As Modi opens controversial Ram temple, a Hindu-Muslim friendship offers hope
General news

As Modi opens controversial Ram temple, a Hindu-Muslim friendship offers hope

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled an opulent new temple in Ayodhya, India – on the site where a Hindu mob leveled a mosque three decades ago.

The destruction of the Babri mosque, which right-wing Hindu groups claim was built over the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram, sparked months of violence and left deep fissures between the country’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority. The construction of the Ram temple became a rallying point for India’s growing Hindu nationalist movement, with Mr. Modi calling its inauguration “the beginning of a new era.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

As the inauguration of a controversial temple puts Ayodhya’s history of communal violence on center stage, a competing history gets less attention – one of olive branches, enduring friendships, and peaceful coexistence.

Ayodhya’s Muslim community worries what that “new era” may hold for them.

But Valay Singh, author of “Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord,” says the city’s reputation as India’s “ground zero” of communal conflict overshadows its history as a heartland where different religious traditions have long intersected. For all of the violence Ayodhya’s seen, it’s also been the site of numerous Hindu-Muslim peace efforts and friendships – like that of Muslim tailor Sadiq Ali and high-ranking Hindu seer Mahant Gyan Das. Back in 2003, the pair hosted an interfaith feast that still inspires local activists today.

“Ordinary people here want to live in peace,” says Mr. Singh.

The light blue walls of Sadiq Ali’s living room are adorned with photos of Hindu seer Mahant Gyan Das. The two have been friends since the 1980s, when Mr. Ali was a volleyball player and Mr. Gyan Das a wrestler. They bonded over their shared love of sports, and Mr. Gyan Das regularly visited Mr. Ali’s family tailoring shop to get his tunics stitched. 

About 20 years ago, their friendship took on a new meaning. Days of violent riots had rocked the nation and left more than 700 Muslims dead. It tore open old wounds in Ayodhya, a north Indian city where the Muslim community was still reeling from the destruction of the historic Babri mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992.  

Sensing the need for an olive branch, Mr. Gyan Das, then head priest of the city’s historic Hanuman Garhi temple, invited 1,000 Muslims to the temple premises during Ramadan to break their daily fast. Mr. Ali helped host the feast, which still fills its organizers with pride and nostalgia – especially as Ayodhya is once again in the spotlight for Hindu-Muslim tensions.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

As the inauguration of a controversial temple puts Ayodhya’s history of communal violence on center stage, a competing history gets less attention – one of olive branches, enduring friendships, and peaceful coexistence.

Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled an opulent Hindu temple on the site where the Babri mosque once stood. Like the mob which leveled the mosque, Mr. Modi and his supporters in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim that Babri was built over the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram, and the construction of the new Ram temple has become a rallying point for India’s growing Hindu nationalist movement. Indeed, Hindus around the world celebrated the temple’s inauguration, which Mr. Modi said marks “the beginning of a new era.” Ayodhya’s Muslim minority worries what that “new era” may hold for them. 

In such polarized times, Mr. Gyan Das and Mr. Ali’s friendship offers a reminder of what Ayodhya could have – and perhaps still can – become: a symbol of multiculturalism and tolerance.

Shweta Desai

Sadiq Ali (in black vest) and Mahant Gyan Das (in white) stand side-by-side during the interfaith festival held at Mr. Ali’s house in Ayodhya, India, about 20 years ago.

“Ordinary people here want to live in peace,” says Valay Singh, author of “Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord.” He argues that the city’s reputation as India’s “ground zero” of communal conflict overshadows its history as a heartland where different religious traditions have long intersected. In fact, he notes, the land for the Hanuman Garhi temple was donated to the region’s Hindu community by Muslim ruler Shuja-ud-Daula in the 18th century.

“It was a common tradition for the religious establishments to receive patronage from the Muslim rulers,” he says. “This is how the two communities have been intricately linked.”   

Comments Off on As Modi opens controversial Ram temple, a Hindu-Muslim friendship offers hope