Religious tension hangs heavy in sacred Hindu city

In the Indian city of Mathura, Hindus and Muslims hold on to a shaky peace at a holy site.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sharafat Khan's husky baritone, well-tuned for bartering in this noisy Indian marketplace, lowers to a whisper when he discusses Gujarat, a violence-torn region far from his hometown.

"Yes, we are watching the murder of our Muslim brothers there, and we are worrying. Maybe we are next," says the burly iron fabricator, as he huddles close to his son. "I was born in Mathura. I have friends here who are both Hindu and Muslim, but I know that could change, if only someone decides to play more political games."

Gujarat and its communal violence may be hundreds of miles away, but many in Mathura, such as Mr. Khan, are nervously watching the region's rising death count, now close to one thousand.

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Violence in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya escalated Feb. 27 after a Muslim mob firebombed a train carrying Hindus who wanted a temple re-built on a mosque site there. The incident sparked India's worst religious violence in a decade.

Residents of Mathura worry that a similar scenario awaits them, because their city, like Ayodhya, is home to a highly significant religious site being fought over by Hindus and Muslims.

Some 3,000 holy places are scattered across India, where hundreds of years ago Muslim rulers are said to have destroyed sacred Hindu temples to build mosques. But Mathura, Ayodhya, and Varanasi are three that were singled out for dispute in the early 1990s by Hindu extremists because of their religious importance.

At Mathura, citizens are trying to stay calm. But around the corner from Khan's sidewalk stall, sweets shop owner Laxmandass Maheshwori admits he is concerned.

"We are Hindu, but we live in a Muslim area and are very happy together. And now my business is just six months old, and it is good...," says Mr. Maheshwori before adding in a hushed tone: "If something happens here, then everything will be lost."

To most foreign tourists, Mathura would seem a nondescript, semi-industrial city to be rushed past enroute to a viewing of the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra.

But at the city's heart, not far from the sacred bathing ghats that lead down to the Yamuna River, lies the disputed land where Hindu pilgrims flock to find the birthplace of Krishna – and, right next door, Muslims regularly turn to face Mecca at a red sandstone mosque.

Mathura is recognized as one of Hinduism's seven sacred cities. Hindus believe that Krishna was born here 3,500 years ago in a prison cell where his parents were held captive by a tyrannical king.

A series of Muslim invaders – concluding with Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century – razed the site, then built a mosque in its place. Now, a more recent Krishna temple also stands cheek by jowl beside it, blaring Hindu bhajans (hymns) across the mosque's cobblestones.

The tension at the site is palpable. At the Hindu temple, so-called "Black Cat" elite commandos accompanied by city, regional, and intelligence bureau officers patrol the grounds. To enter the complex, visitors must go through airport-style electronic arches, then be patted down. A two-story-high, barbed-wire fence circles and divides the temple and mosque.

At the mosque, security isn't as tight. Muslim families, goats, and bulls live on the grounds.

A Hindu soldier on the mosque's perimeter was blunt about his view of the future. "These Muslims don't like us here. We will wait some time, then they will be meat," says the soldier, making a swift chopping motion with his hand.

In his concrete room at the mosque, the Muslim cleric, Imam Abdul Wazid says he continues to preach "about living together like brothers and good neighbors, always trying to get along."

But he still hears the worry in peoples' voices. "People talk about Gujarat and wonder if this trouble will come here," the Imam says.

A high-ranking district official has said that the government is spending 400,000 rupees (more than $8,000) per day to protect both monuments.

"[Government officials] are worried that if trouble erupts here, it will just keep spreading until we have a massive conflict across India and maybe with (mostly Muslim) Pakistan," says Mohini Giri, chairperson of the Guild of Service, a women's charitable group who has interviewed officials about the issue.

In addition, India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has "a bloody nose because of the Gujarat crisis, and they are very keen to stabilize," before upcoming state elections and the 2004 general election, says Vinod Mehta, editor in chief of Outlook, a respected Indian newsmagazine. "I don't think they want to be further marginalized."

Mr. Mehta says hopefully, the government is learning lessons from Gujarat.

Police in Gujarat now, for example, gather elders from both Hindu and Muslim communities to sort out problems and talk peace so that no future flare-ups occur.

Mehta says the future of Mathura will depend on how the Gujarat conflict develops.

"The people who would be behind any Mathura agitation are the same people as the perpetrators of the carnage in Gujarat, and right now, I don't think they have the capacity to spread their activities so far out and have two or three things going at once," says Mr. Mehta.

At his sweets stall, Maheshwori believes there is still room for hope in this city.

"Hindus and Muslims live happily together now and keep quiet. I think we all want to stay that way," he says.

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