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Decades old land-sharing deal on a holy site between Hindus and Muslims unravels

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Over 50 years ago, Hindu and Muslim residents of a north Indian town did something remarkable. They decided to share a piece of land that Hindus hold as sacred and where Muslims had long worshipped in a medieval mosque. Now that agreement has unraveled. It comes as India gears up for a month-long election beginning on Friday that some say is likely to further boost the Hindu nationalist party. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

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DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Worshipers dance outside a temple complex devoted to Lord Krishna in Mathura, the town where Hindus believe this beloved deity was born.

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HADID: Mathura is ancient, but the complex was only built a few decades ago, and it shares a wall with the medieval mosque.

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HADID: The mosque was built by a Mughal ruler on the ruins of an older Hindu temple that he demolished in the 17th century. But Hindus never forgot about the destroyed temple. They pursued legal cases until the '60s, when Mathura's Hindus and Muslims decided to seek compromise instead.

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HADID: Muslims tapped Mohammad Shahmir Malih to represent them. We met his son, Zahir Alam.

ZAHIR ALAM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Alam says Muslims kept the mosque but handed over most of the land around it. Hindus built the sprawling Krishna complex that exists today. Alam says his father even attended the consecration. But the mood soured after 2019, when the Indian Supreme Court gave Hindu litigants land where a mosque once stood in the town of Ayodhya, about 300 miles from here. The ruling came decades after rioters tore down Ayodhya's medieval mosque, believing it was built on the birthplace of another revered Hindu deity.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting in non-English language).

HADID: And that emboldened Hindu nationalists. Vijay Bahadur Singh is from the Hindu trust that manages the Krishna temple complex in Mathura. He says after the court judgment in Ayodhya, his organization tore up the decades-old agreement they made with Mathura’s Muslims and filed a petition.

VIJAY BAHADUR SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says he's sure they have the right to the mosque's land. Other Hindu nationalist lawyers have filed cases against at least six other mosques and Mughal-era sites, including the iconic Taj Mahal. Their actions are backed by the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party. Consider the Ayodhya mosque site - after the court's judgment, a temple was speedily built there. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, consecrated it in January, critics say, with an eye to elections in April, where Modi is likely to win a third term in office.

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HADID: Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes on Hindu nationalism. He says the fights for mosques is a vote winner for the BJP, because it signals to their base that they're avenging what they see as medieval Muslim domination.

NILANJAN MUKHOPADHYAY: We are not meek and subdued any longer. This is our country. We are taking control.

HADID: And the impact on India's large Muslim minority of 200 million people has been bruising. Columnist Ziya Us Salam recently wrote a book, "Being Muslim In Hindu India." He says the rush to claim mosques has come alongside rhetoric vilifying Muslims - physical attacks and policies that Muslims fear will strip them of their citizenship.

ZIYA US SALAM: To be a Muslim today in contemporary India is like being in the boxer's ring, except that you don't have one boxer in front of you, but four boxers punching you from four different directions.

HADID: Although the fight over Mathura's mosque is making its way through the courts, one of the BJP's most powerful leaders recently hinted that it was about time Muslims handed it over.

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HADID: And in Mathura, there's a sense that one side has won. At the Krishna temple complex, pilgrims crowd before the soaring gate. Hawkers sell clangy toys.

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HADID: Around the corner, we try to walk up an alleyway to reach the mosque.

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HADID: There's a security checkpoint. We're surrounded by men - some in uniform, some in plain clothes.

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HADID: They say only residents of the alleyway may pass. So we go to a nearby teashop frequented by Mathura Muslims. One elderly man disappears and returns with a faded copy of the compromise struck between Muslims and Hindus in 1968 to share the disputed land.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The mosque was made during Aurangzeb times. This is an agreement that was made between the two communities. You can see the signatures of both Hindus and Muslims over here.

HADID: The man requests anonymity. He's afraid harm will come to him or his copy of the agreement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says he made this copy in case a day came when people might try to claim the mosque. And he says that day has come.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Mathura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.