IN MID SEPTEMBER 2023, hardly two months before the Madhya Pradesh elections, the police arrested four persons for attempting to place an idol of Sarasvati within the premises of the Kamal Maula Masjid, in the town of Dhar. The persons arrested were associated with the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist party connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Hindu Mahasabha later claimed that an idol of Sarasvati had spontaneously manifested itself inside the shrine.
The events were an eerie recall of how, in 1949, a supposed manifestation of an idol at the site of the Babri Masjid—also engineered by members of the Hindu Mahasabha—had launched a decades-long political and social dispute. Hindu groups in Dhar claim that the Kamal Maula mosque is, in fact, an eleventh-century structure called the Bhojshala, a school run by the mediaeval emperor Bhoja, and that it was the site of a temple to the deity Sarasvati—also referred to as Vagdevi. Outside the disputed mosques at Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, Hindutva organisations have turned their focus on the Kamal Maula Masjid and the Baba Budangiri shrine in Karnataka, seeking political mobilisation in the name of religious beliefs.
Over the past three decades, especially when a Congress government was in charge in Madhya Pradesh from 1998 to 2003, Dhar saw numerous attempts by Hindu groups to lay claim to the site, leading to a series of standoffs between demonstrators and the police. Adhering to guidelines issued by the Archeological Survey of India, in April 2003, the state government allowed Hindus to pray at the site on Tuesdays, and Muslims to offer namaz at the mosque on Fridays. After the mobilisation of the Congress years, tensions over the shrine had been, for the most part, contained by the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, which preferred to maintain the status quo during its two decades in power.