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Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque: Below the surface in eternal city, layers of a simmering faultline

In election season, politics over the Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque dispute flares up, evoking disquiet as well as glee among Varanasi residents.

Written by Yashee | Varanasi |
February 15, 2022 8:37:50 pm
Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque, Gyanvapi masjid, kashi mathura baki hai, uttar pradesh elections, indian expressThe Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, located next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. (File pic: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most polarising slogans of the right wing in Uttar Pradesh in every election has been “Ayodhya toh bas jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baaki hai (Ayodhya is just a glimpse, Kashi and Mathura are yet to come)”, a reference to simmering temple-mosque disputes in Varanasi and Mathura, just like in Ayodhya earlier. In this election season too, the ruling BJP has made its Ayodhya-Kashi-Mathura pitch.

At ground zero in Varanasi, where Gyanvapi mosque has sat cheek by jowl with Kashi Vishwanath temple for centuries, the conflict seems to be both absent and present, like a deep faultline running below the surface.

While both Hindu and Muslim residents say they have never clashed over the dispute, the issue has evoked disquiet as well as glee among the locals amid the current Assembly polls, triggering varied reactions from them ranging from “court mein cases (cases in court)” to “this government’s intentions” to “mahaul tou kabhi bhi ban sakta hai” (atmosphere can build up anytime)”.

After the Kashi Vishwanath corridor’s construction, the adjoining lanes have widened, which could accommodate hundreds of visitors. Only a section of Gyanvapi mosque is visible from the bustling street outside the temple complex gates. Shopkeepers collect devotees’ bags, phones, even pens for safekeeping, while security personnel direct them to the queues.

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The refurbished Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the newly built sandstone courtyard. (Express Photo)

Enquiries about the mosque are, however, met with curt, evasive replies. “It is shut for visitors”, “Why do you want to know”, “Namaz is no longer held there” – these are the standard responses you get from both policemen and shop owners.

Inside the temple, a security personnel, when asked about the way to the mosque, says, “It is closed. Aurangzeb demolished our temple to build it…” However, a young man cleaning the temple says the mosque is open and points to the path towards it.

The mosque’s narrow gate is manned by two cops. “Only those who will offer namaz are allowed inside,” says one of them. “You know well, why… this is a sensitive area, tourists can’t go in.”

The policeman admits he is a worried man. “Chunaav ke sath tanaav aata hai (elections bring tensions).” He claims in all these years, “even after 1992”, the complex has not seen a flare-up. “But recently, the kind of questions some visitors ask about the mosque are dismaying. They say hateful things. I don’t understand how you can come to pray while bearing ill will for a structure sacred for some other religion.”

Outside, shopkeepers give contradictory answers on whether the mosque is open for namazis and if it uses loudspeakers. However, most agree that the locals do not want any violence over it, and that it is “kuch tatva (certain elements)” from outside who give “bhadkau bhashan (provocative speeches)”. But not wanting violence is not the same as wanting the mosque. Many are aware about the pending court cases over the dispute and feel if the BJP government returns to power, “yeh log kuch kar lenge (they will find a way)”.

Sandeep Kesharvani, in his forties, who runs a sari shop at Basphatak near the temple, says, “Todne ko koi nahin keh raha (no one is saying demolish the mosque). But I am sure Muslims can be persuaded to build the mosque elsewhere. Look how peacefully the Ayodhya issue was finally settled. I have read that Gyanvapi is also in court, kuch zameen ka maamla hai (something about the land). If this government stays, they will find a solution.”

Vishal Singh, 36, an idols shop owner, claims, “The land on which Aurangzeb built the mosque was on a 100-year lease. That lease period is now ending…” When asked from where he got this information, he says, “Main yahan paida hua tha (I was born here). Of course I know!”

Further down the road, Vijay Yadav, who sells the unique Banarsi sweet, malayiyo, says he discourages mandir-masjid talks. “I am against hurting anyone’s sentiments, be it Hindu or Muslim. I am sure the courts will take the right decision.”

Singh and Kesharvani are happy that under the Yogi Adityanath rule, Muslims are “under control” and “don’t try to boss around” and “don’t blow cigarette smoke in our faces”. “Look at the grand Kashi Vishwanath corridor, it will help pilgrims as well as businessmen. Even the projects initiated by the previous governments are being completed by Yogiji. That is called intent,” says Kesharvani.

The 330-metre Kashi Vishwanath corridor stretches from the temple complex to Ganga’s Lalita Ghat. (Express Photo)

In the narrow, congested lanes of a Muslim-dominated market Daalmandi nearby, no one sees an imminent threat to Gyanvapi mosque, but the place is suffused with despair, anger and exasperation about communal rhetoric and dogwhistling. “It would be great if even one election could be fought without issues like ‘masjid, Jinnah, Abba, Haj House’. If the BJP needs mosques to win itself some support, isn’t that an admission it doesn’t have its own achievements to talk about?” says Nadeem Ahmed, a middle-aged interior decoration shop owner.

Tehseen Hussain, 67, who runs a hosiery shop, is less hopeful about Gyanvapi. “So far, locals have not stopped us from praying there. But there are more ways to attack a religious structure than with pickaxes. You can interfere with funds for repairs, harass devotees, disturb the atmosphere. And the law is only as strong as the government enforcing it,” Hussain says, alleging that the country’s secularism is “in tatters” now.

Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque, Gyanvapi masjid, kashi mathura baki hai, uttar pradesh elections, indian express A sweet-shop owner, Sanu Ali, feels people have got “tired” of the perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict. (Express photo: Yashee)

A sweet-shop owner, Sanu Ali, feels people have got “tired” of the perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict. “In Banaras, Hindus and Muslims have always coexisted in harmony. My Hindu neighbours and I still celebrate all festivals together. I really think people have seen through communal politics by now. This time, Akhilesh is coming back,” he says.

Across Daalmandi and the Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque area, election hoardings or banners are non-existent. SM Yaseen, joint secretary of Anjuman Intejamiya Masjid that looks after Gyanvapi among other mosques, says it is “difficult” to use the mosque-temple dispute as an election issue in Varanasi.

“The Gyanvapi issue is raised to build a certain narrative not just in UP, but nationally. However, most of the court cases on the issue were not moved by Banaras residents. The tradition here has been of Hindus helping Muslims in namaz, Muslims selling flowers to temple-goers. The local administration has always heard our concerns. Also, Kashi (Varanasi), with a five-lakh strong Muslim population, can’t be compared with Ayodhya of 1992, which had barely 10,000 Muslims.”

On the Kashi Vishgwanath corridor project, Yaseen says they welcome its construction, as the “wide roads will benefit both Hindus and Muslims”.

However, not everyone seems to echo his views about the project. Rajendra Tiwari, former family mahant of Kashi Vishwanath temple, says the city is being changed “from an aastha ka kendra (centre of faith) to a paryatan sthal (tourist spot)”. “A centre of spirituality is being turned into a spectacle of political ambition. The BJP talks about Gyanvapi masjid being built after demolishing a temple, but many small temples were razed in order to build the Kashi Vishwanath corridor. Anyone who thinks any one idea can edge out all others in this ancient, eternal city has not really understood Kashi,” Tiwari claims.

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First published on: 15-02-2022 at 08:37:50 pm

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