Muslim community leaders in Maharashtra have expressed dismay at the state government’s decision to set up a Special Investigation Team to inquire into an alleged attempt to forcibly enter the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik, reported The Indian Express on Tuesday.
The order was issued after the temple authorities filed a police complaint alleging that on May 13, a group of Muslims attempted to offer a chadar – a ceremonial cloth printed with religious verses – to Hindu deity Shiva. Four Muslim men have been arrested in the case, according to India Today.
However, Muslim community leaders have claimed that they were only following a decades-old ritual of offering frankincense at the entrance of the temple. The temple authorities have denied that any such tradition exists.
Avez Kokni, former president of the Trimbakeshwar civic body, told The Indian Express that the practice of sending fumes of frankincense from the temple premises to a nearby dargah during an annual gathering has been going on for decades and the Hindu community never objected to it.
“We are surprised that this issue has now been raked up and it has taken a communal turn,” he told the newspaper.
In Nashik, Muslims conduct a procession during the Urs – the death anniversary of a Sufi saint – that passes in front of the temple and enters the dargah of Hazrat Gulab Shah Wali.
“Every year, Muslims stand on the first step of the temple at the entrance and send the fragrant smoke rising from the burning frankincense inside the premises,” Kokni said. “This has been done for years as a mark of respect. The procession then moves toward the dargah. On Saturday, too, a similar thing happened. At no time was an attempt made to storm the temple.”
Those who participated in the procession said that only four or five of them had entered the temple premises to conduct the ritual.
“It is an age-old practice and a symbol of syncretism,” Parvez Kokni, former chairman of the Nashik District Central Cooperative Bank, told The Indian Express. “This ritual has been taking place for ages. Muslims make up a very small percentage of the city’s population and have stayed in harmony... I am surprised why this age-old custom is now suddenly being questioned.”
Those who participated in the ritual submitted videos to the police to show that the same practice had been carried out in previous years too.
“We were called by the police,” Salim Sayyed, one of the participants, told the newspaper. “I told them that I remember doing this ritual since I was a child. My forefathers did the same. However, if we have hurt anyone’s feelings I apologise.”
However, Pankaj Bhutada, a temple trustee, told The Indian Express, that there was no mention of any such ritual in their official records. “Just because they managed to do it once, [it] does not become practice.”
Nashik (Rural) Superintendent of Police Shahji Umap said that security guards at the temple had stopped the Muslim men at the entrance as the visiting hours had ended. “They returned from the gate,” he added. “The members of the Muslim community have now said that if what they did hurt anyone’s religious feelings they will not repeat the act.”