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Communal crisis averted: puja and namaz performed at disputed site in MP

Hari Om Panjwani | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:39 IST

The history

  • Dhar town in Madhya Pradesh is home to a disputed site
  • Hindus claim it is King Bhoj\'s temple to Saraswati, while to Muslims, it is the Kamal Maula mosque
  • ASI allows Hindu prayers on Tuesdays and Muslim namaz on Fridays

The tension

  • With Basant Panchami falling on a Friday, Hindu groups were adamant that namaz would have to be shifted out
  • The ASI ordered namaz to be sandwiched (1-3 pm) between two blocks of time set aside for Saraswati puja
  • The Hindus were not ready to back down. However, eventually, good sense prevailed, and both puja and namaz were offered at the site

More in the story

  • How authorities ensured that peace prevailed
  • The political implications, and CM Shivraj Chouhan\'s role

Basant Panchami is a festival associated with the colours of spring. But, the Dhar town in Madhya Pradesh remained under a dark cloud for the last few days and most of Friday, owing to communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

Dhar is home to the disputed Bhojshala Saraswati temple/Kamal Maula mosque site, where Hindus are allowed to perform puja on Tuesdays and Muslims namaz on Fridays. However, with the Hindu festival falling on a Friday this time, Hindu organisations were insistent that puja had to go on, at the cost of the namaz.

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On Friday morning, Hindu devotees carried out a procession of Goddess Vagdevi (Saraswati) from the Lal Bagh area to the Bhojshala. A tense situation ensued at the entrance of the site for some time. But the administration was quick to handle the situation.

However, the standoff ended peacefully, when 18-20 Muslims were allowed to offer prayers on the roof of the monument, while the Hindu rites went on throughout the day.

History of the site

The site was believed to be the Kamal Maula mosque till the beginning of the 20th century.

Legend has it that Ain-ul-Mulk Multani, the governor of Malwa under Alauddin Khilji's rule, constructed this structure in 1305 to commemorate the Sufi saint Kamaluddin Maula. The building was reconstructed in the 15th century by local Muslim ruler Dilawar Khan Ghori.

The dispute started in 1902, when the then District Superintendent of Education, Kashinath Krishna Lele, claimed that some walls of the mosque had engravings in Prakrit and Pali.

This led to the proposition that the structure was actually Bhojshala, a Saraswati temple built by the famous Paramara dynasty king Raja Bhoja. It was declared a protected monument in 1909 by the Dhar kingdom.

The website of the Archaeological Survey of India's Bhopal Circle says: "It is believed that it was originally a temple of goddess Saraswati built by King Bhoja in 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."

Dhar is home to the Bhojshala temple/Kamal Maula mosque site, which has been disputed since 1902

But, these claims have been disputed by several historians. A reply filed by the ASI before the MP High Court in 1998 states: "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."

However, this ambiguity has not deterred Hindu organisations from stirring up a controversy since the 1990s.

In 1997, the district collector allocated separate timings to offer puja (every Tuesday) and namaz (every Friday) in the building. It is open to all citizens on the other days.

The issue has been raised in successive elections ever since. Dhar has seen communal unrest over the dispute in 2003 (when Basant Panchami fell on a Thursday), 2006 (Thursday) and 2013 (Friday).

Official stand

ASI DG Rakesh Tiwari issued orders last month, stating Hindus could perform puja from sunrise to 12 noon and from 3:30 pm to sunset on Basant Panchami. Muslims were allocated time between 1-3 pm to offer namaz.

However, Hindu organisations were adamant that they would not halt their rituals for the namaz.

The Madhya Pradesh High Court backed the ASI order. The Central government had also issued instructions to ensure that both communities were allowed to perform their respective rituals.

Three different pleas were filed in the high court, challenging the ASI directive. One of these demanded maintenance of law and order during Basant Panchami. Another litigation, by local Muslim groups, asked the court to issue directions that namaz be allowed at the designated time and the proceedings be recorded in camera.

Interestingly, some Muslim organisations filed another petition, seeking orders that Hindus should be allowed to conduct puja throughout the day and Muslims should hold namaz at some other place.

The state government said it would ensure the implementation of the ASI order at all costs.

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Building up tensions

Hardline Hindu groups had been raking up the issue for weeks before the scheduled clash of the puja and the namaz.

The Bhoj Utsav Samiti, controlled by right-wing groups, had made it clear that it will not offer puja inside the Bhojshala if namaz was allowed.

Hindu groups organised protests near the site throughout the week. Hundreds of activists gathered outside the Bhojshala on Tuesday to recite the Hanuman Chalisa. The demonstration was termed as a 'satyagraha' by the leaders of the Hindu outfits.

ASI had ordered that the namaz should be sandwiched between two separate timing slots for the puja

Local BJP MP Savitri Thakur attended the prayers too, and supported the Hindu groups' demand for the exclusive right to pray at the site on Basant Panchami.

"Muslims can offer namaz in any nearby mosque and should provide the space for Hindus to hold prayers on Basant Panchami," she said.

Security arrangements

The town was turned into a fortress in run up to Friday. Around 7,000 police personnel surrounded the disputed site and adjoining areas from the wee hours. Apart from STF and RAF personnel, cavalry units were also deployed near the site.

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan chaired late night meetings at his house in Bhopal to review the situation. The minister in charge of the district, Narottam Mishra, and the BJP's state general secretary, Arvind Menon, also attended the meetings.

Top police officials camped in the area throughout the day. Drone cameras were used to keep tabs on the happenings at the temple/mosque site. Dozens of barricades and detectors were placed near the entrance, to prevent any untoward activities.

Hindu groups had been insisting that the namaz had to be relocated to allow their puja to continue

Elaborate arrangements were made to frisk people going to conduct the puja. Separate routes were marked for the devotees of both communities, and all other routes leading to the site were sealed. People were also barred from carrying cellphones and bags.

The police had divided the whole city into 29 sectors for better management of security arrangements. Local markets remained shut throughout the day. No vehicles were allowed in the vicinity of the Bhojshala.

The residents of adjoining Gachawadi, Vikram Nagar and Jail Road were asked to stay inside their homes for two days. Having learnt their lessons from past communal incidents, the police had instructed its jawans to refrain from using force against women.

The political angle

The ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress are both aware that any flare-up at Dhar would have implications not only in the Malwa-Nimar region, but across the entire state.

In fact, the BJP had turned the dispute into a major election issue ahead of the 2003 Assembly polls, when it dislodged the Congress from power.

CM Chouhan maintained a studied silence on the issue throughout the period of tensions, communicating with the protesting groups through Mishra and Menon.

Neither could sort out the matter beforehand, even though Mishra kept insisting that the impasse would be resolved. "They are our own people. We will be able to persuade them," he had told reporters on Thursday.

Menon, on the other hand, had reportedly advised the government not to use force against Hindu activists.

The Congress accused the Sangh Parivar of playing the communal card. Senior Congress leader and former CM Digvijaya Singh also questioned the Hindu groups' rationale. "When there is no idol at the Bhojshala, who do the VHP supporters worship there?" he asked.

In the end, good sense prevailed. But not before the tensions had caused anxiety for the whole country in general, and locals in particular.

Translated by Deepak Sharma. Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 12 February 2016, 23:44 IST