Politics of ruin: Why Modi wants to demolish India’s mosques

The necro-economy of Hindu nationalism relies on making history its most important site. Muslim shrines must suffer.

Officials watch as a bulldozer razes the wall of a local mosque in New Delhi on April 20, 2022
Officials watch as a bulldozer razes the wall of a local mosque in New Delhi on April 20, 2022 [File: Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

A historic 16th-century mosque, Shahi Masjid, in Prayagraj city in India’s Uttar Pradesh state was demolished by bulldozers on January 9 under a road-widening project.

The demolition took place even though, according to the mosque’s imam, a local court was supposed to hear a petition seeking a stay on the city administration’s plans on January 16, a week later.

This incident should have caused public outrage, but the matter hardly made any headlines. The destruction of structures using bulldozers in India has become a banal occurrence and has already lost its shock value.

Shahi Masjid is also not the first ancient mosque to have been sacrificed for a road widening project. Last November, a 300-year-old mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district that stood in the way of a highway was razed.

Another mosque, one of the largest and oldest in India, Shamsi Jama Masjid, an 800-year-old national heritage site in Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, became a matter of dispute last year when a court case was filed on behalf of a local Hindu farmer — backed by the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM) — alleging that the mosque is an “illegal structure” built on a demolished 10th-century temple of Lord Shiva. Their petition states that Hindus have rightful ownership of the land and should be able to pray there.

The claim of illegality rests on a far-right narrative according to which most of the Indian mosques were actually temples at one point in time and were forcefully converted into mosques by Muslim rulers. Even though most historians today deny these claims because there is little material evidence to support them, they have enormous popular support.

The rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is increasingly marked by a destructive urgency. The party’s attempts to culturally homogenise India began with the renaming of places in an overtly Hindu vocabulary and progressed to new strategies such as bulldozing Muslim monuments and archaeological excavations to find Hindu roots at Muslim religious sites.

In the past few years, there have been a number of controversies surrounding Mughal monuments. Even the Taj Mahal, a monument of global importance, has not been spared. Far-right Hindu groups claim, again without any evidence, that it was a Hindu temple.

The fate of Indian Muslims has reached a watershed moment. Scores of petitions have been filed by right-wing Hindu groups against mosques across the country.

The past several years have also seen the activation of an informal apparatus of religious volunteers who use religious processions to establish dominance over Muslim places of worship, including mosques and Muslim shrines. During several Hindu festival celebrations in 2022, including Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, armed Hindu mobs, led at times by BJP members, entered Muslim neighbourhoods and chanted obscene slogans while planting saffron flags on mosques.

MS Golwalkar, one of the founders of Hindu nationalist ideology or Hindutva, claimed in his most renowned text, Bunch of Thoughts, that “wherever there is a masjid [mosque] or a Muslim mohalla [colony], Muslims believe that it is their own separate territory”. It is important to remember that the belief in exclusive ownership of Indian land did not emerge with the BJP’s election to power, but has always been a central tenet of Hindu nationalist thought.

Golwalkar throughout his writing maintained a definition of “nation” that kept the “natural” congruence between a Hindu monoculture and territory, excluding from within it all those who the Hindu right views as a political or cultural threat.

It was no coincidence that it was the destruction of a historical mosque that fuelled the rise of the far-right nationalist politics that dominates India today.

The illegal destruction of a historical Mughal-era mosque, the Babri Masjid, on December 6, 1992, served as the declaration of a mute war cry against history. The mosque was reduced to rubble by religious volunteers who claimed that an ancient Ram temple stood at the same site. Images of the demolished mosque gave graphic representation to the idea of a pre- and post-Babri India, signalling the beginning of a nationalist project that rejects all possibilities of plurality on Indian land.

The demolition of Babri Masjid, in many ways the most significant single event in post-independence India, triggered a spiral of violence in several cities, culminating in riots.

The heterogeneous social fabric of Indian cities was violently transformed, with urban spaces reorganised along religious lines. The memory of those violent encounters continues to inform the logic of spatial segregation in many Indian cities up to this day.

But Babri was not destined to be the only mosque to be demolished; rather, it was only the first of many monumental martyrs that were to follow. The slogan, “Babri to bas jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baki hai” (Babri is only a sneak peek; Kashi and Mathura are yet to happen), attests to the longing that persists even today. A list of such Muslim landmarks and monuments marked for demolition has been in broad public circulation for quite some time.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Supreme Court of India issued a ruling according to which the land of the Babri Masjid was handed over to Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Rama. This emboldened the right wing to shift from illegal mob violence to legal methods.

Indeed, Hindu groups have challenged the continuing existence of historic mosques in Mathura and Varanasi (also known as Kashi) through court cases. And a Mathura court has already ordered a survey based on the claims of the petitioners that the land of the Shahi Idgah Mosque is actually the rightful birthplace of Lord Krishna.

Several states in India have gone through their own unique rebranding as Hindu religious sites, including Kashmir, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. The Hindutva framework requires the deployment of a spatial imagination where all Indian territory is defined as a sacred landscape in an overtly Hindu religious vocabulary.

The necro-economy of Hindu nationalism today invariably relies on making history its most important site, which has to be transformed and moulded to justify its present-day rule.

Golwalkar also claimed that Muslims have transformed the Hindu nationalist homeland into “just a hotel, only a land for enjoyment”, effectively equating the presence of Muslims and mosques with the symbolic violation of the Hindu homeland.

Any sign of cultural expression in Muslim architecture, under this nationalist vision, is thus seen as a violation of the purity of the holy land or Bharat Mata – Mother India. It is this spirit of vengeance that has lived on, violently unfolding its own inner horizon, both temporally and spatially. The truth about today’s unrelenting violence on ancient Indian mosques is best understood through its deep roots.

Historically, the cultural cleansing of an entire people has been accompanied by the destruction of monuments and a clear intent to erase their memories. To deny a people their future, the past is razed first.

The events of the tragic night of the broken glass “Kristallnacht” especially shed light on this phenomenon. Hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground, while many others were damaged on a night that arguably signalled the beginning of the Holocaust’s last phases. They were not destroyed because they housed Jews, but because they stood as a testament to the Jewish presence on that land.

Monumental architecture, by virtue of its perceived permanence and timelessness, creates a space for communities to gather and serves as a fixed anchor around which traditions are invented. Thus, its destruction promises not just a rebuilding of spatial relations but also of historical traditions.

Spatial violence is therefore not just an aggressive retributive tool for causing terror but a calculated strategy that aims to reinvent cultural meanings associated with territory and redefine them in terms of a nationalist conceptual grammar.

The political work of the BJP and its far-right Hindu allies resembles a war machine, stuck in frantic, endless attempts to deconstruct the present. The failure to find the ghost of the past is compensated by inventing one in the present. Monuments have thus become portals for this proxy war.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.