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Current Affairs ( 23 Sept 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Solving the Ayodhya Tangle: Listen to a 'Low' Caste Hindu in a Faizabad Mosque

By Yoginder Sikand,

As evening falls the plaintive cry of the muezzin from a nearby mosque pierces the din of the incessant traffic that chokes the narrow lanes that criss-cross the area like an impossible jigsaw puzzle. I’ve spent the last two days day traipsing around temples in Ayodhya, putting up with insufferable Brahmin priests and Hindutva loud-mouths. This evening I am in Faizabad, hardly ten kilometres away, on my way back to Delhi. I have just about time for a hurried visit to what locals boast of as ‘Faizabad’s Taj Mahal’—the Bibi ka Maqbara, the sprawling mausoleum of Bahu Begum, wife of the eighteenth century Nawab Shujauddaulah of Awadh.

The crumbling wall that twists round the mausoleum puts up a valiant struggle to survive, heaving under the weight of banyan trees that sprout out of innumerable crannies. I slip through a badly-mauled bit of the wall and under an enormous gateway that is rapidly falling into ruin. Carved into the flanks on either side of the gateway are protruding jharokas with latticed stone screens, now badly defaced and occupied by probably unauthorised squatters, and a giant scaly fish with bulbous eyes—the insignia of the Shia Muslim Nawabs of Awadh, of whose vast kingdom Faizabad served as capital throughout most of the eighteenth century. The gateway leads on to a vast plain field, once the Nawabs’ private mango and lychee orchard, but now littered with ancient trees and rotting piles of garbage. The field is surrounded by a low-lying wall lined with several dozen rooms in various stages of dilapidation. These probably once served as stables for horses or the quarters of servants of the Nawabs, but are now homes to dozens of families. At one edge of the field is a sprawling pond choked with water hyacinth, where once the Nawabs and their consorts, so it is said, used to occasionally cavort. Abutting the other side of the field is the Bibi ka Maqbara—an impressive onion-shaped dome that rises more than forty metres into the air and rests on a massive platform containing dozens of chambers and cells long since closed to the public and a grand hall where Bahu Begum’s mortal remains rest in eternal silence. Like numerous other Muslim monuments in Faizabad—and Ayodhya, too, which, unknown to most, boasts several dozen ancient Sufi shrines, Muslim graveyards and mosques—the crumbling, bat-infested ruins of Bibi ka Maqbara stand as a silent testimony to a rich Indo-Islamic past in a region that advocates of Hindutva desperately desire to violently efface from public memory.

Two middle-aged men come up to me as I amble through the tomb complex. One, Ajay, is a Hindu, while the other, Salman, is a Shia Muslim. Their families are among the several dozens that now live in the rooms scattered around the complex. Few tourists come here any more, they tell me. The blockbuster film Umrao Jaan was partly shot in Bibi ka Maqbara, says Ajay excitedly. ‘You must write about how shabby it has become now and ask the government why it pays no attention to it,’ he insists. ‘But the complex is under the Shia Waqf Board,’ Salim tells him off. ‘How can we blame the government for our own neglect?’

I ask them to tell me about themselves, about the people who live in the sprawling complex. Most of them, they tell me, are poor, like themselves—rickshaw- and auto-drivers, petty shopkeepers, weavers now thrown out of employment, and a couple of men fortunate enough to secure work as low-paid clerks in sundry government offices. Some of them are descendants of the once vast retinue of servants of the Nawabs of Awadh. Interestingly, and both Ajay and Salim repeatedly stress this, the community is mixed in terms of religion—Shias, Sunnis, Hindus and a few Dalits. ‘We’ve never had any trouble here, not even in the times of the Nawabs,’ Ajay tells me, ‘not even in 1992, when the mosque was destroyed in Ayodhya.’ ‘It’s only outsiders who create trouble,’ Salim adds, ‘They are the ones behind the mosque-temple controversy. They fund the Hindu outfits and instigate them against Muslims.’ ‘In December 1992’, when Hindu mobs tore down the Babri Masjid in neighbouring Ayodhya, Ajay interrupts Salim, ‘we shut the gates leading into the complex to protect ourselves and prevent miscreants from entering and creating trouble. We get on very well among ourselves. There’s no problem at all.’

I leave the men and follow a muddy path that leads from behind the mausoleum to a small, graceful mosque that stands on a knoll. I walk through a neat garden, with marigolds and roses blooming in neatly serrated beds, and ascend the stairs, but as I am about to enter the mosque I am stopped by a young man who tells me that I must wash my feet before I can be let in. ‘This is the mosque of Jinnati Baba,’ he tells me. The Baba who lives here is a jinn, an invisible sprite, who specialises in curing the sick, he says, and so I must appropriately respect him by performing my ablutions.

I wash my feet at a well at the edge of the garden, and the man—who now introduces himself as Ram Kumar Maurya—guides me inside the mosque. The mehrab of the mosque, the niche built into the wall and facing Mecca, in which direction worship is offered, is veiled behind a black velvet sheet. On the sheet I decipher the names of Allah, Muhammad and the twelve Shia Imams prettily embroidered in gold thread. This is obviously a Shia mosque—as are many of the older mosques in Faizabad and Ayodhya, although Shias are only a small minority among the Muslims of the two towns. Tied across the sheet is a string on which are hung little plastic packets, each of which, Ram Kumar shows me, contains a letter addressed to Jinnati Baba by a supplicant. Several dozens of people—Hindus, Dalits, Shias, and Sunnis—Ram Kumar tells me, flock to the mosque every day to request the Baba for a miraculous cure or other sort of help.

I hurriedly leaf through some of these letters. Most of these have been written by Hindus, but several by Muslims as well. All but one are in Hindi. One, signed simply ‘Umesh’—a Hindu name, and decorated on all four corners with the ‘Islamic’ insignia of a crescent and star—reads thus:

Jai Jinnati Baba (Hail Jinnati Baba!). I know you are present. You helped solve my problems and I request you to keep me happy. Ya Allah.

Another, written by another Hindu, Sadanand Thakur, reads:

Jai Jinnati Baba. I am an orphan. I am 14 years old. Please help me come first in my class.

Ram Kumar steps outside to fetch a reed mat for us to sit on, but before he spreads it out he sweeps the floor of the mosque with a broom. ‘Allah!’, he loudly exclaims as he sits down and asks me to join him. I am amazed at how very much at home he—who, from his surname, is obviously a ‘low’ caste Hindu from the Koeri caste of hereditary vegetable-sellers—feels in the mosque, a clearly ‘Muslim’ space. The mosque, as I think he sees it, belongs to everyone, Muslims and Hindus and others alike, and where all are welcome.  I ask him to tell me his story.

‘My mother and sister have been staying here for three months now,’ he begins. ‘We are from a village near Faizabad. Some months ago, a neighbour of ours, envious of our family, cast a spell on my sister. He did some black jadoo with the help of a Tantrik and her entire body turned black. She began behaving as if she had gone mad. She could not sleep at all for two months. We went to many temples, to sadhus and babas, and also consulted several doctors, but none of them could cure her. Then, someone told my father about this mosque where Jinnati Baba is said to dwell and we came here.’

Ram Kumar’s sister and mother were put up in a small room adjacent to the mosque, which they shared with some other women. These women were Hindus as well as Muslims, and who, like them, had come to the Jinnati Masjid in the hope of a cure to their woes.

‘Jinnati Baba is a Muslim, but he helps everyone, irrespective of caste and creed,’ Ram Kumar goes on. ‘My mother and sister and the other women they live with, Hindus and Muslims, live together in the room, cook from the same stove and in the same vessels and eat from the same plate.’

On the second night of her stay in the mosque, Ram Kumar continues, his sister finally managed to sleep—after two months of continuous insomnia. Gradually, she was fully cured with the help of the elderly Muslim woman custodian of the mosque, whom Ram Kumar refers to reverentially as ‘Apa’ or elder sister. ‘Apa blew her breath on her every day and recited special duas for her cure’ he says. ‘Because of her prayers, the bad spirit that had possessed my sister soon fled.’

In contrast to the numerous ‘holy men’ Ram Kumar’s family had approached before coming to the mosque, he says, Apa charges nothing at all for her work. She does this, he explains, for God and for helping those in distress. ‘But if you want to give her anything on your own free will you can.’

‘I am a Science student,’ Ram Kumar continues as Apa comes inside the mosque, spreads out her prayer mat and settles down to her evening namaz. ‘I’ve done my M.Sc. and I never believed in such miracles before. But, coming here and seeing my sister being brought back to normalcy so fast, I have completely changed my views’.

We step out of the mosque so that Apa can pray undisturbed. As Ram Kumar leads me to the path back to Bahu Begum’s mausoleum I ask him what he feels about the ongoing conflict over the mosque-temple in neighbouring Ayodhya. As a ‘low’ caste Koeri who believes in a Muslim Jinn that inhabits a mosque I instinctively feel he might have something refreshing to say.

‘They should not have destroyed mosque’, he replies, referring to the Hindu hordes who tore down the Babri Masjid in 1992, unleashing a deadly dance of violence across India in which thousands of people, mainly Muslims, were slaughtered. ‘But, on the other hand, some Hindus claim that Babar had destroyed a temple to build the mosque in the first place. If a temple is built on the spot the Muslims will feel bad, and if the mosque is rebuilt Hindus will be angry. It is best to let the site be as it is.’ I nod, somewhat, but not entirely, in agreement.

As we shake hands and I am about to depart, Ram Kumar adds, ‘Only if, and when, Hindus and Muslims both come to realise that Allah or Ishwar—call Him what you will—cannot be captured in a building made of stone, and that He resides in the heart of every person, in every particle of the universe, in fact, that we can finally solve the Ayodhya conflict to everyone’s satisfaction.’

Ram Kumar is right, of course, but, I wonder, justifiably pessimistically, will Hindus and Muslims ever arrive at that very simple realisation?

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.

Copyright 2010: New Age Islam Foundation