The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fear and flight in Togadia’s new lab

Dhar, Feb. 5: Rain has watered the dying crops and the winds of spring kiss the lush fields. But for people of this Madhya Pradesh district, the season of revival has brought only fear of violence.

Everyone, including the authorities, has only one prayer on their lips: let tomorrow, the day of Basant Panchmi, and Friday pass off peacefully when Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders Praveen Togadia and Sadhvi Rithambhara will be in town to “awaken” the masses.

They have reasons to be tense. A confrontation is brewing between the Hindu Jagran Manch, an umbrella organisation of hardline Hindutva outfits, and the district administration. The Manch has promised to mobilise a crowd of 50,000 to “liberate” Bhojshala that dates back to 1064 AD and also houses a Muslim shrine.

At the crux of the dispute is a February 5, 1998, order of the Archaeological Survey of India. ASI director-general Ajay Shankar had directed the local administration to keep Bhojshala, a protected monument, closed except for Friday prayers and on every Basant Panchmi day.

The Manch is opposed to the directive and questions how Muslims could be given weekly access while Hindus are allowed in just once a year. Local convener Radheshyam Yadav says Muslims should volunteer to give up their claim, as namaz is not permitted in a Hindu temple. Asked why he was not moving court, he said: “Why should courts decide on issues related to faith'”

Interestingly, the Union human resources development ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi has given an affidavit that raises doubts over whether Bhojshala dates to the Raja Bhoj era and the authenticity of a statue of Saraswati, now in a London museum.

Yadav glosses over these questions. He says he has written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the urban development minister to ensure that the statue is returned to Bhojshala.

With tension brewing, chief minister Digvijay Singh has told the administration to deal with troublemakers with an “iron hand” while the BJP is alleging high-handedness. Apart from a police flag-march, all vehicles and individuals entering the district in the past few days have been screened.

Uma Bharti, who is leading the BJP’s election campaign in the state, has accused Singh of “creating a riot like situation” to smear her party’s image. She and the Manch leaders have given a categorical assurance that there will be no disturbance in Dhar or elsewhere in the state.

But local Muslims are not so sure and are fleeing from smaller villages to safer places in Indore and Bhopal. Nisar Ahmad, a resident, said that after Ayodhya and Gujarat, Muslims are unwilling to take chances. “We remember similar assurances were given before the demolition of the Babri Masjid,” he pointed out.

Posters and pamphlets doing the rounds have heightened the community’s sense of unease. One leaflet depicts Muslims praying peacefully while Hindus are being lathicharged. The campaign has been whipped up to stress the point that the state government is acting partisan.

Although local Muslims are fleeing, some Delhi-based leaders are trying to involve the community in the dispute, which is essentially between the administration and the Manch. In Bhopal, Baseer Ahmad, who claimed to be close to Muslim leader Syed Shahabuddin, held a press meet, asking the government to protect the lives of Muslims in Dhar.

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