Hindu extremists target Muslim sites in India, even Taj Mahal

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s prime minister has warned of a food shortage as the island nation battles a devastating economic crisis and vowed the government will buy enough fertiliser for the next planting season to boost harvests. A decision in April last year by president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilisers drastically cut crop yields and although the government has reversed the ban, no substantial imports have yet taken place. “While there may not be time to obtain fertiliser for this Yala (May-August) season, steps are being taken to ensure adequate stocks for the Maha (September-March) season,” Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a message on Twitter late on Thursday. “I sincerely urge everyone to accept the gravity of the … situation.” Rajapaksa appointed nine new members to the cabinet on Friday, including the critical health, trade and tourism ministries. But he did not name a finance minister and the portfolio is likely to be retained by Wickremesinghe. Tourism-dependent Sri Lanka is facing a dire shortage of foreign exchange, fuel and medicines, and economic activity has slowed to a crawl. “There is no point in talking about how hard life is,” said APD. Sumanavathi, a 60-year-old woman selling fruit and vegetables in the Pettah market in Colombo, the commercial capital. “I can’t predict how things will be in two months, at this rate we might not even be here.” Nearby, a long queue had formed in front of a shop selling cooking gas cylinders, the prices of which have soared to nearly 5,000 rupees (US$14) from 2,675 rupees in April. “Only about 200 cylinders were delivered, even though there were about 500 people,” said Mohammad Shazly, a part-time chauffeur in the queue for the third day in the hope of cooking for his family of five. “Without gas, without kerosene oil, we can’t do anything,” he said. “Last option what? Without food, we are going to die. That will happen 100%.” The central bank governor said on Thursday foreign exchange had been secured from a World Bank loan and remittances to pay for fuel and cooking gas shipments, but supplies are still to flow through. Inflation could rise to a staggering 40% in the next couple of months but it was being driven largely by supply-side pressures and measures by the bank and government were already reining in demand-side inflation, the governor said. Inflation hit 29.8% in April with food prices up 46.6% year-on-year. G7 support on relief As anger against the government spreads, police fired tear gas and water cannon to push back hundreds of student protesters in Colombo on Thursday. The protesters are demanding the ouster of the president as well as the prime minister. The economic crisis has come from the confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic battering tourism, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the government of president Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who resigned as prime minister last week. Critics accuse Wickremesinghe, appointed prime minister in his place, of being a stooge of the brothers, an accusation he denies. Other factors have included heavily subsidised domestic prices of fuel and the decision to ban chemical fertiliser imports. The Group of Seven economic powers supports efforts to provide debt relief for Sri Lanka, group finance chiefs said on Thursday in a draft communique from a meeting in Germany after Sri Lanka defaulted on its sovereign debt. Central bank chief P Nandalal Weerasinghe has said plans for debt restructuring were almost finalised and he would be submitting a proposal to the cabinet soon. “We are in pre-emptive default,” he said. “Our position is very clear, until there is a debt restructure, we cannot repay.” A spokesperson for the International Monetary Fund said it was monitoring developments very closely and that a virtual mission to Sri Lanka was expected to conclude technical talks on a possible loan programme on May 24.


NEW DELHI: Thirty years after mobs demolished a historic mosque in Ayodhya, triggering a wave of sectarian bloodshed that saw thousands killed, fundamentalist Indian Hindu groups are eyeing other Muslim sites — even the world-famous Taj Mahal.

Emboldened under Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, aided by courts and fuelled by social media, the fringe groups believe the sites were built on top of Hindu temples, which they consider representations of India’s “true” religion.

Currently, most in danger is the centuries-old Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, where Hindus are cremated by the Ganges.

Last week reports claimed a leaked court-mandated survey of the mosque had discovered a shivalinga, a phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva, at the site.

“This means that is the site of a temple,” government minister Kaushal Kishore, a member of Modi’s BJP party, told local media, saying that Hindus should now pray there.

Muslims have already been banned from performing ablutions in the water tank where the alleged relic — mosque authorities say it is a fountain — was found.

Religious riots

The fear now is that the Islamic place of worship will go the way of the Ayodhya mosque, which Hindu groups believe was built on the birthplace of Ram, another deity.

The frenzied destruction of the 450-year-old building in 1992 sparked religious riots in which more than 2,000 people died, most of them Muslims, who number 200 million in India.

The demolition was also a seminal moment for Hindutva — Hindu supremacy — paving the way for Modi’s rise to power in 2014.

The movement’s core tenet has long been that Hinduism is India’s original religion and that everything else — from the Mughals, originally from Central Asia, to the British — is alien.

Some groups have even set their sights on Unesco world heritage site the Taj Mahal, India’s best-known monument attracting millions of visitors every year.

Despite no credible evidence, they believe that the 17th-century mausoleum was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan on the site of a Shiva shrine.

“It was destroyed by Mughal invaders so that a mosque could be built there,” Sanjay Jat, spokesman for the hardline organisation Hindu Mahasabha, told AFP.

This month a court petition was filed by a member of Modi’s party trying to force India’s archaeological body, the ASI, to open up 20 rooms inside, believing they contained Hindu idols.

The ASI said there were no such idols and the court summarily dismissed the petition.

But it was not the first such case — and it is unlikely to be the last.

“I will continue to fight for this till my death,” Jat said.

“We respect the courts but if needed we will demolish the Taj and prove the existence of a temple there.”

‘Gospel truth’

Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian history with Rutgers University, said the claims about the Taj Mahal are “about as reasonable as the proposals that the Earth is flat”.

“So far as I can discern, there is not a coherent theory about the Taj Mahal at play here so much as a frenzied and fragile nationalist pride that does not allow anything non-Hindu to be Indian and demands to erase Muslim parts of Indian heritage,” she told AFP.

But while the demolition of the Taj Mahal remains — for now, at least — a pipe-dream of the fundamentalists, other sites are also in the crosshairs.

They include the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura, built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after he attacked the city and destroyed its temples in 1670.

The mosque is next to a later temple built on what is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.

On Thursday a court agreed to hear a lawsuit demanding the removal of the mosque, one of a slew of similar petitions.

Police in the northern city have been put on alert.

Another is Delhi’s Qutub Minar, a 13th-century minaret and victory tower built by the Mamluk dynasty, also from Central Asia.

Some Hindu groups believe it was constructed by a Hindu king and that the complex housed more than 25 temples.

Such claims were born of a “very sparse” knowledge of the past, historian Rana Safvi told AFP.

Instead, a “sense of victimhood” was being fuelled by social media misinformation, she said, “making them believe it’s the gospel truth”.