LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — As she made her way around the Teele Wali Masjid, Chandani handed out generous portions of halwa to the women and men watching the sun set over the majestic Sunni mosque in Lucknow.
"We honour Hanuman ji every Tuesday. We ended up making so much prasad today that I brought some to the temple and the mosque," she said, flashing a smile. "I believe that I'm Hindu and Muslim. I feel no difference."
Altaf Ahmed, gatekeeper of the Teele Wali Masjid, shared his wisdom about the three temples situated across the street from the mosque. "The third temple is special because it has a reclining Hanuman, like the one near the Sangam in Allahabad," he said.
Chandani and Ahmed's stories are quintessential Lucknow, a city that prides itself on the peaceful coexistence of Hinduism and Islam. Its residents safeguard this fusion of Hindu and Muslim traditions, the Ganga-Jamunitehzeeb.
In the year leading up to the high stakes general election, however, this secular ethos is under threat. The Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) performance in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, will determine who forms a government in New Delhi; and the ruling party is taking no chances.
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In recent weeks, the BJP has sought to use the Teele Wali Masjid, a 350 year-old mosque, as a fulcrum to drive a wedge between the city's Hindu and Muslim residents. The Lucknow Municipal Corporation, where the BJP holds 58 of 110 seats, is considering a proposal to build a massive statue of Lakshman, the brother of the Hindu god Ram, in Tinkonia Park, a triangular patch of grass in front of the mosque.
The significance of the proposal, in a state that witnessed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, is lost on no-one.
"We would have passed the proposal by July 20," said BJP corporator Rajneesh Gupta. "Lakshman was the founder of the city. It is only right that we honour him at the spot where the city started."
Gupta, who introduced the proposal to build the Lakshman statue, said that Aurangzeb had ordered the Teele Wali Masjid to be constructed on top of the rubble of a palace and cave linked to Lakshman: a claim that has no supporting historical evidence.
"Ideally, the Lakshman statue should be built on the Lakshman teela," he said. "How much space is needed for the mosque? All of Hindustan?"
Ideally, the Lakshman statue should be built on the Lakshman teela.
While BJP corporators have fanned controversy around the Sunni mosque, a veteran party leader has sought to portray the iconic reign of the Shia Nawabs in Lucknow as an example of the Islamization of the city and the need to reassert its Hindu-ness.
"What does one say, first nawab and then kebabs, but there is more to Lucknow than nawabs and kebabs," said Lalji Tandon, a former parliamentarian and state minister.
Tandon, who has recently published a book called Ankaha Lucknow, said the time had come to highlight the history and heritage of ancient Hindus in Lucknow.
"Lucknow's history has become synonymous with the ayaashi of the nawabs, their singing and dancing, gorging on food. It is not good for the image or the country," he said.
What does one say, first nawab and then kebabs, but there is more to Lucknow than nawabs and kebabs.
Another election, another god, another mosque
Muslim clerics, both Shia and Sunni, reacted swiftly and sharply after the 13-member working committee of the LMC, dominated by the BJP, approved the construction of the Lakshman statue, last week.
Muslims, they explained, spill into the streets while offering namaz three times in a year - the end of Ramzan, Eid and Bakr-Eid - and it is forbidden for them to pray in the presence of a statue.
"We are requesting them to install the statue a short distance away. In any case, this patch of grass is too small for a huge statue. Why not install the statue inside the temple which is just across the street?" said Maulana Syed Fazlul Mannan Rahmani, whose family has led the namaz at the Teele Wali Masjid for three generations.
Ram Krishna Yadav, the second BJP corporator behind the proposal, said that the history of Muslims in India ended in 1947, "when Pakistan was created for Muslims," but claimed that Muslims were prioritized over Hindus in India.
"Not only should the Lakshman statue be built on the Lakshman teela, the area should be dug up to find the rubble of the mahal and guffa buried under it," he said.
Rahmani believes the BJP is manufacturing a dispute in Lucknow because it is getting harder to milk the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, with the matter pending with the Supreme Court.
"The BJP cannot exploit the Babri-Masjid and Ram Mandir dispute and has started a new conflict over Lakshman and the Teele Wali Masjid in Lucknow," he said.
The BJP cannot exploit the Babri-Masjid and Ram Mandir dispute and has started a new conflict over Lakshman and the Teele Wali Masjid in Lucknow.
Congress Party's corporator Mukesh Chauhan said, "Now that the BJP has failed to build the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, it is spreading its poison in Lucknow."
Chauhan said that he and the seven other Congress corporators in the LMC would try and block the BJP.
"Sanatan dharam does not allow the setting up of statues of gods on roads, but the BJP will put our gods on the roads and chaurahas just to win an election," he said.
Sanatan dharam does not allow the setting up of statues of gods on roads, but the BJP will put our gods on the roads and chaurahas just to win an election.
Out of the 110 members in the LMC, 58 are from the BJP, 28 are from the Samajwadi Party, eight are from the Congress, two from the BSP and the rest are independent.
Even though BJP has the numbers, SP corporator, Sayeed Yawar Hussain, who heads the Opposition in the LMC, said that he planned to raise the Supreme Court order, which bans the construction of religious structures or installation of statues of public figures on roads, pavements, sideways and other public utility spaces.
Hussain, who has been a corporator in the LMC since 1989, said the BJP had made a similar proposal in the early nineties.
"Why doesn't the BJP bring proposals on sanitation, roads, electricity, sewage, and water?" he asked.
Why doesn't the BJP bring proposals on sanitation, roads, electricity, sewage, and water?
The meeting of LMC working committee on June 30 reveals the BJP's intention to stay true to its twinned agenda of Hindu-nationalism. The second proposal approved that day was to install a 207 feet national flag in the Jhandewala Park in Lucknow.
"Both these proposals are about honour and nationalism. These proposals represent the will of the people," said Gupta, the BJP corporator, "The few people who are against them are traitors."
Rahmani said that if the LMC approved the proposal for the Lakshman statue, Muslim clerics would make it an "international issue."
"Just because you have a majority does not mean you have to break hearts, trample over the feelings of others. It would be a tragedy to ruin the centuries-old Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb just because the BJP wants to win the next election," he said.
It would be a tragedy to ruin the centuries-old Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb just because the BJP wants to win the next election.
As the general elections of 2019 draw closer, some analysts believe that the BJP has doubled down on its efforts to consolidate its Hindu base by reviving old disputes, and starting some new ones.
These include Lakshman's legacy in Lucknow, pitting the "Kailash Mansarovar Yaatri Bhawan" against the Haj House in Ghaziabad, the portrait of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and the call for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe reservations at AMU.
The question is what sticks.
"The Ram Temple issue was dormant for decades, it was revived and then it died, it was revived and then it died again, and then it exploded," said Ashutosh Mishra, a professor of political science at Lucknow University. "It is not just the issue but whether the air around is combustible. Right now, we are sitting on a powder keg."
It is not just the issue but whether the air around is combustible. Right now, we are sitting on a powder keg.
The Muslim community is worried.
Nadeem Hasnain, a prominent anthropologist from Lucknow University, said, "This history ka khaata politics has to stop. Settling scores from the past will ruin us."
Hasnain said that it was up to Muslim religious leaders in Lucknow to act responsibly, give measured responses in the face of provocation and not give any reason for the tensions to escalate.
"Thousands of Muslims leave the Teele Wali Masjid after Friday prayers," he said. "All it would take is for one religious leader to make an irresponsible speech and things could get violent."
This history ka khaata politics has to stop.
How it started
Hindu groups have long pressed for Lakshman, a figure from the Ramayana, to be recognized as the founder of Lucknow, and for the city to be renamed Laxmanpuri or Lakhanpur. The BJP has legitimised these demands since they came to power in UP in 2017.
Earlier this year, the traditional theme of the Lucknow Mahotsav, the "Ganga Jamunitehzeeb," was changed by UP government to "Laxmanpuri se Lucknow tak".
Tandon, the former lawmaker from Lucknow, was dismissive of the Ganga-Jamunitehzeeb. "The Ganga-Jamunitehzeeb is not accurate. The culture of Lucknow was born on the banks of the Gomti river," he said.
Tandon's book, Ankaha Lucknow, triggered the Lakshman statue controversy. The BJP leader claimed that the Lakshman Teela is mentioned in old revenue records, but added that much of his account is based on stories that he had heard while growing up in Lucknow.
Tandon said the Sunni mosque was called Gulabi masjid, but the Akhilesh Yadav-government had a board installed on a public road, calling it the "Teele Wali Masjid."
"The name was slyly changed to appease a certain community," he said. "If name of Lakshman teela is not restored, then the situation will escalate. The public won't accept such an injustice to history."
Two months after the book was released, BJP corporators introduced the proposal to build a Lakshman statue. On whether he had intended his book to trigger a confrontation, Tandon said, "When there is action, there is reaction. Some benefit, some lose."
When there is action, there is reaction. Some benefit, some lose.
Voice of the Adityanath government
Minority Affairs Minister in the UP government, Mohsin Raza, said that he saw no reason for Muslims to object to a Lakshman statue in the park outside the Teele Wali Masjid.
Raza, who is the only Muslim minister in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet, asked whether Muslims had the right to spill into the streets to offer namaz.
"Does Islam allow Muslims to read namaz on the road, block traffic, perhaps even stall an ambulance. Should a sick person have to wait until the namaz is over to get help," he said. "Has the public ever objected to Muslims offering namaz on the road? Muslims too must have large hearts and minds."
Has the public ever objected to Muslims offering namaz on the road? Muslims too must have large hearts and minds.
Rahmani of the Teele Wali Masjid conceded that Muslims did indeed spill into the streets and block traffic, but it was thrice in a year. The cycle of bhajans, keertans and jagrans performed by Hindus, the cleric added, was a course of life.
"Sometimes, it is at two in the morning. Sometimes, it goes on for three days. The roads are blocked to celebrate festivals like Diwali, Durga Puja and Janmashtami," he said. "Has any Muslim ever objected? Has a single letter of complaint ever been written?"
If it was a question of compromise, Rahmani said that it existed, naturally and instinctively. "It is born of respect for each other's traditions," he said.
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