Ayodhya and Kartarpur Corridor: two vastly different faces of India

The corridor shows how interfaith harmony can work while the row over the Babri mosque is indicative of how deep religious divides run in the country

epa07983555 Sikh pilgrims visit Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak at Gurduwara Darbar Sahib during the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, in Kartarpur, Pakistan, 09 November 2019. The Kartarpur Corridor enables the first visa-free border crossing between India and Pakistan, a corridor that will allow Sikh pilgrims to easily visit the shrine at Kartarpur in Pakistan which is related to Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru or Master. The corridor which had been a long pending demand of Sikh community, known as the Kartarpur corridor is a rare sign of cooperation between the two nuclear-armed rival countries.  EPA/SOHAIL SHAHZAD
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

There was a striking contrast between two very different scenes involving India that emerged today.

In the first, there was jubilation among saffron-clad Hindus celebrating a Supreme Court verdict in a case that has polarised India and led to years of bitter acrimony, as well as the deaths of 2,000 people. In today's ruling, the long-disputed site of a 16th century mosque was gifted to Hindus, a decision that has sparked fears of more bloodshed and further ugly religious divides.

But simultaneously, there were images of a peaceful accord so rare that it prompted its own hashtag and comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 30 years ago. The 4.5-kilometre stretch known as the Kartarpur Corridor, connecting India and Pakistan, was opened by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Indian pilgrims wanting to visit a Sikh holy site on the Pakistan side of the border. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was pictured in a traditional turban on his side of the corridor, waving off the pilgrims, who were then greeted by Mr Khan at the other end. It sent the strongest possible message of what could be achieved when there is will, determination and a commitment to religious harmony and co-existence.

There was jubilation too in the north Indian city of Ayodhya, but it was distinctly more one-sided, with Hindu nationalists setting off firecrackers, feeding sweetmeats to the sacred cow and festooning themselves with marigold garlands

The Kartarpur Corridor gives Indians a rare example of co-operation between two nuclear-armed rival nations constantly engaged in skirmishes over Kashmir. Mr Modi was pictured seated on the floor and enjoying a traditional meal in a gurdwara on the Indian side of the corridor. He shook hands with India’s Sikh former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who then led the first delegation of 550 pilgrims as they crossed into Pakistan. Mr Khan welcomed the pilgrims to the Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab province, thought to be Guru Nanak Dev’s final resting place – and with that gesture, opened the doors to one of Sikhism’s holiest sites.

This is especially important now to devotees, who will be marking the 550th birth anniversary of the faith’s founder on Tuesday. What makes this even more potent is that the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor takes place at an especially precarious time for the two countries, just three months after Mr Modi revoked Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status, a move that caused uproar in Pakistan.

There was jubilation too in the heavily militarised north Indian city of Ayodhya, but it was distinctly more one-sided, with Hindu nationalists setting off firecrackers, feeding sweetmeats to the sacred cow and festooning themselves with marigold garlands. Behind those celebratory images, however, schools, shops and colleges have been closed until Monday and thousands of extra troops have been drafted onto the streets.

For the city was the site of the Babri mosque, demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992 in riots that claimed the lives of 2,000 people. At the heart of the dispute are rival claims to the sacred site. Hindus consider it to be the birthplace of Ram, a Hindu god, while Muslims had worshipped there for centuries after the Mughal emperor Babur built a mosque.

In its unanimous verdict today, a five-judge panel ruled that while the crushing of the mosque was unlawful, the remains of a non-Islamic building existed beneath the foundations of the mosque. They ordered that the disputed land be given to Hindus to build a temple to Ram, while Muslims should be given land elsewhere in Ayodhya to build a mosque.

This is not the Indian judiciary’s first attempt at settling the highly contentious issue. In September 2010, the Allahabad High Court judges tried and failed to put an end to the dispute by dividing the land equally between all claimants, who then appealed. Today the Supreme Court overturned that judgement.

Despite his claim that “this verdict shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss”, it is undeniably a victory for Mr Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been implementing a range of measures maligning its 300 million Muslims, from renaming cities with distinctly Islamic names to drawing up a citizens’ register in states such as Assam, seen to be weighted unfavourably against Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court verdict has been viewed rather less favourably by Muslim leaders. The allocation of five acres of land elsewhere has done little to deflect from a touchpoint for violence and will no doubt further polarise a country in which Hindu nationalism is on the rise. The country has seen violence of this communal nature play out repeatedly in the past. In 2002, for example in the state of Gujarat, where Mr Modi was then chief minister, a mob of 59 Hindus died in a fire on a train and the riots in the aftermath claimed at least 1,000 mostly Muslim lives.

In an address to the nation, Mr Modi called for the court’s decision to be respected, adding: “Today’s message is about living together”. It is critical the “bright future” he promised for a “new India” includes all its citizens.

Nivriti Butalia is an assistant comment editor at The National