Gyanvapi row: The Future of the Past

An endless civil strife between Hindus and Muslims is not good for the country. What, then, is the way out? Both sides should sit across a table to work out a compromise

Published: 25th May 2022 07:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th May 2022 11:27 AM   |  A+A-

A view of Kashi Vishwanath Temple Dham and Gyanvapi Masjid complex, in Varanasi.

A view of Kashi Vishwanath Temple Dham and Gyanvapi Masjid complex, in Varanasi. (Photo | PTI)

After the discovery of what resembles a Shivalinga in the Gyanvapi well on the premises of a mosque by the same name in Varanasi, the nation has once again been thrown into legal and religious turmoil. This, as is inevitable, is always accompanied by social, cultural, and of course, in India's case, political overtones.

How to make sense of this tangle, not necessarily from a Hindu, Muslim or secular - all of which, as I shall show, are sectarian points of view - but instead, from a perspective that benefits India and secures its future as a stable, viable, multi-religious republic?

First of all, let us examine the matter from the three positions outlined above, Hindu, Muslim and secular. Some Hindus, for instance, not only want to reclaim the Gyanvapi masjid for Hindus to worship.

That would not, per se, be an unreasonable demand. But they want all 40,000 or so mosques allegedly built on the ruins of Hindu temples to be restored to Hindus, thus reversing the vandalism and cultural genocide of centuries of Muslim rule in India.

Hurt Hindu pride, which may be behind such a sentiment, is easily understood. We may even sympathise with it. But the fact remains that Hindus could not defend their places of worship in times past.

Now, a democratically elected government, which rules as per the provisions of the Indian Constitution, must protect the interests of all citizens equally. Either the Constitution must be changed so that Hindu rights are placed above those of others or we must abide by both the letter and spirit of the law.

If we must take the latter course, how can these Hindus demand that the party in power, BJP, even if it is a Hindu majoritarian party, use the state machinery to turn thousands of mosques into temples? Would this be feasible, let alone legal or desirable?

Instead, wouldn’t such a move lead to a permanent civil war between feuding Hindus and Muslims, thus opening us up for interference and internal weakening by foreign powers in addition to the possibility of internal collapse?

Let us turn to the Muslims now. There is a major majlis (assembly) planned at the conservative seminary of Deoband where many stakeholders will congregate to take stock of matters. We shall have to wait and watch to see what pronouncements are made or policies framed.

But one faction, as represented by Asaduddin Owaisi, has already gone on record to say that not a single masjid will be returned to the Hindus.

Those Muslims who think this way need to ask themselves the implications of such a statement, especially when the structure, as is obvious with the Gyanvapi Masjid, is built on a destroyed Hindu temple.

Even the walls of the latter are intact for all to see to this date. Evidence from the time of Aurangzeb’s demolition of the temple, including pictorial records by eminent Indologists such as James Prinsep, amply attest to this.

What is more, the looting, desecration and spoilage of Varanasi is as old as the invasions of Mahmud Ghazni. As Abu al-Fazl al-Bayhaqi records, Ghazni's Indian "governor", Ahmad Niyaltigin, looted the city in 1033 CE. "The markets of the drapers, perfumers and jewellers were plundered" from "morning to mid-day prayer".

Since time was short, he says, “it was impossible to do more”. Far from any regret over such marauding, there is a note of regret in the text that only so little plunder and sacking was possible. Therefore, when it comes to the Gyanvapi itself, that sacred site was likely to have been destroyed and rebuilt over and over again.

What we see today is only its latest ruination and metamorphosis at the hands of Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, in 1669. Therefore, for Muslims to imagine that whatever was demolished, conquered or rebuilt upon in the past should remain in their possession until eternity because that is enjoined in Muslim law is unreasonable.

Non-Muslims, who have been victims of Islamic conquest, plunder and vandalism, cannot be expected to respect the very law that was the cause of their ruination. Now let us turn to our secularists and champions of the rule of law.

The Places of Worship Act, 1991, which asserts that "the character of a religious place cannot be altered from what it was on August 15, 1947", is only a relatively recent ordinance, from the point of view of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, enacted by the Indian Parliament.

There is nothing in our Constitution to prevent it from being modified or even scrapped by the well-laid out procedure of the amendment of such laws. If proponents of secularism or constitutionalism cite the law, then they should abide by the law if or when it is modified.

Instead, as with the Constitutional Amendment Act or Article 370, they will cry foul. How can they have it both ways - praise the law when it suits them, denounce it when it does not? Let us now look at the issue from the perspective of what is good for India, that is Bharat.

It should be clear that endless civil strife between Hindus and Muslims is not good for the country.

What, then, is the way out? Both sides should sit across a table to work out a compromise. The compromise, as far as I am concerned, should be based on the return of at least those structures that are of paramount importance to the Hindus, including Kashi and Mathura.

The former is associated with Shiva, the latter with Krisha, both of whom are major Hindu deities. This, in addition to Ayodhya, should be the bare minimum. As to the rest of the mosques that are built on ruins of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, there ought to be a national and international evidence-based acknowledgement of this historical truth.

Signage by the Archaeological Survey of India or even by mosque authorities in case of a place of continuing worship should acknowledge this. No more denialism, rationalisation or plain falsehood in the name of appeasement or conciliation.

What is more, Hindus should be allowed to visit disputed premises when prayers are not being offered by Muslims. Even better, as in the present case of the Gyanvapi, both communities can offer worship at disputed shrines.

This would send a far-reaching signal of Hindu-Muslim friendship to the whole world. Are we ready for such a rapprochement? Why not be hopeful - where there is a will, there is a way.

The writer is a Professor of English at JNU


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  • Giri

    An overwhelming majoritiy of Muslims (and indeed Christians) are converts from Hinduism for various reasons and are not descendents of invading hordes of Muslims. As such they can at least accept that that there is an eons-old cultural relationship with Hindus and try and behave like Indians rather than pretend to be from Arabia. Then there will be less conflict and more peaceful coexistence!
    9 months ago reply
  • k.b.pranesh

    This soluton is possibly utopian. both faiths to offer worship in the ame place is procedurally inappropriate. Instead
    10 months ago reply
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