One of the most polarizing right-wing slogans in Uttar Pradesh in all the polls 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 the temple-mosque disputes that simmered in Varanasi and Mathura, just as in Ayodhya earlier. Also in this election season, the ruling BJP made its Ayodhya-Kashi-Mathura pitch.
At Ground Zero in Varanasi, where the Gyanvapi Mosque has sat side by side with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple for centuries, conflict seems to be both absent and present, like a deep fault line running beneath the surface.
While Hindu and Muslim residents say they have never clashed over the dispute, the issue has sparked concern and joy among locals amid ongoing Assembly polls, sparking mixed reactions on their part ranging from “the court me cases (cases brought before the courts)” to “the intentions of this government” to “mahaul tou kabhi bhi ban sakta hai“(the atmosphere can be created at any time)”.
After the Construction of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, the adjoining lanes have widened, which could accommodate hundreds of visitors. Only part of the Gyanvapi Mosque is visible from the busy street outside the gates of the temple complex. Traders collect bags, phones and even pens from worshipers for safekeeping, while security personnel direct them to queues.
Inquiries about the mosque, however, receive curt and evasive responses. “It is closed to visitors”, “Why do you want to know”, “Namaz is no longer held there” – these are the standard answers you get from both policemen and shopkeepers.
Inside the temple, a member of the security staff, questioned on the way to the mosque, said: “It’s closed. Aurangzeb demolished our temple to build it…” However, a young man cleaning the temple says that the mosque is open and points the way to it.
The narrow gate of the mosque is guarded by two cops. “Only those who will offer the namaz are allowed inside,” said one. “You know why…it’s a sensitive area, tourists can’t enter.
The policeman admits that he is a worried man. “Chunaav ke sath tanaav aata hai (elections bring tension). He claims that in all these years, “even after 1992”, the complex did not experience a surge. “But recently, the kind of questions some visitors are asking about the mosque are appalling. They say hateful things. I don’t understand how you can come to pray while bearing a grudge for a sacred structure for another religion.
Outside, shopkeepers give conflicting answers about whether the mosque is open to Namazis and whether it uses loudspeakers. However, most agree that locals don’t want violence about it and that it’s “kuch tatva (some elements) “from the outside that give”bhadkau bhashan (provocative speeches)”. But not wanting violence is not the same as wanting the mosque. Many are aware on pending court cases regarding 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 in Basphatak near the temple, says: “Todne ko koi nahin keh raha (nobody says demolish the mosque). But I’m sure Muslims can be persuaded to build the mosque somewhere else. Watch how the Ayodhya issue was finally settled peacefully. I read that Gyanvapi is also in court, kuch zameen ka maamla hai (something about the earth). If this government stays, it will find a solution.
Vishal Singh, 36, owner of an idol shop, says: “The land on which Aurangzeb built the mosque was on a 100-year lease. This rental period ends now…” When asked where he got this information from, he replied: “Principal yahan paid 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 the feelings of anyone, whether Hindu or Muslim. I’m sure the courts will make the right decision.
Singh and Kesharvani are happy that under the rule of Yogi Adityanath Muslims are “under control” and “don’t try to rule” and “don’t blow cigarette smoke in our faces”. “Look at the great hall Kashi Vishwanath, it will help pilgrims as well as business people. Even the projects initiated by previous governments are being completed by Yogiji. This is called intention” , explains Kesharvani.
In the narrow, congested lanes of a nearby Muslim-dominated Daalmandi market, no one sees an imminent threat to the Gyanvapi Mosque, but the place is steeped in desperation, anger and exasperation over communal rhetoric and whistles. “It would be great if only one election could be held without issues such as ‘Masjid, Jinnah, Abba, Haj House’. If the BJP needs mosques to gain support, isn’t that an admission that it doesn’t have its own achievements to tell? says Nadeem Ahmed, a middle-aged home decor store owner.
Tehseen Hussain, 67, who runs a knitwear store, has less hope for Gyanvapi. “So far, the 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 worshipers, disturb the atmosphere. And the law is only as strong as the government that enforces it,” Hussain said, alleging that the country’s secularism is “in tatters” now.
Confectionery owner Sanu Ali says people are “tired” of the eternal Hindu-Muslim conflict. “In Benares, Hindus and Muslims have always coexisted in harmony. My Hindu neighbors and I always celebrate all festivals together. I really think people have seen through communal politics now. This time Akhilesh is coming back,” he said.
In Daalmandi and the area of Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi Mosque, election signs or banners are non-existent. SM Yaseen, co-secretary of Anjuman Intejamiya Masjid which looks after Gyanvapi among other mosques, says it is “difficult” to use the mosque-temple conflict as an election issue in Varanasi.
“The issue of Gyanvapi is being raised to build a certain narrative not just in UP, but nationally. However, most court cases on the issue have not been moved by residents of Benares. The tradition here is for Hindus to help Muslims with namaz, with Muslims selling flowers to worshipers in the temple. The local administration has always heard our concerns. Moreover, Kashi (Varanasi), with a strong Muslim population of 500,000, cannot be compared to Ayodhya of 1992, which had barely 10,000 Muslims.
Regarding 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 on the project. Rajendra Tiwari, former mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath temple family, says the city is changing “from a aastha ka kendra (center of faith) to a paryatan sthal (tourist site)”. “A center of spirituality turns into a spectacle of political ambition. The BJP talks about the construction of Masjid Gyanvapi after the demolition of a temple, but many small temples were razed in order to build the Kashi Vishwanath hallway Anyone who thinks that one idea can surpass all others in this ancient and eternal city hasn’t really understood Kashi,” says Tiwari.