India: New temple-mosque conflict brewing in Varanasi

It’s the afternoon call to prayer at the Gyanvapi mosque in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The handful of men there, kneeling, are dwarfed by the massive 17th-century structure, their soft words nearly drowned out by the steady hum of the low ceiling fans.

It’s a moment of peace and reflection, before the men step back out into an ocean of chaos. They are, after all, in the heavily guarded heart of the temple town of Varanasi, and the heart of a religious dispute that has been brewing for decades.

The existence of Gyanvapi mosque has been challenged in court, over allegations that it was built after tearing down an iconic Hindu temple.

The petitioner wants the land to be restored to the Hindus, so a temple can be built in the place of the mosque.

It is a familiar dispute for many Indians — a similarly controversial mosque once existed just 200 kilometers (125 miles) from this one and became the epicenter of a decadeslong standoff between Hindus and Muslims in the country.

The Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya was torn down by Hindu mobs in December 1991, catapulting the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), currently ruling India, into national prominence.

Almost three decades later, the Supreme Court of India awarded the disputed land to the Hindu side.

‘This is not Ayodhya’

SM Yaseen, a member of the Varanasi mosque’s board, is undaunted by this verdict. Yaseen runs a woodwork shop but keeps copies of the Indian constitution and earlier Supreme Court judgments at hand to firmly make his point.

“This is not Ayodhya,” he says emphatically. He explains that the Muslim side is better organized, better prepared to litigate, and more sizable and affluent in Varanasi, in comparison to the Muslims who lived alongside the Babri mosque.

“We accepted the Ayodhya verdict with heavy hearts, hoping there won’t be fresh trouble in the future,” says Yaseen. “But if they are insistent on filing cases, we’ll fight them. I just hope this does not leave the courts and spill out onto the streets.”

The threat of religious violence hangs heavy in the memories of most Indians of Yaseen’s generation.

More than 2,000 deaths were recorded in the riots that broke out across the country after the Babri mosque’s demolition.

And frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims have disturbed communal harmony and contributed to mistrust and prejudice between the two biggest religious communities in the country.

But the disputes have also been a rallying cry.

The promise to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram in the Babri mosque’s stead featured prominently in the BJP’s manifestos in the last two general elections.

The party scored stunning victories in both elections.

“We accepted the Ayodhya verdict with heavy hearts, hoping there won’t be fresh trouble in the future,” says Yaseen

BJP in need of a new rallying cry?

“A whole generation of politicized Hindus were mobilized around the Babri issue,” says Kapil Komireddi, the author of Malevolent Republic, which chronicles the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. “Now, that cause needs to be kept alive.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already delivered on another key promise to remove the special constitutional status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

It also introduced a controversial amendment to the nation’s citizenship law, which was widely criticized for being anti-Muslim.

These measures, along with the promised Ram temple under construction in Ayodhya, mean that the BJP may need a new rallying point, says Komireddi.

Now, petitions similar to the one in Varanasi have also been filed against mosques in the cities of Mathura and Agra in Uttar Pradesh state.

The Hindu petitioners insist that the sites have been desecrated and must be restored to Hindu worshippers.

“The Muslims destroyed this blessed site and built a mosque on it to establish their own religion,” Vijay Shankar Rastogi, the lawyer fighting the case against Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Mosque, told DW. “I filed this public interest suit on behalf of all the Hindus of this country, against all the Muslims.”

Rastogi, who is representing the temple as a “friend” of the deity, was just 35 years old when he first filed the original petition against the mosque in 1991. Three decades later, he filed a fresh petition asking for an archaeological survey of the site, as he is convinced that a temple’s remains will be found under the mosque.

“The Muslims destroyed this blessed site and built a mosque on it to establish their own religion,” Rastogi said

India’s secular character under threat

Incidentally, it is a 1991 law that is a mainstay of the Muslim side’s defense. According to the Places of Worship Act, the “religious character” of a place, as it stood on India’s Independence Day in 1947, cannot be challenged.

The law was passed to preserve India’s secular character by preventing pre-independence communal conflicts from affecting the country’s religious harmony.

In its verdict on the Babri mosque dispute, India’s Supreme Court also said that the 1991 law must apply in all other similar cases.

For this reason, the Muslim side contests that the archaeological survey is irrelevant, as there is proof of the mosque’s existence in 1947. But now, Hindu nationalist groups are challenging this law in the Supreme Court.

But Rastogi claims the law supports the Hindus’ case.

“The archaeological survey will prove that the religious character of the place has always been Hindu,” he says. “The physical character, which is Muslim, is of no consequence.”

Ayodhya: A religious flashpoint Security mans the site of the Babri masjid in the city of Ayodhya The Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque, was an oft-disputed site for Hindu extremists, who considered the city of Ayodhya the birthplace of Ram, a Hindu deity. Hindu extremists claimed that the mosque was originally built by demolishing a Hindu temple.

Ayodhya: A religious flashpoint Hindu extremists demolish the Babri masjid in Ayodhya On December 6th, 1992, Hindu extremists demolished the Babri Masjid, leading to riots across India, killing 2,000 people.

Ayodhya: A religious flashpoint Effigy of Indian leaders burnt during protests following demolition of the Babri mosque Jihadist groups cited the destruction of the mosque as a reason behind the 1993 Mumbai bombings and other attacks in the 1990s.

Ayodhya: A religious flashpoint City of Ayodhya manned by the police before the announcement of the verdict In November 2019, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the disputed land in the town of Ayodhya would be given to a government-run trust for the construction of a temple. Author: Ankita Mukhopadhyay

Need to find a common ground

Varanasi is one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, hosting millions of pilgrims every year who come here to make offerings to the Hindu god Shiva, and to wash away their sins in River Ganges. However, almost a third of Varanasi’s population is Muslim, and opinions on the latest standoff seem to be firmly divided along religious lines.

Sitting at the doorstep of a large clothes shop that his family has run for generations, Yusuf Faizi worries that these issues usually surface in the run-up to elections, referring to the next year’s state polls in Uttar Pradesh.

“Tensions will rise in Varanasi over this issue,” he told DW.

The mood in the Hindu-majority areas is firmly in favor of the temple.

“People will be happy if the mosque is removed. We will be able to offer prayers more comfortably,” said Ravi Seth, a Hindu shopkeeper.

Rajesh Kesari, another shopkeeper, agrees. “This is Lord Shiva’s city, and the land should go to him,” he asserted.

Author Komireddi believes reckoning with India’s past could be a solution to this conflict.

“If you want to defang the Hindu rage, you have to accept that some of their grievances are actually anchored in experience, of being brutalized by foreign invaders,” he said. “To prevent the tearing down of mosques, we must accept history as it happened.”