Scratching the wounds of the past: India’s disputes over mosques and temples are only increasing religious tensions

For decades, the city of Varanasi in Utter Pradesh was known for its syncretic culture, with Hindus and Muslims worshipping side by side in their respective places of worship. All that changed in May this year.

On 12 May, a district court in Varanasi ordered a videographic survey of the city’s Gyanvapi mosque which is located just metres away from the Kashi Vishwanath Hindu temple. The order followed a petition filed by a group of five Hindu women last year who sought permission to worship within the outer walls of the mosque.

In spite of the objections raised by the committee that manages the mosque, and in rejection of a stay order issued by the Allahabad High Court, the survey was completed on 16 May. The lawyer representing the Hindu petitioners subsequently claimed that a shivling (phallic symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva) was found in the compound of the mosque, which the Hindus argue should grant them a right to worship in the premises whilst barring Muslims from entering the area.

The mosque committee claimed that the survey was a violation of the Places of Worship Act 1991 of the Indian constitution, according to which a mosque, temple, church or any place of public worship that was in existence as of 15 August 1947 will retain the same religious character that it had on that day – irrespective of its history – and cannot be changed by the courts or the government. 

The matter soon reached the Supreme Court of India, which passed an interim order to seal off the Wazu Khana (the pond where devotees wash their hands before offering their daily prayers) where the shivling was allegedly found, while also allowing the Muslims to continue offering their prayers in the mosque.

Tensions high and rising

Even as the Muslims of Varanasi await a resolution, similar disputes have arisen in several other cities in India, adding to tensions between India’s Muslim and Hindu communities at a time when divisions are already high and rising across the country.

On 13 May another petition was filed in Mathura, also in Uttar Pradesh, this time for a videographic survey of the Shahi Idgah mosque which is located close to the Krishna Janmabhoomi, which Hindus believe to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Krishna. There have also been reports that Hindu activists are claiming that the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Qutub Minar in Delhi also contain idols of Hindu deities. Just days before the petition was filed, a leader in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) filed a plea in the Lucknow High Court requesting that the Archaeological Survey of India open the 20 locked doors in the Taj Mahal, claiming that there were Hindu idols and scriptures inside.

These events have heightened a sense of panic and fear among India’s minority Muslim community, who fear this could lead to a repeat of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition in which Hindu fundamentalists demolished the Babri Masjid mosque claiming that the land was the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram and that the mosque had been built in place of the Ram temple. The incident triggered violence across the country which resulted in the death of nearly 2000 people.

The dispute over ownership of the land continued for years afterwards until in 2019 the Supreme Court finally handed over the ownership of the land to the Hindus and gave them permission to build the ‘grand’ Ram temple – the realisation of an election manifesto promise that greatly influenced the BJP’s victory. The Muslims were compensated with a meagre plot of five acres of land next to the original site of the mosque, but the wounds that it caused an already marginalised minority were deep.

The wounds of the past

A common argument by the Hindus in these disputes is that the mosques in question were actually built in place of Hindu temples that were destroyed by Mughal rulers. For instance, some historians say that the Gyanvapi mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb after he demolished the Hindu Shiva temple there, although others deny this claim. 

However, activists view the spike in disputes over mosques and temples as a calculated move by Hindu fundamentalists to rid the nation of all Islamic structures and symbols. They ride on the support of the ruling BJP, which has time and again made its intention of removing Muslim heritage from across the country clear. These disputes come at a time when India’s Muslims are being targeted from every possible angle, from hate speech and illegal demolition of their houses, to banning their businesses and stripping them off their freedom of expression.

Activists argue that even though some of the claims that temples were destroyed to build mosques could be true, India cannot move forward without reconciliation. There is no point digging up the past when there is no clear evidence one way or the other, and using it to demonise an entire community is unconscionable.

It is essential that these elements are stopped from scratching the wounds of the past. Only then can they heal, and perhaps India can start to move towards the vision of tolerance and peaceful co-existence upon which the nation was founded.

By CSW’s India Desk