Varanasi and Mathura : Ayodhya in the making

A. J. Philip
19 Apr 2021

Sense and sensibility should guide everyone while taking decisions which have far-reaching consequences. Even judicial decisions are not exempt from this rule. However, it is difficult to say that some of the recent decisions pertaining to disputes about temples and mosques were taken in the right spirit.

When the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, most people thought that it was the end of a decades-long problem. Many BJP leaders looked forward to constructing a magnificent temple for Ram at the disputed site.

In a way the Muslims were happy because the court did not accept any of the arguments against them — that the Babri Masjid was built by demolishing a temple, that the Muslims were not in continuous possession of the site and that the idol of Lord Ram appeared on its own in the mosque and was not placed there.

Yet, the whole disputed land was handed over to the Hindus so that a temple could be built there. The Muslims were given an alternative plot, far, far away from the temple.
For reasons of peace, amity and co-existence, most Muslims accepted the verdict, though they knew that justice was not exactly done to them. Others also welcomed the verdict, as it sought to end a dispute that had taken a heavy toll on communal amity.

Of course, the people knew that Ayodhya was not the only shrine about which there was a dispute. There were two other centres of dispute, namely Varanasi and Mathura.

Stories abound about how a mosque and a temple came up in such close proximity as at Varanasi. The story is much the same at Mathura, where a mosque and a temple stand like Siamese twins. In the popular perception, this was the handiwork of the Mughals, especially Aurangzeb, who was not known for religious tolerance.

However, a black-and-white description of events that happened hundreds of years ago can be faulty and, indeed, dangerous. The fact is that at both places, the Muslim and Hindu worshippers never felt inconvenienced because they were praying in two buildings on the same plot. They, in fact, got used to it!

It was to ward off any dispute that the Centre enacted a law which sought to cap such problems. It was during the Narasimha Rao regime that a law which froze the status of all religious shrines that existed on the day India became Independent.

In other words, the status quo of all temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras which existed on that date could not be altered by anyone using force or any other means. This was mainly to protect the status quo of the Varanasi and Mathura mosques and temples. 

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had made claims on many mosques arguing that they were built on the debris of Hindu temples. They claimed that the Jama Masjid in Delhi was originally a Hindu temple. Worse, some of its leaders and ideologues even claimed that the world-famous Taj Mahal was a Hindu structure.

One of them even produced a book claiming that some of the flower patterns used to beautify the inside walls and pillars at the Taj had a distinct Hindu touch. Little did he realise that many of the artisans who took part in the construction of the grand tomb might have been Hindus.

Elaborate use of the lotus motif in a church in Goa, which is now under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, does not mean that a temple was demolished to build the church. It only means that some Hindu artisans had the freedom to use their imagination while beautifying the construction.

The huge murals that depict the birth of Jesus and a few other Biblical episodes on the walls of the Birla Temple at Jaipur built in the second half of the 20th century suggest the broadmindedness of the Birlas. It does not suggest that the British forcibly vandalised the temple by altering the walls.

In other words, there has been no problem at either Varanasi or Mathura just because the two religious structures stood cheek by jowl. The fact of the matter is that there was no problem at Ayodhya also. The problem was created by the Sangh Parivar to take political advantage of it and come to power.

While doing so they put Varanasi and Mathura on the back burner. It paid dividends as can be assumed from the success the BJP achieved in successive elections bringing to Delhi Narendra Modi, described by some as the Hindu Hriday Samrat or the emperor of the Hindu heart.

Now that the BJP has enough strength in Parliament and it controls a large majority of the states, Modi and Company are more interested in ushering in the Hindu Rashtra, than improving the lot of the common man.

Almost all the core programmes of the party are aimed at transforming the secular nation into a theocratic nation. How else would the Prime Minister go to Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple when the people were suffering on account of price rise and the spread of Corona? 

It showed the total insensitivity of the government, which wasted precious resources to erect the statue of a person who was born a Congressman and died a Congressman and who dared to ban the RSS because the Nagpur-based organisation was allegedly responsible for the killing of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Supreme Court showed greater insensitivity when it accepted a petition challenging the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 which says that all places of worship in the country would remain as they were on August 15, 1947.

It also specifically mentioned that cases seeking conversion of a place of worship to that of other religion or faith “shall abate” with the commencement of the law. It might not have been a great law but it certainly stood the test of time. Three decades have passed without the law being challenged.

With Modi’s return to power in the 2019 elections, there is a great sense of resurgence among the Hindutvavadis. They are impatient. They want their dream of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra to be fulfilled as early as possible.

.Modi and his Sancho Panza did not bother for either public opinion or world opinion when the Centre abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution and divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir into Union Territories. Temple construction at Ayodhya has been going apace.

Small wonder that many in the party believe that it is a now-or-never-situation for the party to usher in Hindu Rashtra. One of them went to the Supreme Court and challenged the 1991 law.

In ordinary circumstances, there was no urgency to consider the appeal. The petitioner did not argue that the heavens would fall if the law was allowed to remain on the statute. Without any application of mind, the court gave notices to the government and the parties concerned.

Thus, the law that froze the status of structures like the Gyanvapi Mosque at Varanasi stands threatened. Who knows it would eventually be abrogated like Article 370! 

It is against this backdrop that a judge in Varanasi thought it necessary to order the Archaeological Survey of India to find out whether the mosque in question was built on the debris of the temple there. The story, though unsubstantiated, is that a portion of the temple was destroyed to build the mosque.

The ASI has been empowered to enter the mosque and conduct checks to find out whether it is really built on the debris. There are instruments and technologies which can be deployed to find out whether any portion of the temple is underneath the mosque.

The ASI can also do some drilling to verify such claims. Technology should be used to promote the public interest, not to undermine it. We know how science can be used for divisive purposes. We saw how the same ASI was used to claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the debris of the Ramjanambhoomi temple.

Whatever flawed evidence was produced was not sufficient to stand judicial scrutiny. Even the Supreme Court judges who heard the Ayodhya case and who seemed to be eager to be even-handed rejected outright the ASI evidence.

Archaeology in India depends more on its practitioners than on its essential characteristics. Here, some archaeologists use archaeology to get a Padma Sri, rather than to reach unimpeachable conclusions. Given this trend, what purpose will be served if the ASI person who conducts the underground tests says there is prima facie evidence of a temple under the mosque?

In that case, what would be the next step? Demolition of the structure? Will it serve any national purpose? It is heartening that some groups have challenged the Varanasi judge’s order in the Allahabad High Court.

It would be great if the High Court accepts the appeal and quashes the judge’s order asking the ASI to probe the veracity of the claim. It is as unscientific as a court ordering the Registrar of Deaths and Births in Ayodhya to report whether Lord Ram was born exactly at the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood.

No, Varanasi is not the only place where such disputes are being raked up. The status of the mosque at Mathura is also being challenged by means which can only be described as sinister and diabolic. It is difficult to believe that these developments are not related to one another. They all seem to have a pattern.

And that pattern is to create a sense of insecurity among the minorities, especially Muslims. All this is done in the name of correcting the wrongs of the past. Only the idiotic will make such attempts.

No foreigner ruled the country on his own. The Europeans first occupied Goa, which was ruled by the Muslims. The Muslims were few in number while the overwhelming majority of the people were non-Muslims or, let us call them, Hindus. Without local support, the Portuguese could not have grabbed power.

Similarly, the British defeated the Muslims and ruled this country for nearly two hundred years with the support of the local people. Their greatest supporters were those who rule this country now, indirectly from Nagpur.

Anybody who has studied history will vouchsafe the fact that the Moguls depended on the majority community to manage their affairs. Even Aurangzeb had his Hindu collaborators. In such a scenario it is ridiculous to correct the wrongs of history. In any case, we should not judge the past with today’s norms.

The people want peace. History bears witness to the fact that wherever peace prevailed, there was progress. The Elizabethan period in Britain was the most glorious period. It was also the period when art and literature flourished.

Look at how much damage the Citizenship laws, demonetisation, the farmers’ agitation and Corona have caused to the national economy. We as a nation should learn from the experiences of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and now, Myanmar, to conclude that nothing is more valuable than peace and communal amity.

How I wish the Supreme Court had taken cognisance of the judicial stirrings in Varanasi and Mathura and ruled that under no circumstances would anyone be allowed to question the status of a religious worship centre on the specious plea that its status was  forcibly converted in the past!

Public interest cannot be left to the whims of a judge. Will the Supreme Court rise to the occasion or will it remain a mute witness to the goings-on in the name of correcting the wrongs of history?

ajphilip@gmail.com
 

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