VARANASI, India – Situated along the shores of the Ganges river, believed by Hindus to be the supreme giver of life, the ancient city of Varanasi in North India wakes up in mist.
At dawn, thousands of Hindu devotees wade into the river and immerse themselves, a ritual they believe rids them of the endless cycle of reincarnations. Then they offer prayers at nearby temples, all before starting their work day.
India’s oldest city, Varanasi, referred to as “Kashi” in Hindu scriptures, is believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, part of Hinduism’s holy trinity. The city is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus around the world. It’s also the chosen parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has won the vote from Varanasi in 2014 and 2019.
Temples and mosques stud the narrow lanes of the ancient city where Hindu devotional songs echoing in the streets blend with azaan, the call to prayer from mosques. Despite rising hate crimes against Muslims since a resurgence of Hindu nationalism with Modi’s election, the two communities have remained peaceful in Varanasi. But a Nov. 9 Supreme Court ruling that allows Hindus to rebuild a temple to Lord Ram in Ayodhya over an infamously, illegally demolished mosque is fueling hopes of razing another mosque — this time in Varanasi.
‘The mosque hurts Hindu sentiments’
The Gyanvapi Mosque is next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of India’s most famous temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. It has divided Muslims and Hindus for centuries because many historians believe the mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 after demolishing the original Kashi Vishwanath temple. Hundreds of Indian security forces guard the disputed site round the clock to prevent violence like the 1992 riots that demolished the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya and killed an estimated 2,000 people.
Hindu nationalists claim that the Babri mosque, named after the Mughal emperor Babar, stood at the dwelling of Lord Ram, one of the gods in the Hindu pantheon. The top court’s decision favoring Hindus has left many Muslims worried about the future of other mosques that Hindu right-wing activists insist are built over temples, like the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, the second-most disputed religious site after Ayodhya. Like the long-existing campaign promise to build Ram temple that helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win elections, Hindu activists have demanded to reclaim the Gyanvapi site for years.
The Hindu right-wing activists in Varanasi rejoice over the court’s decision, believing that it has not only paved the way for the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya but will also boost their struggle to claim the disputed site in their city.
“After the decision, the road to removing the disputed Gyanvapi mosque looks clear,” said Ram Narayan Dwivedi, member of Kashi Vidvat Parishad, a group of Hindu scholars. “We are delighted after the Supreme Court’s judgment on Ayodhya, and want a similar outcome in Varanasi also… the mosque hurts Hindu sentiments, and we want it to be removed.”
A case on the disputed site is pending in the High Court of Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state where both Ayodhya and Varanasi are located.
In Varanasi’s Godowlia area, characterized by narrow lanes, wandering cows, and Hindu holy men with painted foreheads, thousands of Hindu devotees often stand in long winding lines waiting to offer prayers at Kashi Vishwanath Temple. To die in Varanasi, according to Hindu scriptures, liberates the soul and unites it with eternity and the supreme creator himself. Even today, many Hindus from the neighboring areas bring the body of their loved ones to the city for last rites.
Hindu nationalists believe that thousands of Hindu temples were demolished in India by Mughal emperors to build mosques. Out of the thousands, they have campaigned for decades to reclaim three sites: Babri mosque in Ayodhya for building a temple to Lord Ram, the Gyanvapi mosque to restore the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura, which they believe was built on the place where Lord Krishna, one of the gods in Hindu pantheon, was born.
Catherine Asher, a specialist in Islamic and Indian art who is known for her work on the Mughal dynasty, argues in her book, Architecture of Mughal India, that Aurangzeb demolished the Kashi Vishwanath temple to punish Hindus who had helped Chatrapati Shivji, a Maratha king who was one of Aurangzeb’s arch-enemies. But Asher also argues that Auragzeb’s act was driven by political reasons, not religion. He gave generous grants to many other Hindu temples.
For decades, Ayodhya was on top of the agenda for Hindu right-wing groups. They carried out nationwide campaigns demanding a Ram temple on the disputed site, which led to several episodes of violence between Hindus and Muslims. After the Supreme Court’s verdict, it is believed that Varanasi could be Ayodhya Part Two.
“After the advent of Islam in India, many Muslim emperors have ruled the country,” said Rajan Gupt, who is a resident of Varanasi and a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organization. “During their reign, they demolished over 30,000 Hindu temples and built mosques over it. We are ready to forget all those temples, but we won’t forget the ones in Kashi and Mathura.”
There is no data available that verifies his claim on the number of Hindu temples demolished during the Mughal era.
Claiming that the presence of the Gyanvapi mosque spoils the sanctity of the Vishwanath temple, Gupt said, “Nobody wants to keep garbage in his house. The temple is the holiest site for Hindus in Varanasi, and the mosque there desecrates it. We want it to be removed.”
Gupt also said that Varanasi is as holy for Hindus as Mecca is for Muslims. “If there are no Hindu temples possible in Mecca, why should we allow a mosque next to one of our holiest temples?”
The organized effort to take over Varanasi’s historical mosque
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which Gupt is part of, believes that India first belongs to Hindus and then others. They want India to be known as a Hindu nation, despite its constitution that separates religion from the state. It’s a sister organization of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the current ruling party, BJP, in India. VHP played an active role in the Babri mosque’s demolition and has been at the forefront of the campaigns reclaiming disputed sites between Hindus and Muslims. In 2018, the CIA classified the organization as a “militant religious outfit.”
During the Babri mosque’s demolition, the Hindu extremists chanted, “Yeh to kewal jhanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baaki hai (This is just a trailer, Varanasi and Mathura are still left).” VHP, on various occasions, has advocated the demolition of the disputed mosques in Varanasi and Mathura. “We have recently won the Ayodhya case. Now we will work out a strategy to restore Kashi Vishwanath temple on its original place.”
Thousands of Hindu devotees throng the premises of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi to worship “Lingam,” a stone phallus symbolizing the sexual organ of Lord Shiva, which represents the regenerative power of the whole universe. The temple is believed to have been demolished and rebuilt several times even before it was destroyed by Aurangzeb to build the mosque, which still bears the marks of a temple on one of its walls. The present-day temple was built by a Hindu queen, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, in the 19th century. Since then, Hindus and Muslims have continued praying at their respective houses of worship. The mosque site, however, has seen occasional violence because of the dispute.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of the main priests of the temple said, “Just like a drop of lemon spoils the milk, the mosque is vitiating the whole premises of the temple. It’s a blot on Hindus and should be removed.” The priest was hopeful that the Supreme Court’s judgment in Ayodhya would pave the way for the removal of the Gyanvapi mosque in the days to come by legal means.
The Supreme Court’s judgment on Ayodhya, which has left Hindus joyous, has caused despair among the Muslim community.
“We respect the Honorable Supreme Court, but the decision has caused a lot of disappointment,” said Hazi Mehboob, a Muslim leader from Ayodhya who was one of the primary litigants from the Muslim community in the Babri mosque dispute case. “The court’s decision is not satisfactory. Supreme Court has delivered the verdict, justice has not been done,” said Mohammad Azam Qadri, another local Muslim leader from Ayodhya.
Referring to the Babri Mosque’s demolition, Hazi Asad Ahmad, member of Ayodhya Municipal Corporation, said, “Suppose a group of people barge into your house, demolish it and lay a claim on it. And later, the Supreme Court rules in their favor. How would that make you feel? Muslims are angry, but they are acting patiently.”
The judgment has come at a time when India is witnessing a rising wave of Hindu nationalism across the country since Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, which has led minorities, especially Muslims feel marginalized. Since the Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014, there has been a sharp rise in hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims. There have been several cases of lynching of Muslims by Hindu right-wing mobs.
The historical Hindu nationalist agenda
The judgment upholding the demands of Hindu right-wing groups is seen as a victory for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has always flared the issue as part of its Hindu nationalist agenda.
In the late 1980s, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led a nationwide campaign to build a Ram temple at the site where Babri mosque stood, which flared tensions between the majority Hindu population and Muslims, who are 14% of India’s population.
The campaign culminated in the demolition of the mosque after hundreds of thousands of Hindu hardliners attending a march organized by the BJP descended on the mosque and demolished it to rubble while many prominent leaders of the party watched.
In the judgment, the court ordered the central and the state government to provide five acres of land to the Muslims at a “suitable, prominent location” for constructing a mosque. While pronouncing the judgment, the court added that demolishing the mosque in 1992 was an illegal act and should not have happened in a secular democracy governed by the rule of law.
Responding to the judgment, Gupt, being a member of VHP which was at the forefront of the demolition, said, “By saying anything against the court, I wouldn’t want to face contempt charges, but we consider the incident (of demolition) a badge of honor for us.”
“In Varanasi, we want the Muslims to fulfill their moral responsibility towards the Hindu majority and surrender the mosque to us,” he added. “We are peace-loving people; we don’t want any dispute. But if the Muslims don’t fulfill their responsibility, we will have to intensify our struggle for the disputed land.”
The decision which many believed would end the long-standing turf between the communities is considered by many Muslims a beginning of rising ambitions of Hindu right-wing, which would not stop at Ayodhya.
“The voices for fuelling the dispute around the mosque are rising because of the communal atmosphere in the country,” said S.M. Yasin, general secretary at the Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid, the body that manages the Gyanvapi mosque. “But Muslims here will not compromise on the issue.”
They don’t want the issue to escalate, Yasin said, but they won’t sit quietly either. “It’s not that easy to repeat in Varanasi what happened in Ayodhya.” The Muslim population in Varanasi is considerably higher than their population in Ayodhya. The Muslim community in Ayodhya is around 6%, while it’s about 29% in Varanasi. The higher population in Varanasi, according to Yasin, is a factor that will restrict the Hindu right-wing from committing a similar act of aggression as they did in Ayodhya.
Worried about the future of the mosque, Abdul Batin, Imam of the Gyanvapi mosque, said, “Some people want Varanasi to make Ayodhya. They are giving incendiary speeches, but we have faith in Allah, who is the almighty. If Allah is with us, nothing will happen here.”
The Gyanvapi mosque is currently protected under Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which states that a place of worship will retain its religious character as it existed on Aug. 15, 1947 – India’s Independence Day. The law was enacted at the height of the Babri Mosque dispute. However, many Muslims feel that laws aren’t enough to protect Muslim places of worship, as is proven in the Babri mosque demolition.
The government feared the judgment on the Ayodhya dispute would spark violence between the two communities. Security was beefed up in various parts of the country, especially in Ayodhya and other sensitive areas like Varanasi, the night before the judgment was announced. But the situation remained peaceful. Many, including the prime minister, credited the understanding between both the communities.
“It’s not that we aren’t angry,” said Batin. “But we are quiet, acting patiently. What else can we do? We can’t even protest against the judgment.”
“In a democracy, there is a way allowed to express anger, but if we do that, we will end up in trouble, which is why we are quiet. We also satisfy ourselves thinking Allah might be punishing us for something wrong that we might have done. We are patient. We know that for some days, the pain [of the judgment] will remain, and then everything will be normal after that.”
The Modi government is accused of attacks on free speech by using draconian Indian laws, like a sedition law, against critics and dissenters. Modi and his government, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, have increasingly harassed those who speak up against them.
Although the BJP has distanced itself from the disputed sites in Varanasi and Mathura for the time being, many of its leaders have openly supported Hindus claiming these sites. Speaking at a press conference on Nov. 26, Subramanian Swamy, a member of parliament in the Upper House from the BJP, said that although he doesn’t want to “stoke fire,” it’s his faith that the disputed sites in Varanasi and Mathura should be reclaimed by Hindus.
The voices pushing back against nationalism
Many critics of the party say that the BJP will keep exploiting disputed religious sites in an effort to gain more votes from Hindus, even when many Hindus oppose removing a mosque on principles of religious tolerance and respect for other faiths.
In Hinduism, according to Tiwari, God owns the entire universe, so why would he want his devotees to claim a piece of land in his name?
“They [the BJP] know how to sell religion for political gains,” said Rajendra Tiwari, chief priest of the Vishwanath Temple. “Right now, they are in the strong majority, but when they start losing their mandate, they will use the religious disputes at Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura.”
After the Ayodhya dispute is resolved, according to Tiwari, they need other religious issues for their politics in the future.
Responding to the dispute between the temple and the mosque, Tiwari said, “It’s all politically motivated. Most of the people who are campaigning for removing the mosque are politically motivated, just like it was the case in Ayodhya.”
Tiwari’s family owned the temple since it was constructed. However, in 1983, the state government of Uttar Pradesh took charge of the place.
In Hinduism, according to Tiwari, god owns the entire universe, so why would he want his devotees to claim a piece of land in his name? Responding to the demolition of the original temple by Aurangzeb, the head priest said, one wrong act in the past can’t be corrected by repeating the same action. However, it can help a political party come to power; it can help a politician build his political career, he said.
“BJP knows that they can remain in power as long as the society is divided on religious lines, which keeps their Hindu vote-bank united,” said Kunwar Suresh Singh, a veteran socialist leader from Varanasi. The moment they start losing power, they will come to Varanasi, where the ground is prepared.”
The Ayodhya judgment, according to Singh, is just a beginning.