It was always a mistaken notion that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates would take their foot off the accelerator for its mandir mudda (temple issue), once it made tangible progress in executing the plan of constructing the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Larsen and Toubro, the contracted company, is due to begin construction on the intended thirteen thousand square metres foundation after September 17, the day marking the end of the Pitr Paksha period, considered inauspicious by Hindus for beginning new projects.
But, even before getting the Ayodhya project off the ground after the politically symbolic Bhoomi Pujan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 5, the sangh parivar has begun speaking in multiple voices insofar as demolishing the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura are concerned. It is now certain that it is a matter of time before demands for the destruction of the two aforesaid Islamic shrines are formally made part of the agenda for the RSS or any of its affiliates.
The evolving narrative on the Mathura-Kashi demands, that has been stated to be baaki or pending since the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, actually follows the Ayodhya path. It requires retelling that the demand for handing over the three shrines to the Hindus was first articulated by the Hindu Mahasabha in 1949, a decade prior to the RSS formally including the issue in its agenda. Even after the demand was revived in 1983, it was first done by individuals and groups with no formal association with the RSS; they instead owed allegiance to the Congress at some point in their careers.
The first embrace of the Ram temple issue from within the sangh parivar was made by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in early 1984, and the RSS did not get formally associated with the agitation for another couple of years. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party did not have any formal association with the movement till June 1989, when it adopted a resolving seeking the “restoration” of Ram Janmabhoomi for the Hindu community, through its landmark Palampur resolution.
But while the saffron fold was a marginal force in the 1980s – when these developments took place – and it was anxiously securing socio-political legitimacy, it is now the dominant political force in India with no adversary offering a counter narrative. Almost every opponent has been sucked into tom-toming the Ram temple 'cause' and their stance over Mathura and Varanasi will eventually be little different.
The voicing of the demand for the two shrines from the saffron brotherhood is now just a matter of time, but considerable progress has already been made by individuals and organisations which are part of the Hindutva ecosystem. As a result, the official inclusion of this demand is likely to be done much quicker than the time taken to champion the Ayodhya matter.
Projects Varanasi and Mathura took off immediately after the Supreme Court's verdict on Ayodhya in November 2019. A BJP Rajya Sabha member, Harnath Singh, had turned out in a green-coloured quasi fancy-dress outfit with Jai Shri Krishna emblazoned on it when he attended the Winter Session of the Upper House last year. When asked about his appearance, he told journalists that it was to underline the idea that after Ayodhya, it was the turn of the two shrines in Varanasi and Mathura to be handed over to Hindu representatives.
The BJP has not yet taken a formal position, but a similar viewpoint was articulated by one-time Bajrang Dal chief and former Lok Sabha member from Faizabad, Vinay Katiyar. Around the time Modi performed the ritual on August 5, he had declared that there should not be further delay in raising the matter of the other two shrines. Neither leader of the party has been cautioned against speaking out of turn.
Aside from the BJP, several developments have also taken place since the beginning of this year and matters have been speeded up in recent weeks. Three weeks prior to imposition of the harsh and unplanned nationwide lockdown, a meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti, an umbrella body of Hindu seers, was held in Varanasi. It decided to establish the Shri Kashi Gyanvapi Mukti Yagna Samiti.
Its brief, as the name suggests, is to wage an agitation for removal of the mosque adjacent to the Vishwanath Temple. It was modelled on the lines of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti formed in 1984 to provide an illusion of the RSS-VHP non-involvement in the campaign. Maverick BJP lawmaker, Subramanian Swamy, was appointed the president of this new outfit. After taking over, Swamy stated that the “liberation and restoration” of the ancient temple was a “fundamental part of Hindu Renaissance.” But, before further plans could be drawn, the pandemic worsened and matters had to be shelved.
After the process of unlocking the nation began, Mathura-based seers, who had begun preliminary engagement among themselves in February, did not wish to be out manoeuvred within the intensely competitive world of the Hindu clergy. On July 23, the formation of Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Mukti Andolan Trust was announced by these religious leaders.
By the time Bhoomi Pujan was performed in Ayodhya, demands for dispossessing the Muslim community from 'living' shrines in Varanasi and Mathura had been formally made, although not from the sangh parivar platforms. The need thereafter, was to make this more representative and bring in factions not yet on board in regard to the two shrines. Additionally, the intention was to introduce religious leaders who are 'closer' to RSS and its affiliates.
The meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad in Allahabad earlier this month was intentioned in this direction. The Akharas are mainly militant, completely non-democratic and inherently patriarchal brotherhoods and have significant following for the resources and power at their command.
The president of the Akhara Parishad, Narendra Giri, is among the most political seers and is a known trumpeter of the RSS, especially its chief Mohan Bhagwat. He has consistently praised the sarsanghchalak for flagging the need to introduce a population control legislation, a demand that acts as a dog whistle more than anything else. He also routinely interjects during controversies on which Hindutva votaries have a strident position.
Giri's presence on the Varanasi-Mathura bandwagon is obviously a RSS ploy to have a person in a key position without it being formally part of the platform. On the two shrines, the emerging strategy is similar to Ayodhya. In June this year, a separate organisation of priests, the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh, filed a plea in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 that prohibits any change in the religious character of a place of worship after August 15, 1947.
The Purohit Mahasangh claimed in its petition that the aforesaid Section of the 1991 Act “validates the alleged illegal and barbarous action of invaders who had converted the Hindu places of worship...(the law) discriminates the members of the Hindu community vis-a-vis the members of the Muslim community.”
The 1991 Act was referred in the unanimous Ayodhya judgement of 2019 as a piece of legislation which “embodies the secular values of the Indian Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.” Further ahead, the judged concurred that the law “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution. The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution.”
Although the law has been challenged many times and these please were rejected, there is no certainty that the apex court, in its current disposition, would go by the verdicts of preceding judges. Worried at this possibility, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind has asked the Supreme Court for a chance to contest this petition, if it chooses to entertain it. Just as the VHP impleaded itself as a party in the Ayodhya title suit, there is every possibility that the organisation may resort to similar tactic on Varanasi and Mathura.
Additionally, the Akhara Parishad also decided at its meeting to file FIRs in Varanasi and Mathura alleging that Hindu temples have been demolished by Muslims in history. The approach is certainly multi-pronged involving criminal cases, legal pursuit and of course mass agitation.
The sangh parivar also is of the opinion that it has a 'better case' on Varanasi and Mathura as compared to Ayodhya, where the Supreme Court has not voiced an opinion if the mosque was built after demolishing an existing temple. These factors and recent developments point to increasing turbulence in coming years. The communal cauldron will be kept boiling by the sangh parivar, if only because it helps deflect people's attention from basic livelihood concerns which are more acute due to the inept management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The writer is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. The Demolition: India At The Crossroads was his first book published in 1994. He is currently working on a new book on the issue. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin. The views are personal.