The destruction of the Babri mosque is a wound that continues to fester within the very heart of India.  For many, in India and in Pakistan, the city evokes nothing but memories of those dark days when the mosque was stormed and torn down with fists and hammers.  Mention Ayodhya and an uncomfortable silence surrounds a gathering because this once quiet, gentle and holy city has today become a synonymous with violence, division, sectarian hate, and unresolved matters of history.

In the city itself, 16 years after the event, the police checkpoints and metal barricades that surround the area where the mosque once stood remain in place.  Trucks carry policemen in riot gear back and forth all day.  The residents, many who lost lands when the protective metal walls were constructed, sit about watching everyone moving along the streets with suspicion and resentment.  On the streets of the  city and along the banks of the Surya river, young boys accost you and offer to take you to see a model of the Ram temple that they insist will be built where the mosque once stood.

These young boys, many no older than 18, spoke unprompted about the barbarism of ‘Muslim’ rule, the campaign by the Mughals to transform Ayodhya into a ‘graveyard’, the bloodshed and genocide that India’s Hindus had to live through every day the ‘Muslims’ ruled over them.  A policeman at a check point outside the Hanumangarhi temple explained with great earnestness his gratitude to the British who arrived in India and saved the country from the plague of ‘Muslims’.  At a chai khana (tea shop) on Ram ki Pairi, when I mentioned that I often travel to Pakistan in my capacity as a photojournalist, a man turned to me and asked whether it was true that Pakistanis beat and stone Hindu women if they saw them walking on the streets? I turned to look at him and realized that his was less a question and more a conviction. During such conversations Ayodhya seemed to confirm my fears; fragmented, hate filled, constantly on the edge of violence and a Hindu-Muslim community irreparably separated and divided.

But it isn’t and I fell in love with it.  I had come here for just a few days and but ended up spending most of my time in India in this town once described as a a ‘small dusty place’.  I fell in love with the fact that the city was nothing like what I had imagined, and that in its people, and through conversations on the streets, it revealed ideas from a time that I had thought forever lost.

On the streets of this ‘small dusty place’ along the Surya river was a rhythm of society that defied the simplistic and easy categorizations of people into ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’.  It was a rhythm rather that reflect a more universal, inclusive idea of the divine and of man’s spirituality.  The events of 1992 have damaged the city and its culture as not just the Babri mosque but many sufi dargahs were also attacked and destroyed, and a large number of the town’s Muslims force to leave and permanently move their lives elsewhere.  But so much of it remained and ordinary people I would meet as I wandered the streets were anxious to remind me so.  Whether it was Hindu families telling me about their fight to protect local mosques during the height of the Babri mosque riots, or Muslims caretakers of local Sufi dargahs helping Hindu families perform the necessary rituals at the shrines, one could sense and feel a way of life and way of conceiving man’s pursuit of the divine that did not limit itself to hardened sectarian categories.  It was this that was Ayodhya, this city where the Nizam of an ostensibly Muslim ruler help construct it’s most important Hindu shrine, where Muslim craftsmen build tablas (small drum) that are used in Hindu temple ceremonies and have done so for decades.  Dozens sufi dagahs were spread around the city and are visited by Muslims and Hindus alike.  Temples abut mosques, Mahants sip tea sitting alongside the Mullah preparing to return home after leading Friday prayers.  These are not unusual events but daily happenings in the narrow, weaving, weighed in streets of this ancient city.

(Aside: the two categories ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ are problematic for me.  The use of these terms erases the class, cultural, and ethnic complexities that in fact color both these groups.  They simplify and homogenize an otherwise varied and multifaceted community of people.  Since I am forced to use these terms I will always use them with inverted comas.  At some point I may get around to elaborating on the specifics of these constructs called ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ and what they reveal and what they hide. )

The assault on the Babri mosque was not just an attack against a physical structure, but against a culture of tolerance, mutual acceptance and syncretism.  More then the building, a mosque I had never even heard of before 1992, I lament the damage to the culture here.  Ayodhya is a city with a nearly 500 year history of  co-existence (largely peaceful if not always so) between her Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Jain communities.  Temples, mosques, Gurudwaras, Sufi dargahs and Jain temples dot the landscape of the city.  The Babri mosque itself was a location of worship for Hindus and Muslims alike – the central structure was a mosque that had a Ram temple alongside it! It may in fact may have been the only such structure in the world to posses a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque at the same location, allowing both communities to practice their faiths there. The people of Ayodhya had managed to find a reasonably acceptable, if still imperfect, solution to the conflicting claims on the site.  And these claims had arisen in an atmosphere of acceptance, if not complete integration.

And much of that atmosphere of acceptance is still present and alive.  Local Hindu mahants are resisting the rhetoric of the fundamentalists and attempting to heal the wounds of 1992.  Civil activists are engaged in a public dialoue to ensure harmony amongst the city’s various religious communities and a braoder understanding of their shared histories.  At a conference highlighting media simplicities and their influence on perpetuating stereotypes against various communities .e.g the Muslims and the Dalits, writers, activists, spiritual leaders, legal activists, journalists  and mullahs from local mosques sat together and spoke out against the politics of divisions and violence.  When a local Maulvi attempted to blame ‘the Jews’ for India’s discrimination of its Muslims, he was booed down by the audience, and later scolded by local journalists and

It is a pluralist heritage I had never experienced personally, being born and raised in Pakistan, the Land of the Pure.  There we were taught a history and heritage cleansed of its inconvenient social, religious, cultural and historical complexities to help meet the demands of a circumscribed ‘Islamic’ nationalism.  Our heroes were simple ‘Muslim’ warriors and martyrs.  Our enemies pagans and ‘Hindus’.  Our heroes of the past pure, chaste and simple men given to their faiths and protectors of it.  Our wars always in the service of God and the faith and always between a homogenous ‘Muslim’ subject and an equally homogenous ‘other’ or ‘non-Muslim’.  Our official history a continuous, consistent attempt to bring the light of the faith to the blighted people of India.  Culled of its unacceptable portions, Pakistan’s history and idea of its self was  manufactured into a purified, isolated, pristine and perfect ‘Islamic/Muslim’ one.  I will discuss this in more detail in future posts.

I never met a Hindu growing up.  I was not even aware that there was a Hindu community in the very city of Karachi I grew up in!  Or that the goddess Kali’s cult began in the city of Kalat in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and that a small Hindu community continues to live there!