A 600-year-old mosque was destroyed by government authorities for alleged "illegal encroachment" in Delhi.
New Delhi CNN  — 

The demolition of two mosques in India within days of each other has highlighted the deep religious divide in the country, months before voters head to the polls for a nationwide election that is expected to hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi a rare third term in power.

The twin demolitions in Uttarakhand state and Delhi came just weeks after Modi inaugurated the controversial Ram Mandir, a temple built on the foundations of a centuries-old mosque that was torn down by hardline Hindu crowds in the early 1990s.

That ceremony marked a seismic shift away from modern India’s secular founding principles and was hailed by Hindu nationalists as a crowning moment in their decades-long campaign to reshape the nation.

Deadly violence erupted in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani city last week, after government officials, accompanied by police, razed a mosque and madrassa (an Islamic school), citing “illegal encroachment.”

But advocates working on behalf of the Muslim community point to court documents, seen by CNN, that show no such order had been given.

The demolitions drew incensed residents onto the streets and at least six people have been killed in clashes with police. Authorities have imposed curfews, but scared Muslim families told CNN they just want to leave. About a third of Haldwani’s 220,000 people are Muslim, according to the most recent census from 2011.

Security walk past bricks and stones scattered on a road after day an Islamic school in Haldwani was destroyed in Uttarakhand on February 9, 2024.

Pushkar Dhami, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, said his government will take strict action against “rioters and miscreants.”

“Every rioter who indulged in arson and stone pelting is being identified, no miscreant who disturbs harmony and peace will be spared,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The clashes come one week after another madrassa, a centuries-old mosque, a Sufi shrine and dozens of Muslim graves were demolished by government authorities in Delhi, also for alleged “illegal encroachment,” prompting anger and outrage in the Indian capital.

Analysts say these incidents underscore an uncomfortable reality in the world’s largest democracy and fear that inter-religious tensions will increase as Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continue to push their populist, yet divisive, policies in the lead up to a nationwide election in just a few months’ time.

The image of India that Modi wants to project is one of a confident, vibrant, and modern superpower. But many of the country’s 230 million Muslims say they are being sidelined and marginalized in the world’s largest democracy.

“This is the worst possible time to be a Muslim in India,” said author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, adding that it has “become normal to demolish mosques in India.”

“The stigmatization of Muslims is an old story, seen as the new normal. No longer does it shock people.”

CNN has reached out to the BJP but is yet to receive a response.

A sectarian shift

The mosque demolitions come against a backdrop of increased religious polarization and accusations that the BJP is building a Hindu-first state in what is constitutionally meant to be a secular country.

They follow the opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya, a controversial Hindu temple built on the ruins of a 16th century mosque that was destroyed by hardline Hindus some 30 years ago, setting off a wave of deadly sectarian violence not seen in India since its bloody 1947 partition.

Modi presided over a lavish consecration ceremony, where he played the role of a priest and hailed the beginning of a “new divine India.” But his vision is a far cry from the ideas of the modern country’s founding fathers, analysts say.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the inauguration of the Ram Janmaboomi Temple in Uttar Pradesh, India on January 22, 2024.

And during his decade in power, Modi’s BJP has isolated millions among India’s sizable minorities, analysts say.

Modi rose to power in 2014 with a pledge to reform India’s economy and usher in a new era of development – but he and his party also heavily pushed a Hindutva agenda, an ideology that believes India is inherently a land meant for Hindus.

About 80% of India’s 1.4 billion people are Hindu, but the country is home to a diverse group of religions and faiths, including Sikhs, Buddhists and one of the world’s largest Muslim populations of some 230 million.

When he stood for reelection in 2019, Modi’s Hindutva policies became more brazen, according to analysts.

A few months after winning, he announced he was stripping the statehood of India’s only Muslim-majority territory, Jammu and Kashmir, and turning it into two union territories while bringing it under federal control.

And earlier this month, the BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand became the first in independent India to pass the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), a set of contentious common laws that have been criticized by some minority groups for trying to replace their personal religious laws.

In India, a country of diverse faiths, religious groups follow their own laws for matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. But these have long been considered by some to be regressive, including by many more secular figures.

The BJP’s attempt to reform these religious laws is seen by some as a welcome move, but critics fear the government’s Hindu nationalist policies could unduly influence the legislation.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim opposition lawmaker, criticized the law, saying it forces Muslims to follow a different religion.

“I have a right to practice my religion and culture, this Bill forces me to follow a different religion and culture,” he wrote on X. “In our religion, inheritance and marriage are part of religious practice.”

Earlier this month, a report from Amnesty International said between April and June 2022, a total of 128 properties largely belonging to Muslims across five states were bulldozed by government authorities.

“The demolitions adversely impacted at least 617 people, including men, women, and children, either rendering them homeless or deprived of their sole livelihood,” the report said.

Author Mukhopadhyay added: “It is a 360 degree Islamophobic campaign that is going on in every sphere of life.”

600-year-old mosque destroyed

A sense of despair among many Muslims lingers in Delhi’s Mehrauli district, where government authorities razed the 600-year-old Akhondji Mosque to the ground late last month.

Late last month, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) – the governing body operating under India’s ruling BJP – bulldozed the structure, alleging “illegal encroachment.”

But Mohammed Zakir Hussain, the mosque’s 40-year-old cleric, says the building was under the control of the city’s Waqf Board, a statutory body established to protect Islamic affairs, and should never have been destroyed.

He felt “helpless” as he pleaded with authorities to stop tearing the building to the ground, he said.

Mohammad Zakir Hussain has said he barely slept since the demolition of his mosque, the madrasa, and his home in India’s capital Delhi.

The DDA’s lawyer Sanjay Katyal told the Delhi High Court that the body had bought the land for planned development.The case is expected to be heard again later this month.

Delhi, a metropolis of more than 20 million people, has seen rapid urbanization over the past few decades, with a vast, modern metro system, and a burgeoning middle class that has come to symbolize India’s economic growth.

But between its meandering roads stand centuries-old monuments and medieval ruins that put the Indian capital on a par with the world’s great ancient cities, historians say.

Historian Rana Safvi said the architecture of the Akhondji Mosque was typical of the Sultanate era, which flourished in India between 1192 and 1526. Its arched roof and pillars of grey stone had stood for some 600 years before it was torn to the ground.

“It is like erasing a part of Indian history,” Safvi said. “It is a loss of a mosque, a safe place for one to congregate to pray, especially at a time when namaz in the open or in public areas is frowned upon.”

Mohammad Aman, a 32-year-old Salon worker from Delhi, looks at photos of the mosque demolition on his phone.

And along with the mosque, authorities also broke down the Islamic school that housed dozens of children, including orphans, and destroyed an old graveyard that stood beside it.

Mohammad Arif, 22, whose father, grandmother and grandfather’s graves are among those ruined, said he arrives at the site every day to try and restore what’s left of it.

“I come here every day to ask (the guards) to let me go inside and put mud to restore their graves at least. They do not allow it,” he said.

Mohammad Aman, 32, mourned the deepening divide between Hindus and Muslims.

“(The government) rationalizes everything by blaming Mughal emperors,” he said, referring to India’s ancient Islamic rulers. “But you’re doing the same thing now. What is the difference between you and him then?”