The sharp split illustrates growing unease among India’s Muslims, who are struggling to find a political voice as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government gives overt support to once-taboo Hindu nationalist causes.
“We are pushed against the wall,” said Irfan Aziz, a political science student at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. “No one speaks about us, not even our own.” The dispute over the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state has lasted centuries. Hindus believe Lord Ram, the warrior god, was born at the site and that Mughal Muslim invaders built a mosque on top of a temple there. The December 1992 riot — supported by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — sparked massive communal violence in which some 2,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims.
The 1992 riot also set in motion events that redefined the politics of social identity in India. It catapulted the BJP from two parliamentary seats in the 1980s to its current political dominance. Modi’s party won an outright majority in India's lower house in 2014, the biggest win for a single party in 30 years. The BJP won even more seats in elections last May.
Muslim groups for decades waged a court fight for the restoration of Babri Masjid. But now, friction among Muslim groups has spilled into the open, with one side challenging the verdict and the other saying they are content with the outcome.
Hilal Ahmad, a political commentator and an expert on Muslim politics, said India's Muslims feel isolated and even divided over the verdict because policies championed by the BJP have established a populist anti-Muslim discourse.
Muslims in India have often rallied around secular parties. However, after Modi won his first term in 2014, religious politics took hold. The BJP’s rise has been marked by the electoral marginalization of Muslims, with their representation in democratic institutions gradually falling.
The 23 Muslim lawmakers in India’s Parliament in 2014 was the lowest number in 50 years. The number rose slightly to 27 in 2019 — out of these, only one is from the BJP. India's population of more than 1.3 billion includes more than 200 million Muslims.
The unanimous court verdict last month paves the way for a Hindu temple to be built on the disputed site, a major victory for the BJP, which has been promising such an outcome as part of its election strategy for decades. The court said Muslims will be given 5 acres (2 hectares) of land at an alternative site.
But the Muslim response has been far from unanimous. All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, two key Muslim parties to the dispute, have openly opposed the ruling, saying it was biased.
Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind has filed a petition with the court for a review of the verdict. Its chief, Maulana Arshad Madani, said the verdict was “against Muslims.” “We will again fight this case legally,” Madani said.
Asaddudin Owaisi, one of India’s most prominent Muslim leaders and a member of Parliament, told reporters in November that it was “the right of the aggrieved party” to challenge the verdict. But another influential Muslim body, Shia Waqf Board, said it accepts the verdict.
It believes any further court procedures in the case will keep the festering issue alive between Hindus and Muslims, said the organization's head, Waseem Rizvi. “I believe Muslims should come forward and help Hindus in construction of the temple,” he said.
Swami Chakrapani, one of the litigants in the case representing the Hindu side, said both Hindus and Muslims had accepted the verdict, and "the matter should be put to rest now no matter what some Muslim parties have to say.”
For many Muslims, the verdict has inspired feelings of resignation — of having no choice but to accept the court's ruling — and fear. “Our leaders have no consensus and the community is just scared and helpless,” Aziz said.
Disenchanted with the attitude of the religious and political leadership of Muslims, Aziz said the community lacks a “unified voice.” The divisions are likely to worsen as some Muslim parties start to lean towards the BJP, either as a result of pressure or in an attempt to gain greater Muslim representation in it. With no national Muslim political party to represent them, the community is likely to remain divided over its politics.
“The lack of Muslim representation in Indian politics will marginalize us more,” Aziz said. Ahmad said the temple verdict could further inflame a dangerous perspective on religious communities in India which portrays Muslims and Hindus as hostile opponents. He said some Muslim groups use issues like Babri Masjid to maintain support, while some Hindu groups thrive on presenting Muslims as “the other,” resulting in greater friction between the communities.
“The fear is evident among the Muslims. The Hindu and Muslim religious elites, as well as political parties, employ this fear to nurture their vested interests,” he said.
Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.