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Asia-pacific

'My spirit has broken': Indian Muslims react to holy site verdict

©

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-10-01

Like many Indian Muslims, Masroor Sheikh believes Thursday’s court verdict on a hotly disputed religious site in northern India may have kept the peace. But justice, he maintains, has not been served.

In the end, the court verdict on the Ayodhya religious dispute did not spark the much-feared sectarian backlash. But in the Sheikh household, it exposed a deep generational divide.

Hours after an Indian court on Thursday arrived at a Solomon-like solution to the country’s thorniest sectarian issue, Intikhab Sheikh, 34, pronounced the ruling was “in the interest of the nation” and it was time to move on.

His father’s reaction could not have been more different.

As the television news presenters began parsing through the complex, 8,000-odd page judgement, Masroor Sheikh, 60, found he simply could not move on.

Instead, he had a flashback of one terrifying night in January 1993, when the Mumbai-based Muslim businessman “lost everything” when an enraged Hindu mob burnt down his house during one of the brutal communal backlashes surrounding the Ayodhya dispute.

By the time the TV pundits offered their respective opinions on the verdict, Masroor Sheikh had arrived at his own judgment. “Justice has not been served,” he told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from Mumbai. “What sort of judgment is this?” he asked in his native Urdu. “I lost everything. Now, even my spirit has broken.”

‘Surprised, disappointed’ and ‘a move in the wrong direction’

A day after the landmark verdict decreed that a contested religious site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya should be divided between Hindus and Muslims, Indian newspapers were heralding the country’s measured response to the ruling.
Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram hailed the country’s “dignified” response to the verdict and analysts took it as a sign of national maturity.

Thursday’s verdict was viewed as a test of India’s secular credentials and its commitment to protecting minority rights.

But while some experts view the ruling and its response as a sign of the country’s political maturity, many Indian Muslims – and a fair number of secular non-Muslims – believe that while the verdict preserved the peace, it failed to deliver justice.

“We respect the verdict, but in my opinion, it’s a verdict in the wrong direction,” said Burhanuddin Qasmi, a leading Muslim community leader and director of the Mumbai-based Markazul Ma'arif Education and Research Centre. “I’m surprised, disappointed and I believe the verdict is more a reconciliation effort than a judgment on the merits of the case.”

‘The court has done what it was not supposed to do’

Whichever way you look at it, the majority Hindu community came out on top. The division granted the Muslims one-third of the site, with the Hindus getting the majority share, which includes the central, most contested part of the disputed site.

At the heart of the complex 60-year legal wrangling lies the question of ownership of a 27-meter piece of land in Ayodhya where a 16th century mosque once stood.

The Babri mosque was torn down in 1992 by Hindu hardliners who claim the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

On Thursday, the court ruled that none of the three parties in the case had a clear title to the land, which had to be shared, effectively giving the Hindus two-thirds and the Muslims a third of the site.

In an interview with India's NDTV, respected constitutional lawyer Rajeev Dhawan said the court had shirked its primary responsibility.

"If you seek to divide property, you should at least first find out who owns it," said Dhawan. "This judgement seems to be a judgement where the court has done what it was not supposed to do and said 'We can't answer this question. So we must split it three ways'."

‘If there is violence, we would be the losers’

Reacting to the verdict, rightwing Hindu groups have tried hard to downplay their glee. Some Hindus in scattered north Indian towns lit lamps, distributed sweets and lit firecrackers to celebrate. But tens of thousands of police patrolled streets and prevented any public gatherings that could inflame tensions.

In Muslim communities, the response was muted. “We have been appealing for calm in the mosques and all Muslim centres,” said Qasim. “We are telling our people to remain calm. If there is violence, we would be the losers.”

It’s the economy stupid, not old religious scores

As a minority comprising about 15 percent of the national population, Muslims have traditionally borne the brunt of the bloody tit-for-tat violence this issue sparked back in the 1990s.

But experts note that the country has since moved on, with Hindu extremist groups on the wane.

“The Hindu nationalist groups know that this issue does not translate into votes anymore and they can’t hold on to their ‘90s all-or-nothing position,” explained Ashutosh Varshney, a political science professor at Brown University.

What’s more, analysts say, the younger generation is more interested in economic advancement than the settling of old scores.

Intikhab Sheikh counts himself in the new, upwardly mobile urban set.

Seventeen years after his family fled their burning home to spend two terror-stricken nights in an open field with no water, no food and no connection to the outside world, the Sheikhs have moved to another Mumbai neighbourhood where they have built a new life.

Intikhab now runs a travel agency and has put the gruesome past behind.

“Too many lives have been lost,” he told FRANCE 24. “We have to move on. The issues that were relevant in 1992, 1993 are not so important now.”

He has accepted Thursday’s verdict not because he believes it’s fair, but because he thinks it’s a compromise that could keep the peace.

“To be honest, even if the verdict totally favoured the Muslims, which government has the will power to remove the temple structures that have been erected there?” he asked, referring to the Ayodhya site. “This is a compromise judgment and we have to accept it because we’re just 15 percent of the population.”

Intikhab’s father predictably does not see things his way.

“He was so young then,” said Masroor Sheikh. “But for me, this verdict has brought back all those horrible memories. I’m sad, but I still have faith in the justice system. What I’m afraid of though, is if the Supreme Court (appeal) rules in our favour. Then, I don’t know what will happen to us.”

Date created : 2010-10-01

  • INDIA

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