WASHINGTON - Following a ruling by India’s Supreme Court over a land dispute between the country’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, a Kashmir-based militant group, with alleged ties to al-Qaida, has vowed retaliation and urged Muslims in the country to stand up against the decision.
“We will surely take vengeance for the martyrdom of the Babri Masjid, and for the decision to surrender its land to the infidels and for the oppression carried out by the polytheist groups on the believers,” the group Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) warned via their official media platform, al-Hurr.
On Nov. 9, the Indian Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the Ram Mandir, allowing the construction of a temple on the site of Babri Masjid, a centuries-old mosque that was destroyed in 1992 by an angry Hindu mob following tensions between Hindus and Muslims over the ownership of the land.
The question of the land’s ownership had lingered for decades before the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month in favor of the Hindu temple.
Hindus believe the site of the mosque is the birthplace of their deity, Ram.
The court has also ordered the government to allocate a separate piece of land to the Sunni Waqf Board, the main litigating body in the case, for the construction of a new mosque.
Not a religious battle
The Indian Supreme Court maintains that Ayodhya verdict was handled as a property dispute, and not a religious battle between Hindus and Muslims, despite the history of the case.
Some Indian rights activists, however, charge that underneath the land dispute lies a deeper issue of religious divide.
“While on the surface it has been a land dispute, in reality it has always reflected a manifest desire among the Hindu right wing to humiliate Muslims in the name of historical wrongs,” said Ajit Sahi, an Indian civil liberties activist.
“The Hindu right wing for nearly a century has pedaled the narrative that Muslims are less patriotic than Hindus,” he added.
Others like Abhijit Iyer Mitra, an analyst at the Indian Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, charge that while it may come across as a religious matter, it essentially is a legal issue.
“It’s very much a Hindu-Muslim dispute, but the technicality of it is that it is a land dispute,” Mitra said.
“The decision really swung the Hindu way after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque, because, as you know, possession is nine-tenths of the law, especially in India, where title deed not withstanding possession trumps ownership,” he added.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the decision and downplayed the Hindu victory, urging the nation to move forward in unity.
“The Supreme Court has given its decision. It is time for nation building. Time to work towards the future,” Modi said following the decision.
While the Sunni Waqf Board has accepted the court’s verdict, some Muslim organizations in India, including the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an advocacy group working for the rights of Muslims in India, have filed for petition.
Threats issued by AGH regarding the recent verdict have received some public attention in India and have led to concerns among analysts, who warn that international terror groups, including al-Qaida, might use the ruling to exploit an already growing rift between the minority Muslims and majority Hindus in the country.
“It is likely that these pan-Islamic terror groups will try to exploit the Ayodhya verdict,” Khalid Shah, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, an India-based think tank, told VOA.
Shah, however, expressed doubts on the origin of the AGH message, considering Indian-controlled Kashmir has been on lockdown since early August when India decided to end its semi-autonomous status.
“Other militant groups in Kashmir have not been able to make any statements since Aug. 5 because all communication is intercepted. The statement was perhaps issued outside of Kashmir by their handler [al-Qaida],” Shah said.
Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH)
AGH is a small organization confined to Jammu and Kashmir with limited manpower, but a large ideological following, according to experts.
The organization was formed in 2017 when its founder, Zakir Musa, severed ties with Hizbul Mujahideen, a pro-Pakistan militant group based in the Indian-controlled Kashmir, over ideological differences.
Although not listed on the U.S. State Department’s official Foreign Terrorist Organization list, analysts on South Asia warn that AGH is an affiliate of al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, in his last video message on the situation in Kashmir, urged militant groups there to wage jihad for what he called “liberation.”
The picture of AGH’s slain leader, Musa, could be seen in the background of al-Zawahiri’s video.
Musa, the group’s leader was killed by Indian security forces in May of this year as was his successor, Hamid Lelhari, who was killed last month.
Analyst Shah said Indian security agencies, despite brushing off the AGH as an insignificant group, have been cracking down on its members.
“There is an active pursuit of the members of this group by Indian Security Forces,” Shah said. “They [India] recognize that their [AGH] ideology is very potent and very dangerous.”
Shah, who has been monitoring terror organizations in Kashmir, said what differentiates AGH from other militant groups is that it has set itself apart from “pro-Pakistani” groups.
“AGH has openly spoken against Pakistan and ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence agency]. They consider Pakistan as part of the problem rather than the solution to Kashmir,” he said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office claimed the verdict has been influenced by “Hindu supremacy.”
“The rising tide of extremist ideology in India, based on the belief of Hindu supremacy and exclusion, is a threat to regional peace and stability,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
India has not reacted to the statement from Pakistan but has dismissed allegations that the country’s religious minorities, mainly Muslims, are being marginalized.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said Pakistan’s reaction to this might be somehow unprecedented in its nature but is nothing new.
“These are critiques we’ve heard quite frequently from Islamabad as New Delhi has intensified its Hindu nationalist agenda, but this is the first time we’ve heard them in response to an Indian court decision as opposed to an Indian government policy,” Kugelman said.
He added that the recent ruling would naturally strain the already tense communal divide, but he said it is too early to suggest that AGH’s threat would further fuel the divide.