Building hatred around Bhojshala

Print edition : May 09, 2003

The order of the Archaeological Survey of India allowing Tuesday prayers at the Bhojshala complex in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, raises fresh fears about an escalation of communal tensions in the town.

in Dhar

ON Tuesdays, the 10,000-odd Muslims of Dhar in Madhya Pradesh consciously keep a low profile. There are few localities in the town of one lakh people where Hindus and Muslims live together. The level of interaction between the two communities plunges to greater depths on Tuesdays as the neighbourhood resounds with sloganeering by activists of the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). HJM activists block the narrow lanes of Dhar town, about 60 km from Indore, doing door-to-door rounds urging the residents to attend the morning aarti at the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula complex. They distribute a few grains of rice and flowers to the residents and ask them to offer these to goddess Saraswati in the complex.

A part of the Bhojshala complex at Dhar.-A.M. FARUQUI

The prayers at the complex begin at 9 a.m. and go on for about two hours, attended by a 500-strong crowd of trained HJM cadre and a few women and children. After the prayers the HJM cadre roam the streets, beating drums and raising slogans in support of constructing a temple at the complex and closing the Kamal Maula mosque. The rest of the week they engage themselves in distributing a booklet titled "Our aim: Reinstate the honour of Goddess Saraswati by freeing Bhojshala". The slim booklet is produced in the typical Sangh Parivar fashion; it contains distorted versions of the history of the Bhojshala and instigates people to take to force to reinstate an image of Saraswati in the complex.

While the HJM proclaims that the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula mosque is a Saraswati temple, once inside the complex its activists begin singing the praises of Rama. There is no mention of Saraswati in their prayers, revealing their intention to target specific structures and give rise to a controversy thereby aiding the Hindutva politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP's chief poll campaigner in the State Uma Bharati told Frontline: "We are well prepared for the Assembly elections. The Hindu Jagran Manch will take up the Bhojshala issue in the coming months." She makes a distinction between Ayodhya and Bhojshala. "Bhojshala is like Somnath. It is not a case of Mathura, Kashi or Ayodhya. It was a temple which was razed, but the mosque was constructed adjacent to it and not over it."

Unaware of historical facts, the BJP and the HJM have been carrying on a campaign since 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, demanding the closure of the Kamal Maula mosque, a ban on Friday namaz there and the installation of an image of Saraswati in the Bhojshala complex. After Bhojshala, the RSS plans to target the Kailash temples, the Indrasabha Jain temples and the Vishwa Karma Buddhist caves in Ellora.

On April 7, when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) gave a directive allowing Tuesday prayers on the Bhojshala premises, the HJM took out a victory procession on the main street of Dhar. Whipping up communal tensions, HJM leaders asked people to celebrate the day by lighting traditional lamps. The ASI order made it possible for Hindus to make small offerings to the presiding deity, Wagdevi (Saraswati). Muslims can offer namaz at the adjoining Kamal Maula mosque on Fridays. On other days the complex would be open to tourists.

The HJM and the BJP maintain that the Bhojshala complex was originally a temple dedicated to Saraswati, built by Raja Bhoj. The ASI maintains that the "factual identity of the present structure is not definitely known, nor can it be ascertained from the study of the structure itself". In its records, the ASI maintains that the structure is neither a mosque nor a temple but is "a non-living protected monument of national importance".

Historically, a Parmar ruler named Raja Bhoj ruled from a place called Dharnagri. He was considered a patron of literature, music, dance and the fine arts. The ASI authorities in Bhopal say that it is very likely that the Dharnagri of Raja Bhoj is present-day Dhar. However, they agree that it is for archaeologists and historians to give the final word on the exact location of the town.

Some historians maintain that a Sanskrit pathshala (school) was started by Raja Bhoj in Dhar. This patashala supposedly had an image of Wagdevi, which, according to Hindus, is now in the British Museum in London. The acquisition records at the British Museum state that the sculpture was presented to the museum by a British officer who discovered it amidst the ruins adjoining Bhojshala. The records do not mention where the ruins were located, nor do they state the actual location of Bhojshala. Controversy remains on the location of the patashala as also the image of Saraswati. Iconographists have yet to reach a consensus on the true identity of the sculpture. While one school considers it to be Wagdevi, the other thinks it is that of a Jaina Yakshi Ambika of Neminath, the 22nd Tirthankara.

In the 15th century, the region around Dhar came under Muslim rule. Muslims first ruled from Delhi, and when the Delhi Sultanate broke up, they ruled from Dhar and Mandu. The last rulers of Malwa were defeated by the armies of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Malwa remained a province of the Mughal empire until the middle of the18th century when Maratha kings of the Pawar dynasty came to rule Dhar. The Pawars ruled the area until 1947, when it was merged into Madhya Pradesh.

Some historians maintain that the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula mosque was reconstructed by the Muslim ruler Delawar Khan Ghori in the 15th century using materials from Hindu and Jain structures that had existed in the region. The mosque, they say, was first built in 1305 by Allauddin Khilji's governor Ain-ul-Mulk Multani as a dargah of the Sufi saint Kamalludin Maullah, a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Hindu devotees proceeding to offer Tuesday prayers at Bhojshala, after restrictions on their entry into the monument was lifted by the Archaeological Survey of India.-A.M. FARUQUI

When did the complex come to be referred to as `Bhojshala'? In 1902, Kashinath Krishna Lele, who was the District Superintendent of Education, found that some slabs had come loose in the Kamal Maula mosque premises. When these slabs were removed, it was found that the engravings on them were in Prakrit and Sanskrit. On the basis of this, Lele said that this was a Bhojshala. Subsequently, in 1904, the complex was declared a protected monument under the Marathas and the British. It was in 1935 that for the first time the name Bhojshala officially attached itself to Kamal Maula when the civic administration placed a board outside the complex calling it Bhojshala-Kamal Maula mosque. And here lies the genesis of the dispute over the monument. There is no clear documentary proof supporting the claim by either side.

While the disparities in historical accounts remain, the question has now boiled down to whether the monument is a Hindu religious one, used continuously by the community for religious purposes. In 1952, tensions between the two communities surfaced when Hindus planned to celebrate Bhoj Diwas at the structure. The sanction to hold the function was given. This prompted Muslims to celebrate an urs in November 1953. By 1995, while Muslims were allowed to offer Friday prayers, Hindus congregate at the monument on Basant Panchami day.

While the controversy has always been a cause of concern in Dhar, the local people say that since the demolition of the Babri Masjid the issue has led to an escalation of tension between the two communities. The RSS began to launch agitations and rallies; inflammatory speeches were made demanding the banning of Friday prayers at the complex. On December 6, 1994, on the second anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, members of the RSS-Vishwa Hindu Parishad-HJM entered the Bhojshala complex and hoisted a saffron flag.

In 1995, peace committees worked out an agreement on the Tuesday and Friday prayers and etiquette for visitors to the complex. It was agreed that no slogans would be raised while going to Bhojshala or in front of the complex and no puja materials or pictures or idols of deities would be taken into the complex.

This agreement was flouted in 1997, and matters reached a breaking point. A curfew was imposed in the district after the VHP threatened to hoist a flag atop the ancient structure on May 11, 1997. Two days later, 40 people were arrested for forcibly trying to enter the area. The Department of Archaeology, Bhopal Circle, issued orders for the closure of the complex on all days except for two hours on Fridays, so that Muslims could offer namaz, and on Basant Panchami day, for Hindus to offer prayers.

Eager to play Hindutva politics in view of the Assembly elections scheduled for November, the BJP-led Central government fuelled the controversy once again when Union Minister of Tourism and Culture Jagmohan wrote to the State government in March demanding that the Bhojshala complex be opened for Hindus on Tuesdays. This was after a month-long agitation in February called by the RSS-VHP-HJM, which involved communal violence and clashes between the HJM and the police, resulting in injury to 69 policemen. Curfew was imposed in Dhar district.

Chief Minister Digvijay Singh did not open the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula premises until written instructions came from the ASI and the Central government on April 7. While he has clamped curfew and geared the state machinery to prevent riots, questions have been raised about his own stand on countering Hindutva. On the Bhojshala issue, Digvijay Singh has reiterated that he is willing to bring back the idol of Saraswati from the British Museum. He said: "If the idol were to be brought back from London, we will know for certain whose idol it is. Incidentally, the VHP/RSS/BJP have never done something constructive like trying to get the idol back. They simply rake up issues to divide people."

For the time being, Muslim residents are worried at the prospect of installation of some idol in the complex. Said a resident, Mohammed Nigar: "We are unhappy with the ASI decision. It would have been better if they had said that the Bhojshala complex is a temple and then allowed prayers there. We would have offered namaz elsewhere. Instead what they have done is to make it possible for the HJM people to enter the complex and forcefully unfurl their flag or place statues any time."

The ASI order has, in effect, broken the communal amity of the town. In 1995, a peace committee constituting Hindus and Muslims was able to reach a consensus on the use of the premises. This is not the case now as such meetings are marked by animosity and bickering. The Waqf Board has decided to file a petition in the High Court to challenge the ASI order.

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