One city, two people and one huge crack: this is life in India, the new most populous country in the world

In this combo of two images, on the left, Hindu priest Swami Ram Da expresses his views while seated in his ashram, and on the right, Muslim community leader Syed Mohammad Munir Abidi, speaking while seated in a mosque in Ayodya, India. (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Syed Mohammad Munir Abidi He says that India is a changed country, which he no longer recognizes.

It is a country, says this 68-year-old man, where muslims are ignoredwhere increased attacks against them are encouraged and where a Hindu majority rule emboldened is seizing his opportunity to put the minority community in its place.

Swami Ram Das thinks otherwise, echoing a belief system fundamental to the Hindu nationalism.

This 48-year-old Hindu priest says that India seeks to redeem its religious past and that the country is fundamentally a Hindu nation in which minorities, especially Muslims, must subscribe to Hindu primacy.

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Devotees sing and dance as they celebrate the Ramnavi festival, the birthday of the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India, on March 30, 202 (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Abidi and Das are two ordinary citizens who live in a city ​​of a country of more than 1,400 million inhabitants that became the most populous nation in the world. Together they embody the opposite sides of a deep-seated religious divide which poses to India one of its greatest challenges: safeguarding the freedoms of its Muslim minority at a time when a rising tide of Hindu nationalism is eroding the country’s secular foundations.

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Muslims offer evening prayers before breaking their Ramadan fast at a mosque in Ayodhya. (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

In India live some 200 million Muslims, who constitute the largest minority in the country, predominantly Hindu. They are scattered almost all over India, where a systemic anti-Muslim rage since the prime minister Narendra Modi He first took power in 2014.

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A Muslim on a motorcycle heads to a mosque to pray in Ayodhya, (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Although India’s communal fractures date back to its bloody partition in 1947most Indians trace the roots of past religious failures to a small temple town in north indiawhere the Hindu nationalist movement was galvanized in 1992 after Hindu mobs demolished a historic mosque to make way for a temple.

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Thousands of Hindu devotees take a holy bath and pray on the occasion of the Ramnavi festival, which is celebrated on the occasion of the birthday of the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India. (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Since then, the city of Ayodhya has become, in many ways, a Indian religious microcosmwhere a diverse and multicultural past has been gradually overtaken by the breakdown of Hindu-Muslim relations.

It is also a city abidi and You give they consider their home.

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Pedestrians walk and drive through the main circle of the city, in Ayodhya, (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

They have wandered through its narrow and winding streets invaded by temple monkeys and hindu monks who beg passersby for alms in exchange for blessings. They have passed through its teeming bazaars, where miniature idols of Ram are sold to pilgrims arriving from the vast hinterlands of India. They have started their mornings with the calls to prayer coming from the loudspeakers of the mosques and the Vedic hymns being sung in the temples.

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A mosque loudspeaker is seen as thousands of Hindu devotees arrive to celebrate the Ramnavi festival. (AP /Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)
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A monkey walks on a bridge spanning the Saryu River as thousands of Hindu devotees take a holy bath on the occasion of the Hindu festival Ramnavi. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Beyond these shared experiences, there are marked differences.

For You givea broad-shouldered man with a stocky build, Ayodhya is the birthplace of RAM, the most revered deity of Hinduism. The city is also home to one of the holiest places in hinduism, the great temple of Ram, which will open to pilgrims next year. It is imperative that the city hold on to its Hindu character, says Das.

“Our ancestors have fought for this temple and have sacrificed lives for it. Today his dream is fulfilled, ”he says, surrounded by a group of devotees.

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Devotees celebrate the Ramnavi festival, the birthday of the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India, on March 30, 2023 (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

The temple is being built on the spot where the babri mosquefrom the 16th century, was demolished by hinduists hardliners, who claim that Muslim rulers built it on the exact spot where Ram was born. When it was razed to the ground on December 6, 1992, Das was there, watching as a frenzied Hindu mob climbed its rounded domes and brought it down with picks and crowbars.

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A Hindu priest applies vermilion to the forehead of a young woman on the banks of the Saryu River in Ayodhya. (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

“There was so much excitement about destroying that wretched structure that no one cared about the falling debris,” he recalls, prompting his disciples to chant “Jai Sri Ram,” or “God save Lord Ram,” a slogan that has become a rallying cry for nationalists. Hindus.

The 30-year campaign to build the temple ended with religious violence and a bitter legal battle for the emplacement that the Hindus won in 2019. The Muslims received a alternate terrain on the outskirts of the city to build a new mosque. A year later, Modi attended the temple’s foundation stone-laying ceremony.

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Muslims offer evening prayers before breaking their Ramadan fast at a mosque in Ayodhya. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

For abidia tall man with clothes that hang from his frame, marked a sad chapter for muslims from India.

“The hearts of the Muslims are broken. No Muslim opposes the construction of the Ram temple, but these unilateral changes are affecting the indian culture”, he says, arguing that the old mosque was essential to the Muslim identity of the city.

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The leader of the Muslim community Syed Mohammad Munir Abidi, 68, prays at his home in Ayodhya (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

As for your city, it has already suffered big changes.

For decades, the city of Ayodhya was part of the Faizabad district, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But in 2018, the authorities renamed the entire Faizabad district to Ayodhyaa move that reflected the Modi government’s pattern of substituting prominent Muslim geographical names with Hindu ones.

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A Muslim man takes his sick father on a motorcycle to see a doctor through the narrow streets of Ayodhya (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

For Abidi it indicates a worrying trend: “Delete anything that remotely reflects Muslim culture.”

Today, Ayodhya is taken over by the frenetic construction of hotels, which attract dozens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims. Construction workers are busy making way for wider highways. All of this is expected to boost the city’s economy. But at what price, Abidi calculates.

“The relationship that Hindus and Muslims used to have is barely visible anymore,” he says.

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Devotees walk past a row of demolished buildings to widen roads as part of the redevelopment of Ayodhya, (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)
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Hindus and Muslims shop in front of a mosque in Ayodhya (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

India’s religious divisions have deepened under Modi. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched by Hindu mobs accused of eating beef or smuggling cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus. They have boycotted muslim businesses, their towns have been razed and places of worship have been set on fire. At times their genocide has been openly called for.

Critics say Modi’s striking silence in the face of these attacks has emboldened some of his more extreme supporters and has allowed hate speech against Muslims to rise.

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Hindu priest Swami Ram Das, 48, center, speaks with holy elders during a religious festival to celebrate Ramvami. (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Muslims have been falsely accused of manipulating Hindu women into marrying and having more children in order to dominate them. Government data shows the opposite: The India’s religious composition has remained broadly stable since 1947 and the Muslim fertility rate has fallen from 4.4 in 1992 to 2.3 in 2020.

“It’s never going to be possible if you look at the data. We should forget and ignore this rhetoric,” he says. Poonam MuttrejaDirector of the Population Foundation of India.

The Muslims also have the lowest literacy rate of all major Indian religious communities. They have suffered discrimination in employment and housing and hold just under 5% of seats in Parliament, their lowest percentage to date.

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A group of people sell flags with images of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman on the side of a road in Ayodhya (AP / Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup /)

For abidiall this represents a bleak future, in which the secular character of India only lives in the memory of the people.

“All Muslims in India today feel insecure,” he says.

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Muslims offer evening prayers before breaking their Ramadan fast at a mosque in Ayodhya (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

Das disagrees, stating that Muslims remain free to pray and practice their religion. “But We will correct the mistakes made by your ancestors.”

Das refers to the mughals who ruled India before the British made it their colony.

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Several passers-by pass through an old Muslim area of ​​Ayodhya (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

He contempt for the mughal rulers, who are not ancestors of Indian Muslims and only shared a similar faith, is characteristic of Hindu nationalists in India, who claim that the Mughals destroyed Hindu culture. This has prompted Hindu nationalists to claim ownership of hundreds of historic mosques which they say are built on demolished temples.

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A Hindu priest prays on the banks of the Saryu river on the occasion of the Ramnav festival (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

In Ayodhyalongtime Muslims have made concessions to avoid tensions with their Hindu neighbors.

Last year, when the procession of muharram coincided with a Hindu festival, the Muslim leaders changed the time of their march to avoid clashes. This year, the city’s Muslims had to give up selling and eating meat during another Hindu holiday that coincided with the first days of Ramadan.

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A Muslim man rests at home after breaking the Ramadan fast in Ayodhya (AP/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup/)

In such an environment, says Abidi, only the religious tolerance can prevent India’s communal fractures from worsening.

“India will only survive if we mend hearts and not break them,” he says.

(© copyright 2023 Associated Press)

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