Mahoba: As the sun rose on 5 August 2020 over Uttar Pradesh (UP) with the town of Ayodhya preparing for the foundation-laying ceremony of its grand Ram temple, 300 km south-west in the district of Mahoba, a mosque seemingly vanished into thin air.
What actually happened was that it was razed in the dark of night.
“You must be mistaken, madam,” a young policeman told a Khabar Lahariya reporter when she reached there early on 6 August. “Yahaan koi masjid nahi thi. Galat fehmi? There was no mosque here. Must be a misunderstanding?”
Yet, there was the bare piece of land where once had stood the Medina Mosque.
The reporter was there, just off national highway (NH) 86 in Mahoba, to follow a lead about enhanced police deployment, even as chants of “Jai Shri Ram” greeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi 350-odd km north-east of Ayodhya, where a temple was to be built after a Supreme Court judgement on 9 November 2019.
The shops adjacent to the razed mosque were closed, a silence enveloped the area, and there was no one around except police.
“Maahaul abhi thoda theek nahi hai (things are a little unsettled now),” said a local reporter taking photos of the bare land where once the mosque had stood.
By 6 pm, when the celebrations at Ayodhya had all but subsided, news of the vanished mosque reached reporters in Mahoba and the neighbouring districts of Banda and Chitrakoot. The most widely accepted version of events was that the mosque had not been “demolished”.
What had really happened, according to this version, was that the mosque had been “removed” as part of a highway widening, a predetermined plan that had unfolded after taking in confidence the mosque’s maulvi and his flock.
The date of removal had nothing to do with the events in Ayodhya, reporters told themselves, based on numerous whatsapp forwards, since majority-minority tensions plaguing India had never flared into violence here in Bundelkhand, a peaceful, culturally distinct region spread across six districts of Madhya Pradesh and seven districts of UP.
When our reporters met senior police officials to get the official version, their attitude matched the suspicion and denial we encountered with police deployed on 5 August at the site of the missing mosque.
“Nobody else is asking me questions about this,” said Veerendra Kumar, additional superintendent of police. “Why are you working on this?”
Superintendent of Police Mani Lal Patidar refused to meet our reporters (the UP government suspended Patidar on 9 September after a local businessman accused him of corruption; three days later, the man who made the accusation was shot dead by unidentified assassins.)
From WhatsApp To The Local News
Ten days before the Medina mosque disappeared, a temple half a kilometre away on national highway 35 was also demolished (but only partially), for the same reason.
The temple’s devotees were no less devout than worshippers at the mosque, but they knew better than to stand in the way of development: that was the argument that made its way from Hindutva whatsapp groups into local news reports.
An online search revealed that the version of events at the mosque as reported by local media had emerged from members of a local Bajrang Dal unit. Over the course of the past two weeks, they had been expressing their love for vikaas (development) all over their social media accounts (here and here).
Their slogan: “Medina Masjid Hatao, Mahoba Bachao (Remove the Medina mosque, save Mahoba).”
The reality was pieced together offline by one of our reporters over the next few days, as she interviewed seven mosque-goers and other sources, all willing to speak with her on condition of anonymity.
In villages and towns along this stretch of NH 86, a 674-km road that connects Dewas in Madhya Pradesh with Kanpur in UP, the Bajrang Dal ran a social-media campaign, largely over Facebook, to bring down the mosque, just as part of the temple was.
Group members changed their profile pictures to “Medina Masjid Hatao, Mahoba Bachao” to pressure local authorities to “do the right thing”.
“Prashasan masjid tudvaane mein nakaamyaab saabit ho rahi hai. (The administration is proving itself incapable of bringing down the mosque),” was the line they took, even holding a press conference, where they gave local authorities a deadline of 5 August.
“5 तारीख तक मदीना मस्जिद नहीं हटी तो करेंगे बड़ा आंदोलन पूरा हिन्दू समाज (We will take our protests to the next level if you don’t comply),” was the not-so-subtle veiled threat.
“If the Medina mosque is not gone by 5 August all of Hindu society will start a big protest.”
Changing Attitudes, Shrinking Mosque
The old guard here in Mahoba, a district celebrated as a symbol of grand 9th- to 13th-century Chandela era, prides itself on a spirit of harmony.
According to local worshippers, the Medina mosque may be around 500 years old. Hindutva organisations claim it is no older than 50 or 60 years. It was a larger, grander structure, before half of it was razed the first time the highway was constructed more than a decade ago.
The 2011 census records 75.21% of Mahoba district as Hindu and 23.64% Muslim. Most contemporary religious shrines and places of worship have been built on land owned by Muslims and, often, funded by them, according to the older generation of locals. The current generation, perhaps disillusioned with the lack of opportunities and employment, seek “careers in religious fundamentalism”, said a group of old-timers.
NH86 highway only ever made news for its myriad accidents, featuring overturned trucks and mangled bodies, what the local media called ‘yamdooton ka gadh’ (the seat of the gods of death). Police dossiers record accidents involving stray cattle, drunk driving, and recently, under a bridge over the Betwa river, a Covid19-lockdown-induced depression party, which ended either in suicide or murder—it’s unclear which.
When the highway had to be expanded and it was clear some parts of the mosque would be needed, negotiations in July between local officials, the Public Works Department (PWD) and the mosque’s guardian Sayeed Lambardaar agreed on a 11-ft retreat.
Two days before the 5-August foundation-stone ceremony of the Ram temple, as pressure from Hindutva groups grew, district officials Ramsuresh Varma, Rajesh Kumar Yadav, Jatashanker Rao, and Balkrishna Singh met Lambardaar again, telling him that 11 ft was, after all, too little. The PWD officials, who were not from Mahoba, were no longer around.
At Lambardaar’s request, it was decided that a final mark would be made, indicating what part of the mosque would be required for the highway expansion and that the negotiating group would reconvene.
The matter was officially listed as “pending” in a meeting officials, as we learned.
Within 48 hours of the meeting, the mosque had been demolished, its malba (rubble) allegedly dumped in a nearby well.
It is now more than a month since the incident of the mosque. The government does not talk of it. The locals prefer not to. Peace reigns in the district.