearing on its fate planned for February 14.

Sumit Hridayesh, a state legislator from the opposition Indian National Congress Party, blamed the violence on the administration’s “hasty action” and claimed that Muslim leaders should have been notified before demolition.

“There has been a major lapse from civic officials’ side. The people who approached the court against the demolition were given time until the 14th [of February], but the officials acted in haste. It was best if they had first gained the confidence of the Maulana. They showed up abruptly and executed the task in such haste,” said Hridayesh.

Wide-scale protests ensued when, in January of last year, authorities in Haldwani City ordered the demolition of 4,000 homes that they claimed had encroached on state-run railway land. The drive was halted by the Supreme Court, which stated that 50,000 people “cannot be uprooted overnight.”

On January 30, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which reports to the central government, demolished the 700-year-old Akhunji Masjid “in the dead of the night and removed debris before worshippers arrived for pre-dawn prayers.”

Local historian Rana Safvi likened the destruction of the mosque listed by the Archaeological Survey in 1920 and thought to be as old as the neighbouring UNESCO-listed Qutub Minar to “erasing a part of Indian history. It is a loss of a mosque, a safe place for one to congregate to pray, especially at a time when namaz [prayer] in open public areas is frowned upon,” Safvi said.

The Islamic school and cemetery at Akhunji Masjid were also destroyed, just like those at its Haldwani counterpart. The DDA claimed that the ancient mosque was an “illegal structure” encroaching on a forest reserve, a claim rejected by mosque management.

However, the mosque’s imam, Zakir Hussain, who was stopped from entering the site when he arrived to lead Fajr prayers, said no official could answer his repeated question, “How can such an old mosque be an encroachment?” They took his phone away to stop him from spreading the news or taking videos of the demolition.

Zaffar Abbas, a mosque committee member, said, “We received a call from the imam at around 1 a.m. saying that the authorities had erected barricades, but we did not sense any danger as we had not received any notice. In the morning, around 5 a.m., he called again and said the DDA officers were at the mosque,” said Abbas.

“We rushed to the mosque. We were about 200 people but were stopped by security personnel 500 metres from the mosque. All roads to the mosque were blocked, and there was a heavy security deployment of about 10,000 personnel.” Approximately 22 children, most of whom were orphans, lived and studied at the seminary.

“How could they come secretly and demolish our mosque? They did not care about the madrassa.” Abbas said there had been a dispute between the mosque committee and the DDA, which has surveyed the area since 1997. “We have a court order prohibiting demolition,” he said.

The Delhi High Court asked the DDA to explain the demolition and explain why no prior notice was given to the Delhi Waqf Board or the mosque caretakers.

The mosque demolitions come against a backdrop of heightened religious polarisation and the claim that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is building a Hindu-first state in a country that is, by its constitution, supposed to be secular.

The mosque’s destruction also follows the opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya, a controversial Hindu temple built on the ruins of a 16th-century Babri Mosque that was destroyed by hardline Hindus some 30 years ago, setting off deadly sectarian violence. During the lavish consecration ceremony, Modi hailed the beginning of a “new divine India.”

At least a dozen Muslim sites in Delhi, including mausoleums and heritage mosques, were razed last year. The Sunehri Mosque, a Grade III heritage structure constructed during the Mughal era, and three other mosques are scheduled for demolition in the capital.

Local authorities controlled by Modi’s BJP have used bulldozers illegally to demolish the homes and businesses of people accused of criminal activity, according to Muslim and civil rights groups.

Amnesty published two investigations this month documenting the “punitive” demolition of at least 128 Muslim dwellings between April and June 2022, rendering at least 617 people homeless or jobless.

“The unlawful demolition of Muslim properties by the Indian authorities, peddled as ‘bulldozer justice’ by political leaders and the media, is cruel and appalling. They are destroying families and must stop immediately,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary-general.

Rights groups have also accused Modi of facilitating hate speech against Muslims, who constitute 14% of India’s 1.4 billion population. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based writer and journalist with a special interest in Hindu nationalistic politics, said, “This is the worst possible time to be a Muslim in India,” adding that it has “become normal to demolish mosques in India.”

“The stigmatisation of Muslims is an old story seen as the new normal. No longer does it shock people.” The claim of mosques’ illegality rests on a far-right narrative, according to which most of the mosques were temples at one point in time and were forcefully converted into mosques by Muslim rulers.

Although most historians today deny these claims because there is little material evidence to support them, they have enormous popular support.

The ruling BJP’s attempts to culturally homogenise India began with the renaming of villages with overtly Hindu names and progressed to new strategies such as bulldozing Muslim monuments and archaeological excavations to find Hindu roots at Muslim religious sites.

In March 2023, the country’s Supreme Court dismissed a Hindu nationalist leader’s petition to rename all cities and historical places in the country, which he said had been named after those he called “barbaric foreign invaders” several centuries ago.

Ashwini Upadhyay, the leader of the ruling BJP’s Delhi unit, sought permission from the court to appoint a “renaming commission” to prepare a list of “ancient (Hindu) historical-cultural religious places” named after Muslim rulers during their rule and offer Hindu names.

In the past few years, controversy has surrounded Mughal monuments. Even the Taj Mahal, ‘one of the Seven Wonders of the World,’ has not been spared. Again, without any evidence, far-right Hindu groups claim it was a Hindu temple.

Right-wing Hindu groups have filed scores of petitions against mosques across the country, reaching a critical moment in the fate of India’s Muslims.

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