Communalism continues to grow and prosper. Even fundamentalism is beginning to raise its ugly head. Nothing symbolises this more than the emotive dispute over the Ram Janmabhoomi and Babri Masjid issue. Efforts have been made to find a solution, but without luck. A thought arises in my mind in this year of Nehru’s birth centenary. How would Nehru have tackled the problem? Fortuitously, Nehru offers a solution indirectly in an article he wrote in Almora District Jail on August 7, 1935 under the title: Two Mosques. Muslims and Sikhs had clashed over the Shahidganj Masjid of Lahore and its lands. The dispute was decided by the High Court on October 19, 1934 in favour of the Sikhs, who then decided to restore the building as a Gurudwara. The Muslims thereupon started an agitation. Nehru analysed the issue and sought to offer a way out. He cited the solution found by modern Turkey’s great leader, Kemal Ataturk to the controversy between Christians and Muslims over another celebrated mosque, Apa Suphea (now Ayasofya) of Constantinople, originally Santa Sophia, unrivalled cathederal of the Orthodox Church for nine centuries!
Nehru’s informative and thought-provoking article, which deserves to be quoted at length, reads as follows: “The Shahidganj Masjid of Lahore is daily in the news these days. There is quite an excitement in the city and religious fervour seems dominant on both sides. Attacks on each other, complaints of evil designs of the other and, in between, British rule showing its might as the Judge. I do not have an accurate version of the incidents — who started it, who was at fault etc — and I have no real intention of finding out. Such kinds of religious enthusiasm do not interest me much. But unfortunately, once it is aroused, you have to face it, interest or no interest. I was thinking how backward we are in this country, that we are prepared to sacrifice our lives for such trivial matters and are ready to endure slavery and hunger.
“From this mosque my attention wandered to another mosque. It is a very famous historical mosque and for the last fourteen hundred years or so, crores of eyes have seen it. It is older than even Islam and in this long life it has witnessed many things. Many empires toppled before it, old kingdoms were destroyed and many religious changes took place. In silence it witnessed all and at every change and revolution changed its dress too. Fourteen hundred years of storm this majestic building faced… Before the still eyes of its stones, empires came up and dwindled, religions spread and collapsed, mighty emperors, beautiful women and many talented persons came into existence, lived and then disappeared. It witnessed bravery, baseness and meanness. Big and small, good and bad, all have gone, but those stones still stand. While looking down from their heights even new, I wonder that those stones think of the multitude below — the games of the children, the quarrels, the deceit and the foolishness of the elders — how very little have they learned these thousands years! How much more would it take to learn and be wise?
A narrow arm of the sea, like a broad river, separates Europe from Asia there. The Bosphorus flows and keeps the two worlds separate. On the hillsides of its European bank there was an old settlement of Byzantium. For long it was part of the Roman Empire, the eastern border of which, up to the early centuries of the Christian era, was in Iraq. But from the eastern side this kingdom was often attacked. The power of Rome was declining and it was not able to protect its far-off borders properly…. The Roman Emperor, Constantine, decided to shift his capital to the east, so as to protect the empire from the eastern onslaught. He selected the picturesque bank of the Bosphorus, and on the tiny hills of Byzantium established a huge city. When Constantinople (or Kustuntunia) came into being, the fourth century of the Christian era was coming to an end… After some time the Roman Empire got divided into two parts — the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. Some years later the Western Empire was destroyed by its enemies. But the Eastern Empire lasted for over one thousand years thereafter and was known as the Byzantine Empire.
The Emperor Constantine not merely changed the capital but brought about yet another change. .. The emperor himself embraced Christianity…. Earlier, the Christians in Rome were greatly tortured… In this city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, massive buildings were built by the orders of the emperors and very soon it developed into a very big city. No other city in Europe could stand comparison with it… even Rome fell far behind. The Arches, domes, towers and pillars had a style of their own with minute mosaic work on the pillars and towers! The architectural style is known as Byzantine art. In the sixth century a magnificent cathedral was built in this style. It was known as Sankta Sophia or Santa Sophia. It was the most massive church of the Eastern Roman Empire and the emperors desired that it should, by its high quality of art, be unique and suited to the empire. Their desires were fulfilled and even today it is considered the greatest achievement of this Byzantine art…
“The Cathedral of Santa Sophia was the centre of the Greek Church (Orthodox Church) and so it remained for nine hundred years… In the fifteenth century the Osmanli Turks conquered Constantinople and the greatest cathedral there now became the chief mosque. Santa Sophia was named Apa Suphea. In this new form it lasted for hundreds of years. That splendid mosque in a way became a landmark gazed at from long distances with aspirations. In the nineteenth century the Turkish Empire was weakening and Russia gaining ground. Russia was a very big country but a closed one and all over her empire there was not one warm water port. She therefore cast a covetous eye on Constantinople. More than this was the spiritual and cultural attraction. The Czars of Russia used to consider themselves successors to the Eastern Roman emperors and wanted to bring their old capital under their domination. Both were of the same religion, the Orthodox Greek Church, of which the centre was the famous Santa Sophia. For long it had been a mosque. How could that be tolerated? The Greek cross instead of the Islamic mark, hilal or the crescent, should be on its dome.
“Gradually the Russia of the Czars started expending towards Constantinople… England and France put obstacles, a war ensued and Russia stopped her advance for a while… At last the Great War of 1914 started… Russia of the Czars itself came to an end: a revolution took place there to change the Government as well as the social structure… the Bolsheviks annulled all the treaties and declared that they did not wish to annex any other country… the victorious powers of the West did not like this… They, specially the English, took over Constantinople. After a lapse of 460 years, the administration of the old city again changed from Muslims to Christians… the Sultan bowed, the Caliph accepted European sovereignty; but a handful of Turks refused to accept it. One of them was Mustafa Kemal who preferred to revolt rather than to serve… He abolished the institutions of the Sultanate and caliphate… From the old Constantinople he took away its status. Now Ankara, in Asia, became the capital — a small town but an emblem of the new Turkish power. This name of Constantinople also changed. It became Istanbul.
“And Apa Suphea — what was its fate? Looking on at the ups and downs of life, that old building of fourteen hundred years stands still in Istanbul. For nine hundred years, it witnessed Greek services and smelt all the incense used in Greek worship. Then for four hundred and eighty years, it heard the azan in Arabic and lines of devotees for namaz stood on its floor stones. And now? One day, in this year 1935, only a few months back, by the orders of Gazi Mustafa Kemal (who has been now given a special tile of Ataturk) and Apa Suphea mosque was no more a masjid. Quietly the hojas, mullahs etc. were replaced and sent to other mosques. Now it has been decided that instead of being a mosque, Suphea be converted into a museum — specially that of the Byzantine period — an era of Christians before the arrival of the Turks. With the Turkish occupation of Istanbul or Constantinople in 1452 A.D., it is understood, the Byzantine art ended. Thus Suphea, now, in a way, went back again to the Christian era — and that on the orders of Kemal.
“Great excavations are going on there these days, the mounds of earth are being removed and old mosaics being seen again. Work is going on under the supervision of experts of Byzantine art who have been called from America and Germany. On the gate is the sign board of the museum and the gate keeper in his seat… And while going round, think of the peculiar history of this world and let your mind roam thousands of years back and onwards. Strange are the pictures, the spectacles, the tortures and terrors that one comes across. Ask those walls to relate to you their story, and narrate their experience to you. May be the study of yesterday and today will enable you to remove the curtain and peep into the future. But those stones and walls are silent. They had seen a lot of jumma namaz, and Sunday services. A daily exhibition is now their lot. The world keeps changing, but they stay. On their worn-out faces is an apparent smirk and a mellow voice as if whispering how ignorant and foolish is this human creature who does not learn by his thousands of years of experience and repeats the same follies!”—INFA