Luke Harding. (The Guardian, UK)
New Delhi, June 10, 2002.
The courtyard of the Dada Hari mosque was covered in ashes. Closer inspection revealed that the Hindu youths that broke into the building had made a bonfire of its Korans.
They had also lobbed a brick at the Persian inscription above the entrance, and smashed away some of the mosque's fine carved screens. Inside, the mob had shoved off the lids off several stone tombs (whose occupants had the advantage of being already dead).
The destruction in the Indian city of Ahmedabad was not an isolated incident. Over the past three months Hindu gangs have killed more than 2,000 Muslims in pogroms supported by Gujarat's Hindu nationalist politicians and its partisan police force.
Entire Muslim districts have been wiped out. The gangs have raped and incinerated their Muslim neighbours; chopped up a former Muslim MP; and burned down Muslim property. The carnage has been so epic, and so prolonged, that little attention has been paid to the extensive damage done to Gujarat's unique medieval heritage, and to its Muslim monuments and shrines.
A new survey reveals that some 230 historic sites have been vandalised or destroyed. Many are now piles of rubble. Others have been demolished using bulldozers. The scale of the damage is so vast it rivals last year's better-publicised smashing spree by the Taliban (who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas), or the wrecking of Tibet's monasteries by Red Guards.
"This has been a systematic attempt to wipe out an entire culture," Teesta Setalvad, who put together an inventory of the damage, pointed out.
One of the tombs razed during the riots belonged to Vali Gujarati, Muslim India's answer to Geoffery Chaucer. Gujarati was the grandfather of Urdu poetry. His classical idiom inspired later poets and ghazal singers. The residents of Ahmedabad liked his work, with its hint of the mystical and sublime, and when he died there in 1707, they built him a tomb. In recent years Vali's remains had ended up in the middle of a busy main road. On the night of March 1 Hindu gangs armed with pickaxes smashed up his slab-like monument. They replaced it with a tiny brick Hindu temple, and stuck an idol of the monkey god Hanuman inside. "We have broken a mosque and made a temple," Mahesh Patel explained, when I asked him what had happened to the 300-year-old tomb.
"We used hammers," he added. Muslims should not live in India. They should live in Pakistan." Vali's depressing fate did not end there. Two days later state officials flattened the spot. "I drove over him recently when I went to the airport, " Ms Setalvad added wistfully. "The government people used machinery to tar over him in a few hours." Several of Vali's fans have pointed out his own verse almost anticipates this gloomy ending: "The city of whose songs I have always sung/Why can I not bear to live in that city now?" he asks in a famous lyric.
The recent destruction in Gujarat was part of a wider, more sinister, project to wipe out India's Islamic heritage a process that if taken to its logical conclusion would lead to the demolition of, among other things, the Taj Mahal. The past 15 years have seen the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. With it India's newest battlegrounds have become the fields of history and archaeology.
Revisionist rightwing Hindu scholars now argue that Muslims are not really Indians at all, but mere foreign invaders who galloped down from Central Asia in the 16th century. The villains of the piece, according to this school, are India's Mughal kings, who ruled the subcontinent for three centuries until the arrival of the British.
These early jihadis, a bit like Osama bin Laden's, not only conquered the indigenous Hindu population but also knocked down its places of worship, it is claimed. These arguments may seem crude. But they are powerful. In 1992, Hindu fanatics tore down a 16th century mosque in the previously unremarkable and sleepy northern town of Ayodhya. They justified their action by claiming the mosque had been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.
India's secular credentials have yet to recover from the episode. The Hindu demolition gangs in Gujarat took their cue from what happened at Ayodhya, and set about smashing up their own Islamic monuments.
Such chauvinist views go all the way to the top. Sitting in the garden of his government bungalow, the speech-writer for India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, recently told me how important it was to build a large Hindu temple on the disputed Ayodhya site. "There are no real Muslim leaders," he said, when I asked how India's 150 million Muslims were likely to react to this provocative plan.
The tragedy is that Gujarat had until recently been a place where Hindus and Muslims had got on pretty well. They have a long history. Arab traders first arrived on the west coast of India in the late 7th century. By the early 10th century, travellers founded a 10,000-strong Muslim community, with its own mosques, in the ports of Gujarat. Portuguese missionaries and other adventurers came much later.
And like many of India's Muslim rulers, Ahmedabad's 15th century sultan and founder, Ahmad Shah I, married a Hindu or Rajput princess. (Dada Hari, whose mosque was damaged, was built by a female attendant at court.) His mosques and civic buildings incorporated both Islamic and Rajput elements; he employed Hindus in the highest offices of state. The Muslim communities of Gujarat are therefore among the longest-established in India, and the majority of their members are descendants of converts, not "foreign invaders", whoever these might be. Several 16th century buildings constructed after Ahmad Shah's death have now been pulverised. They include two four-hundred-year-old mosques, one of which was bulldozed in the presence of two ministers from the ruling state government.
In recent months the first sight that greeted any visitor to Ahmedabad was a thick plume of black smoke emanating from the Muslim old city, and the sight of khaki-clad Hindu policemen running amok inside Muslim compounds.
Ahmed Shah's old royal citadel and exquisite mosque have survived the carnage. But Hindu mobs have destroyed many Islamic buildings outside Muslim-dominated areas attempting as one academic put it to "redeem the past".
"By destroying the symbols of a community you destroy the community itself," Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, of Delhi's Jarwaharlal Nehru University added. Not all of the mosques destroyed have architectural merit. Some were places where young boys would gather to get a basic education and a free meal.
One of the early casualties was the modern two-storey mosque in the district of Naroda Patiya, where a thousand-strong Hindu gangs armed with machetes and tridents laid siege to the Muslim community on the other side of the road during the early days of the riots.
They firebombed the mosque using gas cylinders, incinerating its prayer-mats and Korans. Upstairs, the mosque's kitchen had been burned out; only charred sacks of rice were left.
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