The Mandir Wapsi movement

It was supposed to be over with Ayodhya. But Kashi, Mathura and a flurry of other mandir-masjid disputes signal a new phase of Hindu revivalism. A cover story by India Today magazine

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Illustration by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

Once upon a time, there was a king—three quarter Rajput and one quarter nomad by lineage—and he built one of the most beautiful monuments in the world....’ Facts are only the bare bricks. Finally, it is the stories we tell ourselves that matter—how we select bricks and weave shapes in the mind, and mortar them into our imagination. Those first lines are as factual a statement about the Taj Mahal as any other. Shah Jahan’s mother was Rajput, and his father was half-Rajput. His son, Aurangzeb, had Rajput blood from his father and Persian from his mother. So only a small fraction remained of that old Chagatai Mughal bloodline from Central Asia, with which we associate him most fervently. The one metaphor that has saturated the air for a century or two, altering India’s political and social landscape in decisive ways, is that of the ‘Muslim as foreign invader’. The fact that the last three of the six ‘Great Mughals’ were products of intermarriage complicates that simplistic trope.

Once upon a time, there was a king—three quarter Rajput and one quarter nomad by lineage—and he built one of the most beautiful monuments in the world....’ Facts are only the bare bricks. Finally, it is the stories we tell ourselves that matter—how we select bricks and weave shapes in the mind, and mortar them into our imagination. Those first lines are as factual a statement about the Taj Mahal as any other. Shah Jahan’s mother was Rajput, and his father was half-Rajput. His son, Aurangzeb, had Rajput blood from his father and Persian from his mother. So only a small fraction remained of that old Chagatai Mughal bloodline from Central Asia, with which we associate him most fervently. The one metaphor that has saturated the air for a century or two, altering India’s political and social landscape in decisive ways, is that of the ‘Muslim as foreign invader’. The fact that the last three of the six ‘Great Mughals’ were products of intermarriage complicates that simplistic trope.

Examining those archetypes is vital because they underlie everything else that happens. And something, indeed, is happening. The Indian republic is plunged headlong into an unprecedented moment of crisis—one that cuts across society, politics and government, law and the Constitution. A permanent simmer on low flame arriving, out of the blue, at a point of combustion—like someone suddenly turned the knob on high. Before it singes the more abstract realms, it reaches the street. Out by Gate No. 4 on the spanking new Kashi Corridor, sandwiched between mandir and masjid, you can practically feel the air crackling. That easy bustle is not there. Barricades have replaced it. Court-appointed commissioners come and go. Normally a placid, laid-back town that wears its tourist millions lightly, Kashi is spending this summer on a rapier’s edge. Hotel owners talk of a 60 per cent drop in footfalls.

The Gyanvapi controversy has revived what seemed like a settled issue after the Ayodhya judgment of 2019—disinterring a ghost that was supposed to have been laid to rest with a judicial pronouncement. It has led on to the Shahi Idgah in Mathura—also a well-recorded instance of demolition by Aurangzeb, and also evoked as part of an unfinished project in the post-Babri slogan ‘Kashi Mathura Baaki Hai’. And not just those two. The upsurge is threatening to prise open all the crevasses in history—real or imagined. From known cases of Muslim imperial vandalism to disputes of interpretation, like Baba Budangiri in Karnataka’s coffee-flavoured Chikmagalur, everything is fair game. Even the celebrated Taj Mahal has seen claims being advanced of having been built over a temple. The website Article 14 lists not only a flurry of “identically-worded suits” on Gyanvapi, but “12 similar claims on mosques and Islamic-era monuments” across four states. An outfit called the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti has drawn up a list of 1,862 mosques across India it wants reclaimed for Hindu worship.


DISPUTED MONUMENTS AND PLACES OF WORSHIP

Gyanvapi Mosque in Kashi | Shahi Idgah in Mathura | Qutub Minar | Taj Mahal in Agra | Kamaal Maula or Bhojshala in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh | Baba Budangiri in Chikmagalur | Gurudongmar in Sikkim | Purana Shiv Mandir in New Delhi | Charminar in Hyderabad | Sher Shah Suri Tomb in Sasaram


Barring the details, all of these claims conform to this basic type: a Hindu temple was destroyed, and often a mosque was built in its place. Centuries ago: three and a half (Aurangzeb), seven (Alauddin Khilji), or 10, to take a few markers. Mahmud of Ghazni sacked the Somnath temple in 1025, almost one millennium ago—around the same time he ravaged cities in Iran too—but, as a pure horseback invader, he built nothing. The later ones, those who settled down and became kings, did—beginning from the first one, Qutubuddin Aibak. Their symbols and totems are now being refashioned as magnets for mass resentment in a feeding frenzy that is coalescing into a new ‘Mandir Wapsi’ movement.

CHIPPING THE LEGAL EDIFICE

The underlying turf of contestation is historical, and its trigger social-psychological, but the present theatre of conflict is the court of law. The vital bridgehead suddenly at stake is a 1991 legislation: the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act. The Supreme Court’s final Ayodhya judgment—delivered unanimously by a five-judge bench on November 9, 2019—had embedded the Act in what seemed like a foolproof aura of constitutionality. It “speaks to our history and to the future of the nation”, the court said, continuing in resonant words: “History and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.” It cements “secularism”, a kernel feature of our Constitution that’s protected by the principle of “non-retrogression”. And it “imposes a non-derogable obligation” on the State to uphold that secularism. That should have been that—the court’s words had a ring of finality. But now, the Act is appearing a touch vulnerable, and the challenge to it is coming from many fronts. Lawyer and BJP member Ashwini Upadhyay (acting in his individual capacity) has mounted a direct attack on the Act with a plea before the Supreme Court, saying it violates the fundamental right to religion—the plea is likely to come up for listing in July. “The cut-off date of August 15, 1947, legalises the illegal acts of barbaric invaders,” he tells INDIA TODAY. And the petitioners are trying to use the law’s own clauses to gnaw away at its core.

The Places of Worship Act—enacted during the height of the Ayodhya movement to defuse communal tensions and exempting that site since it was sub judice from pre-Independence days—is crystal clear in its wording, objectives and stipulations. Its critical clause, Section 3, says no place of worship of any religious denomination should be “converted” to that of another, not even to another sect. Section 4(1) mandates that the “religious character” of any such place as it obtained on August 15, 1947, shall continue—4(2) says any pending suit or appeal seeking an alteration to it shall “abate”. If those two mark out blanket no-go areas, Section 4(3)(a) allows an exception: heritage sites covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958.


INTERVIEW | To project Hindus and Muslims as naturally divided is to read history backwards: Historian Richard Eaton


How a series of contradictory court orders on Gyanvapi are now serving to chip away at that iron-clad constitutional protection afforded to a place of worship—opening a Pandora’s box in the process, emboldening innumerable other would-be litigants—is instructive. The Gyanvapi suit was first filed in 1991: the petitioners made a blanket claim to title, seeking restoration of the medieval temple where the mosque currently stands. As his near-contemporary biography Maasir-i-Alamgiri records it, a temple was indeed demolished in 1669 on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s orders. The literature suggests it was at this stage called the Adi Vishweshwara temple. The mosque carries visible architectural marks of a temple: a classic case for the Hindutva argument, indeed much clearer than that of Ayodhya. But the law had capped it at that. In October 1997, the civil court turned down the original suit, saying all such appeals stood abated with the Places of Worship Act. The district judge, hearing a revision petition filed in 1998, ruled that the civil court deal with the matter afresh “only after taking evidence of parties”. The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid management challenged this before the Allahabad High Court, which stayed proceedings, and the suit went into legal deep freeze.

The case came back to life in December 2019, with a petition seeking a “comprehensive” archaeological inspection of the Gyanvapi complex. On April 8, 2021, Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ashutosh Tiwari complied and ordered an ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) survey. However, the high court stepped in on September 9, criticised the order and stayed the survey. This summer, things took on a new dimension amid a dizzying blur of suits, appeals and challenges. On April 18, women petitioners filed a suit in another Varanasi court, demanding permission to worship Maa Shringar Gauri, and “Ganesh, Hanuman and Nandi idols” they claimed existed inside the mosque. The court promptly ruled that an advocate commissioner be appointed to survey the complex; and the next day, it directed that the inspection be video-recorded.

The whole judicial hierarchy—a local court, the high court (which by May 12 was fending off a petition to have the Taj Mahal basement opened for examination), and the Supreme Court—refused to stay the survey and it was duly conducted on May 14-16. Amid media leaks and frenzied reports that the surveyors had found a “Shivalingam” in the wuzu-khana—and counters that it was merely a defunct fountain—the local court ordered the area sealed. On May 16, the mosque committee finally approached the Supreme Court, arguing that the mosque videography “clearly interdicted” the Places of Worship Act. It was here that a three-judge bench, headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, allowed the critical leeway with a reasoning—saying there was no harm in “ascertaining” the historical facts, as the 1991 law did not expressly prohibit it. It directed the district magistrate to secure the precincts around the “Shivalingam”, while allowing Muslims to offer prayers, and also deemed it fit to transfer the case to a more “experienced” district court.

A PANDORA’S BOX

Many legal experts are dismayed by the Supreme Court’s approach. “The Places of Worship Act was brought in precisely to prevent such controversies from erupting, in full knowledge of their potential to do so, and to cause harm. This was stated as its very objective in so many words,” says Supreme Court advocate Shadan Farasat. “To allow a prima facie examination of a site, in a very contentious atmosphere, defeats the very purpose of the Act. What would remain of it?” Any kind of case can now be reopened, he says—even sites where, say, one Hindu sect or sovereign made an ingress on the temple of another—and an avalanche of cases could erupt across the map.

The case prompted a laser-focused examination of the Places of Worship Act, and its decree on the status quo as on August 15, 1947. Besides the outright challenge by Upadhyay, Hindutva lawyers have zeroed in on what they see as points of infirmity in its clauses. One, they say, any remains of a destroyed temple—such as the putative Shivalingam at Gyanvapi—would count as architectural relics. Two, such remains, if proved authentic, would naturally predate 1947, and thus form part of the “status quo”. The third deploys a British colonial-vintage oddity in Indian law (with medieval European antecedents dating to the Crusades)—the idea of a deity as a “juristic person” with rights, an abstract entity who can file a suit through the good offices of “next friends”. Here, they say the Adi Vishweshwara deity’s title rights to the site cannot be deemed to have been extinguished by the mere fact of the temple edifice being broken down.

Even if these arguments were to be accepted, they presume a place of worship of one religion supplanted that of another: clear enough in some cases, not so in innumerable others. Lucknow-based lawyer Hari Shankar Jain, on whose 1993 plea the gates of the Ayodhya site were opened for worship, says that’s all the more reason to shine the torch into the dark. Gyanvapi is neither a title suit, nor a plea to change the nature of the place, he says. “All we want is to identify its religious character. Under Article 25, no law can take away anyone’s fundamental right to worship.” Over the past few weeks, the six cases the Jains have been pursuing for over three decades—from Kashi and Mathura to the Taj—have been attaining critical mass. And putting politics on the usual red-hot skewer. At the other end of the map, AIMIM (All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) chief Asaduddin Owaisi said Gyanvapi will endure for all “eternity”. A BJP leader tauntingly asked him to “read history again”.

But where history had indeed seen transgressions, should that lid be opened? Not to do so was the precise prescription of the Places of Worship Act—as the Supreme Court said in 2019, “law is not the answer” for historical grievances. Most experts feel the blur of petitions crowding the courts are unlawful under the Act—senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde says the Gyanvapi suit should have been dismissed at inception. Yet, several courts have accepted such petitions, often giving in to the loopholes. Clause 4(3)(a) is a favourite, because any structure over 100 years old satisfies the definition of an ‘ancient monument’. “That can take any number of old buildings outside the purview of the Places of Worship Act,” points out Professor Faizan Mustafa, vice-chancellor, NALSAR University of Law.

Most legal experts say such a literal interpretation of 4(3)(a) goes against its intended meaning. “Section 3 is a complete bar...no conversion from Worship A to Worship B. And 4(1) protects the ‘religious character’ of a site: so you can’t alter it even to an ‘areligious’ one—4(3)(a) qualifies this for heritage monuments; say, for an old masjid where the footfalls imperil the structure. It’s crystal clear that 4(3)(a) cannot override the complete bar under Section 3,” says Farasat. Supreme Court advocate Vishwanath Chaturvedi, too, feels the archaeology argument is unsustainable, because the AMASR Act disallows religious use of heritage sites. Govind Mathur, former Allahabad High Court chief justice, says primacy must be given to the objects and intent of the Places of Worship Act. “Its purpose—not to allow a repeat of the appropriation of the Babri mosque—must be kept in mind,” he says. Supreme Court lawyer Aruneshwar Gupta, meanwhile, foresees more petitions demanding the revocation of the Places of Worship and even the AMASR Act. But attention now is on the more sophisticated gambit: how the judicial system seems able to bypass an existing law while working within it. Allowing an archaeological examination, as Farasat says, can only serve to whip up a public mood that cannot be satisfied under the Places of Worship Act. Suddenly, what seemed like an impregnable constitutional fortress, with the Supreme Court’s seal, appears besieged from within and without.

INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

Historians of all hues acknowledge the bald fact that, shorn of all context, temple destruction was a fact of life—both in cases of rampant Muslim rapine during the Slave Dynasty, and as a general mode of doing medieval politics that was in no way exclusively Muslim. A fact many Hindutva voices choose to ignore. In the celebrated 12th century Sanskrit text Rajatarangini, Kalhana records how his Kayastha administrators advise King Sankaravarman of 9th century Kashmir to “plunder temples and oppress his subjects in order to extract more money from the land”. And two centuries later, of King Harsha, he writes: “As he was addicted to extravagant expenditure upon various corps of his army, his thoughts...became in time firmly fixed upon the spoilation of temples. Then the greedy-minded (king) plundered from all temples the wonderful treasures former kings had bestowed there. In order to get hold of the statues of gods, too, when the treasures had been carried off, he appointed Udayaraja as ‘prefect for the overthrow of divine images’ (devotpaatananayaka).” Other examples abound across the map, including the Maratha pindaris who sacked Sringeri math in 1791. The erasure of Buddhism from the subcontinent, a starkly conspicuous fact, was not likely a mere feat of philosophical tarka either: temple conversion, non-violent or otherwise, has been a well-reasoned line of speculation all the way from ancient Taxila to medieval Kerala. But those who speak on behalf of the ‘Hindu mind’—alive only to stereotypes entrenched by two centuries of colonially motivated scholarship—articulate a “civilisational hurt” singularly on account of the Islamic encounter. And that hurt is being expressed as a dam-burst of revanchist anger.

Gyanvapi is also a classic case study of how difficult it is to frame a dispute in its full historical context. One of the core strands of faith here is that the site marks the exact spot where Shiva manifested himself in the form of a swayambhu jyotirlinga. This links the idea of an eternal temple to that of a primordial, unchanging, eternal Kashi—what sociologist Deepak Mehta, in the context of Ayodhya, called “the link of architectural place to mythic time”. This also yields the inference that the temple Aibak is said to have demolished in 1194 stood on the same site: the inaugural point of a narrative about a sacred venue withstanding a series of demolitions and hosting many reconstructions. The historical trail—as progressively uncovered by a series of scholars like Diana Eck and Madhuri Desai, agreeing to disagree on many points—is not as bathed in resplendent Shiva light as the popular story.

“Like any other city, Kashi was always evolving, mutating...and moving in rhyme with the shifting course of the Ganga. The Banaras of today’s exact location, the present landscape of ghats instilled in our minds by the Orientalist works of Company artists like the Daniells, is a relatively new being. It comes into prominence only in the 16th century, during Akbar’s time,” says filmmaker-writer Nilosree Biswas, author of Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories (2021). Desai, whose magisterial Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City (2017) was based on extensive research of material evidence and medieval textual sources, also speaks of “the complex relationship between regenerated sites of Hindu pilgrimage and Mughal urbanism...and cosmopolitanism”. Other scholars talk of that century of ‘Pax Mughalana’ inaugurating an era of intellectual inquiry marked by astonishing vitality—and Kashi, with its esteem for Sanskrit scholarship, came to be a nodal point in a buzzing transnational network of knowledge. The Mughals as a genuinely creative force for the city, counterbalancing the destroyer trope. Akbar, certainly. Even Aurangzeb, before he razed the Vishweshwara temple, issued firmans to protect all temples of Kashi and its Brahmins, gave land grants to temples, and secured the Jangama Shaivite sect various rights. Call it paradox regained.

There’s a lot we don’t know. What we do know, says Biswas, is that the older Kashi was “further upriver, beyond the Malviya bridge”—now a large ASI-protected area. On whose shoulders did history pivot, then? “The key figure in the story is Narayana Bhatta, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Nagpur, who lands in Kashi during Akbar’s time. Those days, everyone wanted to be in Kashi. It was the New York and Harvard of the East,” says Biswas. Bhatta, a leading figure in the Brahmin activism that was reshaping the city, wished to increase his prestige. And the best way to do it, then as now, was to build a temple. He peruses the Puranas and other texts to select a new site, carve out a new sacred geography. And he approaches the big names of Akbar’s court: Man Singh and Todar Mal. And circa 1580, a new temple comes up, built out of funds from Akbar’s federal court—it was younger than Connaught Place is now when Aurangzeb had it razed, angered by local zamindars liaising with the growing Maratha power, Shivaji. “Even the modern cremation ghat, Manikarnika, was Bhatta’s conjuration,” says Biswas. A bit of eternity was born in the 16th century.

THE UNFOLDING STRATEGY

The present, meanwhile, unfolds on a canvas bristling with a spirit of Hindu revivalism. The original ideological godheads, the RSS and the BJP, are lurking back though—part caught in a dilemma, part adopting a strategic middle ground. They would not mind the core Hindutva constituency being kept in a state of elation; at the same time, no government wants things to go out of control. There is indeed a sophisticated layering to the approach now, perceptibly different from the days preceding the Babri demolition, where BJP luminaries were the field marshals leading from the front. The shades of gradation in Hindutva colours help in a division of labour now. Party president J.P. Nadda said this week that issues like Gyanvapi are “decided by the court and the Constitution; the BJP implements it in letter and spirit”. The top leadership has directed that the party speak only of Kashi and Mathura, not dilute things with rhetoric on more cases. The VHP is extending its support to the petitioners. And RSS prachar pramukh Sunil Ambekar told INDIA TODAY: “We should let the truth come out. It’s time we put historical facts in the right perspective before society.” But both RSS and VHP leaders say neither they nor their affiliates take up legal issues directly.

The menu of tactical choices on the chessboard doesn’t end there. By citing the courts and the Constitution, the BJP has left the door ajar for an amendment to the Places of Worship Act should it feel the court battles are not going its way. With the 2024 general election not too far on the horizon, it will be fairly easy to bring a simmering Mandir Wapsi movement to boil and scald any discontent over unemployment and inflation arising from a stalling economy. Of course, there’s the small matter of proving the historicity of the relic found at Gyanvapi—so far a mere piece of videographic evidence, leaked to the media before being shown in court or verified by experts for authenticity. Is it indeed a historical religious relic or just an architectural accessory?

Facts are sacred too. The new revivalism, though, speaks of placing faith above all. Not an inward-bound faith: it finds its focus in locating an enemy, in wiping out all remnants of what it sees as ‘oppressive Muslim tyrants’. And it sees them everywhere: from an emperor’s monument to a dirt-poor shanty. It’s what psychiatrists call the scapegoat mechanism—a defensive aggression where you respond to life’s crises by “spontaneously blaming arbitrarily selected groups or individuals”—fostered by the illusion that the Hindu is an innocent victim of history. For now, the shroud of question marks the freelance stormtroopers have cast is darkening the air, leaving its soot even on the Qutub Minar and the Taj, among India’s prized contributions to humanity’s built heritage and the history of beauty. There’s another edifice in the picture—the Constitution, the document that’s also a monument.

—with Kaushik Deka and Anilesh S. Mahajan


THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THE GYANVAPI SUIT

“All we want is to identify its [Gyanvapi’s] religious character, whether it is a mosque or an old temple. Under Article 25, no law can take away anyone’s fundamental right to worship”

THE PURPOSE OF RUNNING THE TEMPLE WAPSI MOVEMENT

“Our aim is to take back all the temples destroyed in the past. I had made a vow to do so in my childhood. When I was about 12, my mother told me about the atrocities invaders committed. She inspired me to counter the tyranny of history”

THE CURRENT GAMEPLAN

“We file a case only after completing all our research. Being advocates, we do everything through legal means. As the Waqf Act is anti- Hindu, we will request that it is changed. Whatever anti- Hindu laws remain, I will continue to plead with Parliament and the courts to get them repealed”

as told to Manish Dixit


“The 1991 Act is the law but lower courts are entertaining such pleas when they should not have done so.... If Gyanvapi, Mathura and other issues are allowed to fester, then young Muslims will become permanently disenchanted with the constitutional process”

“Whatever is happening is with the support of the Sangh Parivar and the government. How is it that a survey commissioner’s report is made available to a judge without hearing the Muslim side? Or that the report is leaked to the media? It’s being done to say this is not a masjid”

“As regards the Mathura Idgah, there has been a written agreement between Muslims and Hindus 54 years ago. Now you say it is null and void and those Hindus did not have the locus standi to reach an agreement. How is that possible? Now, Khwaja Ajmeri’s dargah is being questioned”

as told to Amarnath K. Menon


“The Babri Masjid was claimed by an agitation but dec lared as Ramjanmabhoomi by a court judgment. Now, Gyanvapi and Mathura mosques are claimed by individuals by fighting the cause on legal forums. This is a new tactic to use courts to create communal atmosphere. It is for courts to check it”

“In light of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the court trying the case in Varanasi could not have passed any order for survey of the mosque premises without examining its competence to adjudicate the dispute.... At this stage, the order given for the survey is patently illegal”

“Courts must look into our constitutional scheme, historical perspective of India as a secular democratic republic and the objects of the 1991 Act. Otherwise, history will not spare even the judiciary for not performing its constitutional and statutory duty when the country most needed it”

as told to Kaushik Deka


“These issues are decided by the court and the constitution and the BJP implements it in letter and spirit”


“We should let the truth come out. It’s time we put historical facts in the right perspective before society”


ON THE SHARED HISTORY OF HINDUISM AND ISLAM

“It was in the British colonial interest to portray their native subjects as ‘naturally’ divided by religion. The notion that homogenised and self-aware Muslim and Hindu communities were ‘always’ in mutual conflict is refuted by evidence dating from the Turkish conquest of north India in the 12th century. Sanskrit inscriptions typically identified those from beyond the Khyber by their linguistic identity (i.e., ‘Turushka’) and not as Muslims, suggesting that they were not seen as posing any civilisational break with earlier Indian dynasties”

ON THE DESTRUCTION OF THE VISHWESHWARA TEMPLE

“Built by Akbar’s general Raja Man Singh, the Vishweshwara temple was patronised in Aurangzeb’s day by the Raja’s descendants, at least one of whom was suspected of assisting Aurangzeb’s arch-enemy Shivaji escape detention. In early 1669, the emperor ordered that temples in three Mughal cities be subject to demolition owing to reports that Brahmins in ‘established schools’ were giving deviant teachings to both Hindus and Muslims. Of these cities, Varanasi was singled out as being of special concern”

as told to Sunil Menon