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Dhar on Tenterhooks

Communal Tension in Madhya Pradesh

Anshu Saluja (anshusaluja4@gmail.com) is a doctoral student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

A communal flare up may have been avoided in the Bhojshala complex at Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, but majoritarian Hindu groups continue to stoke popular communal passions unabated. 

The district of Dhar in Madhya Pradesh has been in the news, attracting local as well as national media attention due to the serious likelihood of a communal flare up. At the root of this possibility lies the Bhojshala structure which both Hindus and Muslims seek to appropriate as their own place of worship. It is far from being the truth that the conflagration was nipped in the bud. The Hindu right wing organisations, with the backing of the Sangh Parivar and its local pracharaks (propagators), held the town of Dhar to ransom for days on end, in the face of persistent attempts made by the administration to arrive at a settlement. However, in these repeated efforts at negotiations, the voice of the Muslim community was not taken into consideration at all.

Moreover no lasting solution has been worked out despite repeated meetings with right wing Hindu organisations. The root cause of the furore remains largely unaddressed. But first, let me recapitulate in brief the history of the dispute surrounding the Bhojshala complex in Dhar.

Contextualising the Conflict

The district of Dhar lies in the western part of Madhya Pradesh and is less than 100 km away from Indore. Dhar was the capital of the Parmara ruler, Bhoj, who controlled a part of Madhya Pradesh in the early medieval period. The Bhojshala complex is an 11th century monument, associated with Bhoj. Next to it lies the dargah of an eminent preacher, Kamal Maulana. Like many other historical sites across the country, the Bhojshala complex comes under the guardianship of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is responsible for its upkeep.

It has become a contested space, with both Hindus and Muslims staking claim to it and attempting to appropriate it. [i] Hindus refer to it as the temple of goddess Saraswati while the Muslims call it the Kamal Maula mosque.[ii] For more than a decade now, the Bhojshala complex has been acting as a shared site between the two communities. The Hindus are allowed to conduct puja there on Tuesdays and the Muslims are authorised to offer namaz within the shrine on Fridays.

The issue which sparked off tensions in Dhar in early February 2016 was linked to a pronounced desire, mostly on the part of the Hindu extremist groups, to secure greater access to this shared space. They want to appropriate it in the name of the wider Hindu community. The representatives of these groups, enjoying support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were expectedly fairly active in this regard. The Muslim religious leadership in the area favoured the maintenance of status quo and did not want relative peace to be disturbed. The Hindu leaders remained obstinate, refusing repeated overtures by the administration to arrive at a settlement. A similar problem had resulted in volatile situations in the past as well, namely in 2006 and 2013.

As in 2006 and 2013 before it, in 2016 the festival of Basant Panchmi, which marks the onset of spring season for the Hindus and is a day of worshipping goddess Saraswati, fell on a Friday. In addition to carrying out worship within the Bhojshala complex on Tuesdays, the Hindus have been allowed to perform yajna and other rituals there on the day of Basant Panchmi. Given these circumstances, namaz and yajna ceremonies were bound to overlap, which could easily take an ugly turn at the slightest provocation.

To avoid this intersection, the ASI came up with a carefully worked out scheme to which none of the interested parties—local Hindus, Muslims and administration, could ostensibly raise any objection. According to the suggested formula, the Hindus could conduct worship within the complex from daybreak till 1 pm, following which Muslims could offer namaz over the next two hours. After the stipulated time for namaz ended at 3 pm, the Hindus could resume their ceremonies and continue till the evening hours. The ASI even issued an order to this effect which was upheld by the Indore bench of Madhya Pradesh high court.

Strategy for Communal Acrimony

Hindu right wing groups, namely Hindu Jagran Manch and Bhoj Utsav Samiti, expressed their displeasure with this arrangement. They raised the demand for carrying out akhand (day long) puja within the complex without any break. This was a vehement refusal to allow the performance of namaz within the shrine on 12 February 2016 which happened to be a Friday as well as the day marking Basant Panchami. Deliberate attempts were made to polarise the Hindu community and to consolidate its support firmly in favour of the day long puja. Bikers, bearing saffron flags, had been touring the nearby villages for days to spread this message. The administration failed to take any cognisance of the situation and to implement stern preventive measures. Instead, it kept on appealing to the Hindu leaders to come to the negotiating table.

While the administration offered lip service to further talks with representatives of both communities, they were actually focussed on appeasing the Hindu groups. No importance was accorded to consultations with the Muslims and no scope was provided to their leadership to express their viewpoint. The Shehar Qazi[iii] of Dhar expressed his disappointment that he had not been approached by the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership to take part in the ongoing negotiations over the Bhojshala question (Mitra and Mishra 2016a). Simultaneously, the local member of Parliament (MP) Savitri Thakur, who won on a BJP ticket, appealed to “the city’s Muslims to not offer namaz” within the Bhojshala premises on 12 February and “to allow the Akhand Puja (Mitra and Mishra 2016b).”

Prominent members of the government machinery employed their energies in persuading the Hindu leaders, with a view to avoid trouble around the complex, while referring all the time to the need for arriving at an amicable settlement to the issue at stake. Though the local media portrayed this stand off as an instance of hostility between Hindus and Muslims, it had in fact been reduced to a conflict between local Hindu groups, backed by the RSS-Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) combine, and the state administration.

Members of the state BJP unit, including Dhar’s minister-in-charge Narrotam Mishra, were deputed to hold parleys with the Manch and Samiti leaders, while senior government officials were dispatched to ensure the maintenance of law and order there. The district was put under a heavy security blanket, with personnel from the state police as well as many companies of paramilitary forces being deployed. But, no attempts were made to impose section 144 around the Bhojshala complex, for restricting large assemblies, and to make preventive arrests or detentions.

In the light of this backdrop, tensions continued to escalate unabated. The Hindu leaders sought to capitalise on the already strained situation to urge that they be allowed to conduct uninterrupted worship on Basant Panchmi within the Bhojshala complex and that barricading around it be reduced. A few days prior to 12 February, these leaders made it known that since the administration had not consented to their demands, they had decided to hold the yajna at a makeshift site outside the Bhojshala premises. The Hindu devotees were told not to enter the complex on Basant Panchmi but to join in the rituals, taking place outside its precincts.

Course of Events

Amidst a volatile and surcharged atmosphere, 12 February finally arrived. The Hindu leaders commenced religious ceremonies outside the Bhojshala complex from the early hours of the day. As the morning proceeded, the numbers gathered there began to grow, with devotees, from areas near and distant, flocking to the site. The crowd continued to swell till noon, by which time it comprised a few thousand men, women and children. What was projected as enthusiasm shared by the crowd for securing entry into the complex seemed more akin to hate-filled fervour intended to put the Muslim community in its place and to claim that space as a Hindu domain in popular imagination.

The atmosphere in the complex was clearly tense. The administration, which appeared to be placating majoritarian sentiments in Dhar from the very beginning, did not want to use aggression against the Hindu leaders and their followers. A forceful suppression of these elements would have meant upsetting the BJP controlled state government and Sangh Parivar. To avoid such a possibility, the officials posted in Dhar had devised an alternate strategy.

The Hindu groups had been warning that they would continue their worship during the stipulated time of 1–3 pm which was meant to offer namaz by the Muslims. In keeping with these loud claims, the convenor of the Hindu Jagran Manch Gopal Sharma, with a massive crowd of supporters in tow, raised the demand to enter the Bhojshala complex at about 1 pm. Sharma declared, “We will offer prayers inside Bhojshala and between 1 pm and 3 pm. Now, we request the administration to make arrangement for us. We want to offer prayers peacefully (Gaur 2016).”  

Undoubtedly, this was a tactic, deliberately designed to engender trouble and to disrupt the performance of namaz. But to their surprise, the Hindu crowd was allowed entry into the complex, with no resistance being offered from the side of the administration. As far as the Muslims were concerned, they were hardly present in the picture. It turned out that the administration—which had hitherto kept its cards unopened about how it intended to ensure the simultaneous performance of namaz and puja, had formulated its own plan. 

Around 20 persons belonging to the Muslim community had been brought in since the wee hours of the morning for the purpose of offering namaz. These individuals were surreptitiously made to enter the complex through the back door and namaz was offered in a highly discreet fashion, not inside the shrine but on its terrace. The azaan or call for prayers was not announced. The whole affair was very quiet and brief, and was over well before 1 pm which was the designated time as per the original ASI directive.

In the complex below, the gathered mob was becoming restive and made a deliberate demand to enter the complex at the said hour. Since the namaz was already over and the namazis had been dispatched, the administration let the Hindus in without any hesitation. The bid of the Hindus to prevent the performance of namaz within the premises of Bhojshala on 12 February had thus been foiled. Moreover, some of their group leaders had been engaged in prolonged negotiations, at some distance from the disputed site, with a state minister who was present in Dhar. Therefore, no further trouble could ensue and the crowd had to disperse.

The personnel from the government patted their own backs for successfully handling the situation. Their acumen was lauded, since the possibility of a confrontation had been averted. The divisional commissioner was quoted in the local press, “We successfully implemented the ASI order that wanted simultaneous prayers by both Hindus and Muslims at the disputed site (Gaur 2016).”  

The newspaper reports of the following day carried on in the same salutary vein. The efforts of the administration were praised, while the absence of violence was cited as a proof of the prevalence of inter-community ties in Dhar.

Lasting Solution?

Media reports suggest that the Hindu Jagran Manch and Bhoj Utsav Samiti, though seemingly distinct entities opposed to each other, are in fact affiliates of the same over-arching Sangh network. But these two sides are trying to give an impression that they are locked in a confrontation over the Bhojshala question. Sharing this integral link, the two camps cannot fundamentally be at crossroads with each other. It was chiefly on account of the existing common affiliations that no strong-handed measures were taken by the administration to deal with the aggressive and unrelenting postures adopted by the leaders of the Hindu groups in Dhar.

Though ostensibly, the need to work out a compromise formula involving both communities was cited, yet for the most part, local administration, state ministers as well as members of the BJP state unit, appeared to be in negotiations with Hindu leaders only. Thus, consultations were being held with those very individuals who were responsible for fermenting tensions in the first place.

Given this appeasing attitude of the government machinery, the situation continued to escalate till it reached a breaking point and the manner in which it was ultimately resolved was far from balanced or equitable. The tall claims of a balanced handling of the situation seem misinformed at best, if not downright delusionary. Though a confrontation has been averted at present, the situation on the ground remains extremely volatile. Whenever Basant Panchmi happens to fall on a Friday next, the possibilities to paint the turn of events in a communal colour will be manifold.

Such a scenario will no doubt have to be addressed at some point in the future. But, at the immediate moment, discontentment and discord are festering in Dhar. As evident from news reports, the members of the Hindu community who were mobilised for holding day-long worship within the Bhojshala complex and obstructing the performance of namaz are deeply disgruntled that their hopes could not materialise.

In these circumstances, even a small match can set the entire district ablaze. A petty argument or a minor scuffle can easily be transformed into a full-blown episode of communal violence. If that frightening possibility comes to fruition in the near future, the manner in which the situation will be handled can safely be gauged from the way the current deadlock has been dealt with. In that event again, the state government and the administration will have a fair bit of explaining to do, just as they have a lot to answer for now.

Notes

[i] Scholars including Amrita Basu and Ursala Rao among others have pointed out how the desire to appropriate shared or common spaces in the name of specific religious communities has assumed enormous proportions, at times leading to violence and spelling drastic consequences. For further reference see Basu (1988) and Rao (2003).

[ii] An elderly informant who grew up in Dhar recalled, in the course of a conversation with me, that the disputed Bhojshala structure was just an empty ruin in the 1960s. Occasionally, he would visit it with his friends. Back then, neither puja nor namaz was performed within the complex. In fact, people rarely ventured there. The dargah of Kamal Maulana lies fairly close to the Complex. Kamal Maulana was a renowned Sufi saint, belonging to the Chishti silsila or order. Every year, an urs (a commemorative fair held at the tomb of a Sufi saint to mark his death anniversary) is organised at the site during winter months. Traditionally, both Hindus and Muslims offer prayers at the dargah and attend the urs. It is a major annual event as far as Dhar’s socio-economic life is concerned.

[iii] Shahar Qazi is the supreme religious authority for Sunni Muslims in a city and its surrounding areas. He decides on civil and personal matters confronting the community. Generally Sunni Muslims adhere to the diktats of the Shahar Qazi, while Shias have their own religious heads. 

References

Basu, Amrita (1994): “When Load Riots Are Not Merely Local: Bringing the State Back In, Bijnor 1988–92,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 29, No 40, http://www.epw.in/journal/1994/40/special-articles/when-load-riots-are-not-merely-local-bringing-state-back-bijnor.

Gaur, Ashish (2016): “Secret Rooftop Namaaz at Bhojshala Keeps Saffron Brigade at Bay,” Times of India, 13 February, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/indore/Secret-rooftop-namaaz-at-Bhojshala-keeps-saffron-brigade-at-bay/articleshow/50970500.cms.

Mitra, Punya Priya and Ritesh Mishra (2016a): “Bhojshala row: Uneasy Calm in Dhar before D-Day,” Hindustan Times, 11 February, http://www.hindustantimes.com/indore/bhojshala-row-uneasy-calm-in-dhar-before-d-day/story-HymmD4g7PL9OwUoYS8YgzN.html.

— (2016b): “Communal Crisis Brews at Dhar Disputed Shrine,” Hindustan Times, 11 February, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/communal-crisis-brews-at-dhar-disputed-shrine/story-tX0M8ZdvkGN9zom6YKwMML.html.

Rao, Ursula (2003): Negotiating the Divine: Temple Religion and Temple Politics in Contemporary Urban India, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, p 48.

 

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