On February 1, Hindus offered prayers at a sealed basement area inside the Gyanvapi mosque, which was built in Varanasi in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1670.
The worshippers were armed with a local court order delivered just a few hours earlier, allowing them to perform puja (Hindu worship ritual) at the southern basement of the mosque. The district administration had made arrangements, literally on a war footing, to facilitate the puja. The order came at 3 p.m. on January 31 and the puja started by midnight.
The following day, Muslims gathered in huge numbers – approximately 3,000 of them, six times the usual number – to offer Friday prayers at the mosque.
Controversy around the site is old. Historian Jadunath Sarkar had shown that a Vishwanath temple in Varanasi was destroyed in 1669 on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s order. The western wall of the mosque carries distinguishable Hindu architectural features. A new Vishwanath temple, built in the next century, now shares the boundary with the mosque.
It is evident that Muslims, apprehensive that the Gyanvapi mosque would suffer the same fate as the Babri Masjid (mosque), congregated at the former in large numbers that day. The 16th-century Babri Masjid, located in Ayodhya, was demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992, claiming that it was built exactly where Lord Ram was born and a temple dedicated to him previously existed.
India’s Supreme Court had given the land plot to the Hindu side in 2019 to build a Ram Temple. A new temple there was inaugurated there on January 22, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the consecration ceremony.
Two more developments happened in quick succession. On February 5, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI)’s reply to a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed that the Shahi Dargah in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura was built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after demolishing a Krishna temple that existed on its site – a claim Hindu nationalists have been making for several decades.
On February 6, the district court of Baghpat in the same state ordered Muslims to hand over the centuries-old Dargah of Badruddin Shah located at Barnawa to the Hindus.
On February 7, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath publicly endorsed the Hindu claims over the Varanasi and Mathura sites. Uttar Pradesh is ruled by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Varanasi is the Indian prime minister’s electoral constituency.
Referring to the January 31 order, Adityanath said in the state assembly: “When people saw the festivities in Ayodhya [on January 22], Nandi baba also wondered why he should wait. The barricades were removed overnight. And why should Lord Krishna relent?”
Nandi baba refers to Lord Shiva’s bull, which occupies a prominent part of the existing Vishwanath temple.
“It is evident, the BJP now wants to go to the elections riding temple sentiments,” a Muslim parliamentarian from an opposition party told The Diplomat, adding that “opposition parties particularly in northern, western and central India, will have to deal with it very carefully.”
India will vote in parliamentary elections in a few months.
“Rebuilding” destroyed temples on the sites of existing mosques at Ayodhya, Varanasi (Kashi), and Mathura has long been on the agenda of the Hindu nationalists, but such demands are not restricted to only these temples. In the 1990s, Hindu nationalists identified several such sites in every Indian state.
The rapid chain of developments over the past month started on January 24, when Varanasi District Judge Ajaya Krishna Vishvesha ordered that the report of a survey that the ASI conducted at the mosque premises should be made public.
The report was made public the next day, and it concluded that “there existed a Hindu temple prior to the construction of the existing structure (the mosque).”
Appealing against Judge Vishvesha’s January 31 order allowing Hindus to start performing puja at Gyanvapi mosque, the Muslim side urged the Allahabad High Court to note that the district judge gave the order on his last working day before retirement. In fact, it was the last order of his career.
However, the mosque representatives have not got any relief yet. The Supreme Court asked them to approach the high court, which refused any interim relief. It is scheduled to come up for hearing on February 12.
Baghpat district’s Barnawa site, the ownership of which has been contested since 1970, sits atop a mound, where the dargah (shrine) of Sufi saint Badruddin Shah and his tomb have existed for a few centuries. But the Hindus claimed that it was the site of the Laksha Griha (house of lacquer) mentioned in the epic Mahabharata. Laksha Griha in the Mahabharata refers to the house that the Kauravas built with highly inflammable lacquer with the plan of trapping the Pandavas in it and burning them. The Pandavas, however, managed to escape on time.
After the court verdict, Ranveer Singh Tomar, the advocate for the Hindus in the Baghpat case, was quoted by the media as saying, “When Muslims came here (to rule), they demolished structures and did as they pleased. That won’t work any longer. Because now a New Rajya (rule) is beginning. Now there is a new government.”
This development is rather intriguing because, over the past three years, Uttar Pradesh’s BJP government has been promoting a different site, Handia in Prayagraj district, as the site of the Laksha Griha.
The Handia site – about 800 km south of Barnawa – is included in the state’s Mahabharat Tourism Circuit, which connects places mentioned in the epic. The circuit also includes Barnawa (Barnava), but does not refer to it as Laksha Griha.
The ASI carried out excavations at Barnawa during 2017-18 and concluded that “the settlers of the area belonged to the same culture that existed during that time in other places mentioned in Mahabharata.” It did not make any specific mention of Laksha Griha.
In Madhya Pradesh in central India, tension has been brewing over the Kamal Maula Masjid in Dhar district over the past few months, even though the dispute is quite a few decades old. In September last year, an idol of Goddess Saraswati was found within the premises, reportedly left by some unidentified persons. A leader of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha later claimed that the idol “had spontaneously manifested itself.”
It may be recalled that the chain of events related to the Babri Masjid started in 1949 with the “mysterious” appearance of an idol of Lord Ram at the mosque premises.
The controversial structure in Madhya Pradesh is an ASI-protected monument, about which the ASI website says, “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 components of the temple and retains some slabs inscribed with Sanskrit and Prakrit literary works, the ASI says.
In 2003, during the tenure of India’s first BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the ASI arranged for Hindus to perform puja every Tuesday, while Muslims offer namaz on Fridays. However, in May 2022, some Hindus petitioned the Madhya Pradesh High Court, seeking sole worship right on the site every day. Since the appearance of the idol, security around the monument has been increased.
This year, on January 29, Indresh Kumar, a top leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent organization, told Reuters that the people of India and the world should think about whether the structures at Varanasi, Mathura, and the one in Madhya Pradesh should be considered as mosques at all.
Nearly echoing him, on February 5, Govind Dev Giri Maharaj, the treasurer at the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Trust that built and operates the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, said that Muslims should give up their claims over the Gyanvapi and Mathura mosques to resolve the dispute over religious sites amicably.
Muslim community leaders have mostly been guarded in their response, saying they had trust in the judicial system.
However, Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent parliamentarian from the All India Majlis Ittehad e Muslimeen (AIMIM) party, which is based in south India, vowed that “The Muslim side will not concede any mosques to the Hindu side.”