Having had a dream run for over a decade now, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is now beginning to feel the heat.

A few months ago, Chouhan was in the firing line for his poor handling of the Vyapam scam. This was followed by a series of electoral reverses in the prestigious Ratlam-Jhabua in November Lok Sabha constituency and local body polls in December.

Madhya Pradesh’s Ayodhya

But now the chief minister’s record as a capable administrator and a loyal follower of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is under serious threat as the normally peaceful state of Madhya Pradesh has been wracked by incidents of communal tension. As many as five regions have witnessed communal clashes in the recent past while a major flare-up is building up at an 11th-century monument in the state’s Dhar district.

Often described as Madhya Pradesh’s “Ayodhya”, the monument is revered as a Saraswati Temple by the Hindus while the Muslims maintain it is an ancient mosque. The Archaeological Survey of India’s Bhopal Circle describes the monument as the “Bhojshala and Kamal Maula’s Mosque”.

“It is believed that it was originally a temple of goddess Sarasvati built by Parawara King Bhoja in circa 11th Century AD. The mosque is built using structural members of the temple. The monument also retains some slabs inscribed with Sanskrit and Prakrit literary works. Noted as a great patron of art and literature, Bhoja is said to have established a school, now known as Bhojashala.”

With both communities laying claim on the monument, the ASI and the local authorities had, over the years, evolved a system which allows Hindus to offer prayers at the shrine every Tuesday and conduct a special puja on the occasion of Basant Panchmi while the Muslims were given permission to offer “Jumma” prayers on Fridays.

Friday, the 12th

Except for minor incidents of communal tension, this arrangement has worked well over the years. But this carefully-nurtured peace plan is threatening to come apart this year as Basant Panchmi on February 12 also happens to be a Friday. A clash between the two communities is not being ruled out as radical Hindu groups like the Hindu Jagran Manch , which have been feeling emboldened after the installation of the Modi government at the Centre, are demanding that the shrine be handed over to the Bhojshala Hindu Utsav Samiti for the whole day on Basant Panchmi for prayers. The atmosphere in Dhar has been further vitiated after Sadhvi Rithambara addressed a meeting here on this issue while volunteers from the various Hindu groups have fanned out in the area to drum up support for their cause.

“We do not wish to share our auspicious puja with the other faith. If the government can not ensure smooth passage, it should let us know in advance. We will hold Saraswati puja elsewhere,” declared Rajesh Shukla, convenor of the RSS-affiliated Dharma Jagran Manch.

On the other hand, Muslim organisations have also upped the ante. They are insisting that their right to offer Friday namaz at the Dhar mosque should not be disturbed and that the authorities must make all arrangements to protect those who may come to offer prayers. Leading a delegation to state minister Babulal Gaur, Arif Masood, a member of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, reminded him about the old ruling given during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s regime permitting Friday prayers at the mosque. A number of other local hardline Muslim groups have further escalated tensions with their inflammatory speeches.

Acid test

The police is particularly nervous this year as it is feared that communal tensions here could travel to Ujjain which is set to witness a massive gathering of Hindu pilgrims and seers for the month-long Simhastha Kumbha after the Basant Panchmi celebrations.

With the intelligence agencies warning about a possible communal flare-up in Dhar, the peaceful conduct of the Basant Panchmi celebrations has become an acid test for Chouhan. Although this is not the first time that the Hindu festival is falling on a Friday – the last time it happened was in 2006 and 2013 – but Chouhan managed to keep both groups happy by allowing them to hold a puja and offer namaz on the same day.

However, this time, the otherwise affable chief minister faces a hard choice. As a BJP leader, he can ill-afford to alienate the hardline Hindu groups as many of them are affiliated to the party’s mentor, the RSS, which is keen to advance its Hindutva agenda while the BJP is in power. In fact, this will be an occasion for Chouhan to prove his Hindu credentials and his loyalties to the RSS.

On the other hand, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister would not like to alienate the Muslim community which may lead to further polarisation between the two communities and create a serious law and order problem in the state. Unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has emerged as a Hindutva icon, Chouhan has positioned himself as a moderate on the lines of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. In an effort to appear inclusive, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister has not shied away from wearing the Muslim skull cap or attending iftar parties.

The coming days will be crucial for Chouhan as his personal reputation, party loyalty and political acumen will be on test.