NINE YEARS AGO, as the Madhya Pradesh correspondent for the Indian Express, I found myself in the small town of Badnaver, about 50 km from the city of Dhar. Well past nine at night, four riders on emaciated horses, holding aloft saffron banners, escorted a tackily crafted thermocol rath through the town and to the local maidan. Mounted on a truck chassis, the rath was meant to resemble a monument in Dhar called the Bhojshala.
Tape recordings of speeches made by Sadhvi Rithambra, the founding chairperson of the Durga Vahini (the female wing of the VHP), in the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition were playing from a stage set up at the maidan. “There are just two types of people,” she could be heard shouting, “Ramzades or haramzades.” Soon after, Hukum Chand Sanvla, mahamantri of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), spoke of the injustice being perpetrated at the Bhojshala, where Muslims “can offer namaz every Friday, 52 days out of 365, as compared to the Hindus who can offer prayers only on one day… One day for 85 percent of the people and 52 days for 15 percent of the people.” As he finished, the audience, numbering in the thousands, broke out into cries of “Bhala goli khayenge, Bhojshala jayenge (We will face bullets and spears, but we will go to Bhojshala)”.
The rath yatra through the district was an initiative of a Sangh Parivar organisation called the Hindu Jagran Manch. The state elections were still a few months away, but with Uma Bharti leading the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign against Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, the Sangh was falling back on tested methods of communal mobilisation. The entire debate on the right of access to the monument, however, was being fought on the basis of a concocted history. The speeches from the lead up to the Babri demolition were no coincidence.
As another Assembly election approaches in MP, it seems the Sangh is up to the same game again, judging from an otherwise excellent profile of Subramanian Swamy by Samanth Subramanian published in the May 2012 issue of The Caravan, which gives voice to the Sangh’s continuing distortions. The piece describes the situation in Dhar as follows:
“On the grounds of the Bhojashala is a dargah, also several centuries old, one of its green-and-white walls pressing up against the sandstone perimeter of the ancient school. The local police and the Madhya Pradesh government have tried, with varying degrees of sincerity and opportunism, to regulate the entry of the Hindu and Muslim pilgrims into this complex; at the moment, Hindus pray on Tuesday and on Basant Panchami, while Muslims pray on Fridays.”
This description suggests that the dispute is over a complex consisting of the Bhojshala and an adjoining dargah, which is what the Sangh would have everyone believe. But the full and proper name for the Bhojshala, which was not mentioned in The Caravan article, is the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula Mosque. (The dargah is a separate building.) There is no question that the structure is a mosque; what is disputed is whether it has any connection with the mythic Bhojshala of Raja Bhoj—a claim promoted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh without the support of solid historical evidence.
The website of the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) Bhopal Circle refers to the monument as the “Bhojshala and Kamal Maula’s Mosque”, and states:
“It is believed that it was originally a temple of goddess Sarasvati built by Parawara King Bhoja in circa 11th Century AD. The mosque is built using structural members of the temple. The monument also retains some slabs inscribed with Sanskrit and Prakrit literary works. Noted as a great patron of art and literature, Bhoja is said to have established a school, now known as Bhojashala.”
Even this description—which acknowledges what the Sangh would prefer to deny, that the structure is unquestionably a mosque—carefully couches its references to the Bhojshala in speculation: “it is believed” and “said to have established”. The claim that “the mosque is built using structural members of the temple” has never been proven.
Over the years of this dispute, the ASI has adopted politically expedient positions it cannot justify with historical evidence—hence the invocation of belief in the description above. But when the case came before the MP High Court in 1998, during the tenure of a BJP-led coalition at the centre, the ASI had to explicitly limit its statements to the attested historical record. Its reply to the court stated:
“It is most humbly submitted that the factual identity of the present structure is not definitely known, nor can it be ascertained from the study of the structure itself …There is every possibility that the pillars and ceilings could have been gathered from demolished edifices around Dhar and being material readily available must have been put to use for the construction of the mosque of Kamal Maula …The actual location of the original Bhojshala remains a mystery which remains to be solved. It is reiterated most humbly that the structure, presently under dispute was declared protected as Bhojshala and Kamal Maula Mosque and so it remains protected till today…”
The Saraswati statue that Swamy wants to bring back from the British Museum was also addressed in the ASI’s 1998 statement:
“It is submitted, that there is indeed an image of the female deity at the British Museum, but to lay claim and identify it as the very same image which was originally placed in the present structure cannot stand … In this matter, it is submitted that the famous Indian iconographists have yet to come on to a common platform about the true identify [sic] of the sculpture under question and there exists conflicting opinions apropos this sculpture’s identity, wherein one school of thought considers it as Vagdevi (Saraswati) while the other school thinks it to be that of a Jain Yakshi Ambika … It is submitted that even this information provided … does not state in its absolute clarity that the sculpture was discovered from the present structure, but on the contrary the informations states that the image was discovered from the ruins adjoining the Bhojshala at Dhar.”
The Sangh mobilisation in 2002-2003 resulted in a state of siege in Dhar. Prohibitory orders had to be imposed, curfew was enforced for a short time, and if the Digvijay Singh government had been any less firm, the events of 1992 in Ayodhya could have been repeated. Now with elections approaching in 2013 in MP, and the state’s BJP government seeming vulnerable, it is no surprise that the Kamal Maula Mosque is again being used for communal mobilisation. This makes it all the more necessary for misrepresentations of the historical evidence to be corrected. S
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.