“Ayodhya to sirf jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baqi hai!”

It has been the war cry of some Hindu groups for decades, and initially seemed only a battle cry to motivate the cadres. But now the agenda is being pursued. After the Supreme Court handed the rubble of the Babri mosque to a central government trust that will erect a Ram temple, the Sangh has moved on to the Gyanvapi mosque in Banaras, saying it was built by Aurangzeb after demolishing a Shiva temple there.

While the movement to build a Ram temple precisely on top of the Babri mosque was underway, Sangh groups used to chant “ek dhakka aur do, Babri masjid tod do” - Give it another shove, break the Babri mosque. Back then the shove meant street protests, campaigns, litigation, targeted violence, a chariot ride and finally the mob demolition that razed the ancient monument to the ground.

Though no such battle cry is being heard in Banaras, the shoving and pushing for control of the Gyanvapi mosque complex has begun. The latest round of surveys on May 6 and 7, to ascertain whether idols of Hindu deities like Shringar Gauri, Ganesha, Hanuman and Shiva are still inside the premises, is one of many such moves in the two years since the Babri verdict was won.

The latest survey was undertaken on the orders of Varanasi civil judge Ravi Kumar Diwakar on April 26, on a petition by one Rakhi Singh and four other women who had demanded their right to offer daily prayer to Ma Shringar Gauri and the idols of other Hindu deities alleged to be inside the mosque. The petition was filed last August.

A figure worshiped as Shringar Gauri is engraved in the western outer wall of the mosque, and believers pray there once a year, on the fourth day of the Hindu festival of Navratri. While the sculpture of a Nandi bull can be seen from the outside, Hindu groups say that there are other deities in there as well, and Hindus should be allowed to pray inside every day.

Though it is a fact that the remains of an ancient Hindu temple, likely from the post Buddhist period, and probably demolished during Aurangzeb’s reign, can still be seen on the outer walls of Gyanvapi, the question is whether India can afford to waste time and energy replicating alleged historical injustice at the cost of peace and human lives.

The mosque and temple have coexisted for centuries now, with Hindus and Muslims offering prayers at their respective places of worship, and forming relationships without stepping on each other’s toes. So why this hue and cry now for total control?

The fear is if these groups gain unhindered access to the mosque, it will eventually lead to thousands descending on Gyanvapi and razing it to ground, as they did in Faizabad (now Ayodhya). This fear became manifest in Varanasi when a court-ordered survey team reached the site on May 6.

Muslims gathered in large numbers and shouted slogans. Hindus also gathered and shouted slogans. The administration brought in a heavy police force to allow the court-ordered team to complete its work. Led by advocate commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra and his assistants, the team was accompanied by the Hindu plaintiffs and some Muslim representatives. Its report will be considered by the Varanasi court on May 10.

It is surprising that the Varanasi civil court judge should have passed such an order in the first place, because a similar order was quashed by the Allahabad High Court last September. The High Court had stayed the Varanasi civil court order of April 8, 2021 directing the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a comprehensive physical survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

In its stay the Allahabad High Court bench of Justice Prakash Padia had observed that the Varanasi civil court should not have proceeded on or decided the application filed for an ASI survey of the mosque, in view of the fact that a verdict on similar petitions was pending before a High Court. It said it was not appropriate for the Varanasi court to proceed in the matter till the High Court of Allahabad (now Prayagraj) had decided the matter.

Questions about ownership of the land on which the Gyanvapi mosque stands first reached the Allahabad High Court in 1998, after the Kashi temple trust and some other individuals petitioned the Varanasi civil court in 1991 to hand over the mosque land to the Hindu community. The petitioners argued that that land belonged to one Lord Visveshwar, and a grand temple extant on the same plot was demolished in 1664 by Aurangzeb of Delhi.

In 1998 the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid, which manages the Gyanvapi mosque, and the Sunni Central Waqf Board petitioned the Allahabad High Court citing the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991, which bars any change in the status of a place of worship built before August 15, 1947. The law prohibits changing the religious character of any place of worship and requires the state to maintain the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the first Independence Day.

Sections 3 and 4 of the Act declare that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it was on August 15, 1947. It is categorical that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section. Section 4(2) says that all suits, appeals or others to convert the religious character of a place of worship that were pending on August 15, 1947 stand abated with the Act’s commencement and no fresh proceedings can be filed.

The law did however exclude the “Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid”, where furious litigation was already going on when it was enacted in 1991. It also excludes the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, when the Supreme Court delivered the Babri verdict, it said the Act would continue to hold, and hoped that it would forestall demands to question the ownership of the Muslim structures adjoining Hindu ones in Kashi/Banaras and Mathura.

This has not however stopped litigants from filing suits in various courts to get ownership rights, or the right to offer prayers inside these mosques. While in Mathura the administration has so far not done anything to enable the move (where a Shahi Idgah near a Krishna temple is claimed as the birthplace of Krishna) in Varanasi the picture is different.

In the course of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor project, which began in 2018 and gained momentum in 2019, the administration has razed houses, shops and damaged temples surrounding the mosque, apparently to build a broad corridor which would make it easier for devotees to reach the temple from the river Ganga. This has resulted in the Gyanvapi mosque being completely exposed now, which was earlier shielded by houses and other buildings, creating an apprehension that it is just a precursor (jhanki).

The survey coming close on the heels of this development drive, and the publicly funded beautification of the adjoining temple, has created further apprehension.

“Their intentions do not appear right. First the mosque was exposed to full public view, and now if they allow Hindus to come here and offer prayers daily, then what can stop a large crowd from gathering here and enacting a repeat of December 6, 1992?” asked a prominent member of the Gyanvapi mosque management committee, referring to the day that mobs demolished the Babri monument.

Given the fact that there are BJP governments both at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, and the RSS agenda of Kashi and Mathura is well known, there is a deep trust deficit. For a government which has an unusual sense of achievement, it helps to keep the communal cauldron boiling.