x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hyderabad protests over temple expansion plans abate

Calm has returned to Hyderabad's Old City after more than a week of protests over a move to expand a small Hindu temple abutting the ancient Charminar monument and mosque - one of the most recognised structures in India.

Indian police stand guard in front of the landmark Charminar monument during Friday prayers in Hyderabad.
Indian police stand guard in front of the landmark Charminar monument during Friday prayers in Hyderabad.

NEW DELHI // Calm has returned to Hyderabad's Old City after more than a week of protests over a move to expand a small Hindu temple abutting the ancient Charminar monument and mosque - one of the most recognised structures in India.

Construction on the temple was halted on November 4 by the state high court after a lawsuit was filed by the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), a local Muslim political party, arguing the scaffolding being erected was illegal and could damage the 420-year-old monument.

But the state government then allowed the temple to erect new scaffolding, setting off 10 days of protests in mid-November during which mobs attacked shops, burnt vehicles and threw stones at police forces. Market activity around the monument was restricted.

"We were forced to shut our shop during Diwali, in the middle of the month," said Ramanlal Sugandhi, who runs a perfume shop in the Old City. "That was a huge loss for us, since Diwali is one of the prime times for our business."

Over the past few days, however, police have kept the violence in check - in particular during the celebration of Moharram on Sunday.

"Life here seems to be slowly getting back to normal," Mr Sugandhi said yesterday.

But the cause of the tension - the Bhagyalakshmi temple, a squat, small shrine that abuts the cream-coloured Charminar - continues to be a thorn in the side of the Andhra Pradesh government.

Hindu groups have argued that the temple has existed cheek-by-jowl with the Charminar for centuries and that it should be allowed to expand.

But in a photograph of the Charminar from roughly 60 years ago, which was published in The Hindu newspaper, there is no temple on the monument's periphery. The earliest photograph in which the temple can be seen dates back to 1986.

According to regulations from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), no new construction is allowed within 100 metres of protected monuments. Since the Charminar was classified as a protected monument in 1951, the emergence of the Bhagyalakshmi temple and its subsequent construction activities are considered illegal.

"This isn't the first time the temple has been the focus of controversy," said Sajjad Shahid, a co-convener of the city's chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). "There have been occasions in the past where it has stirred controversy, and things have just kept getting worse."

Mr Shahid believes that the recent friction was exacerbated by the Charminar's bid for Unesco World Heritage status. Clashes over the monument began in early November, the same day that a UN team was in the city to do an evaluation.

The authorities' failure to crack down on the expansion of the temple and protect the Charminar is a symptom of a wider failure to preserve the heritage of Hyderabad, said Mr Shahid.

"All the monuments under the state's department of archaeology are in even worse shape than the Charminar," he said. "The state simply isn't able to protect its cultural assets, and now there's this failure to uphold the law of the land."

The temple has also roiled the political landscape of Andhra Pradesh. The MIM withdrew its support to the government to protest the temple construction and the MIM president, Asaduddin Owaisi, accused the Congress government of being insensitive to the city's Muslim community.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court has not yet said when it will make its final order on the temple. But when it does, Mr Shahid hopes the court's judgment will resolve the situation once and for all. "Whatever they decide should be respected by everybody."

Ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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