The plan to build a Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya has received unlikely support – from a Muslim body. On Tuesday, Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board Chairman Waseem Rizvi met Art of Living founder Ravi Shankar and pledged his support for the temple. “I met Gurudev Sri Sri ji and insisted that the Ram Temple should be built on the Ram Janmabhoomi site itself and that there was no need to construct a mosque there,” Rizvi told the Hindustan Times.

A Muslim body supporting the construction of a temple where the Babri Masjid once stood may seem odd given the highly polarising nature of the dispute. Yet, this is not the first time Shia bodies and clerics in Uttar Pradesh have taken positions favouring the Bharatiya Janata Party. Bitter sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shias means the latter – a minority within the state’s Muslim community – often looks to the BJP for political support.

Sectarian tension

The Babri Masjid isn’t the only casualty of the Shia-Sunni rift. The Shia Central Waqf Board has even written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the highly unusual request to demolish Mughal emperor Humayan’s tomb, one of Delhi’s most famous monuments. In the letter sent on October 18, Rizvi made it clear that he subscribed to the BJP’s politics by calling the Mughals “cruel kings who looted the country” and rulers who “misused their power to demolish 3,000 temples”.

Rizvi also made no secret of the fact that the Shia-Sunni rift provided the background for his bizarre demand by saying Saudi Arabia allowed for the destruction of historical tombs and claiming that “the Muslim community to which Humayun belonged [Sunnis] do not recognise any tomb as a part of its ideology and theology”.

Claim to Babri Masjid

Though the Shia Central Waqf Board has always been a party to the Ayodhya dispute, it had remained quiescent on the matter following a 1946 court order holding the mosque to be a Sunni structure. In August this year, however, the board challenged the 1964 order, arguing that Mir Baqi, the Mughal general who had built the mosque, was a Shia.

Unlike the Sunni Waqf Board, though, the Shia board is not fighting to rebuild Babri Masjid. In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on August 7, the board maintained that it wanted a Ram Temple built on the spot where the mosque stood until it was demolished in December 1992. A mosque can be built at a “reasonable distance from the most revered place of birth of Ram,” the board contended.

Shias for BJP

Shias are a minority among Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims with a disproportionately large share in the old zamindari elite. After Independence, the state witnessed bitter squabbles between Sunnis and Shias, resulting in a ban on the Shia practice of taking out large processions on Muharram in Lucknow as the marches would end up sparking sectarian skirmishes.

The ban was in place for 21 years until 1998, when it was lifted by the BJP government of Kalyan Singh. This move was greatly appreciated by Shias who saw the BJP as more responsive to them than, say, the Samajwadi Party, which was more interested in wooing the numerically stronger Sunnis.

Since then, prominent Shias have openly supported the BJP even as Sunnis mostly opposed the saffron party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Shia leaders lend support to Narendra Modi’s candidature in Varanasi as well as Rajnath Singh’s in Lucknow.

The BJP has a small number of Muslim leaders and it is no coincidence the tallest among them is a Shia – Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the only Muslim minister in the Modi government. Similarly, the sole Muslim minister in the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh government too is a Shia – Mohsin Raza.