On April 1, just before Navratri, Hindutva groups in Varanasi organised a rally. It crossed Godoliya chowk, a bustling market square about half a kilometre from the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Gyanvapi mosque.

Videos from the day show some participants of the rally waving swords as they chanted: “Ek jhatka aur doh, Gyanvapi tod doh” – give it one more push, tear down the Gyanvapi mosque.

On April 6, Aabid Sheikh, a young activist and student from Varanasi, tweeted out some of the videos, tagging the local police. “Hooligans are making open calls to demolish the Gyanvapi mosque. When will action be taken against them?” he asked.

On Twitter, the deputy commissioner of Varanasi police asked an assistant commissioner to “look into it”. The assistant commissioner told Scroll.in on April 29 that the police had spoken to the organisers of the rally who had denied such slogans had been chanted. When this reporter pointed out that the slogan asking for Gyanvapi mosque’s demolition could be heard in the videos, he said “maybe the clip was edited”. But there is more evidence available on YouTube – for instance, here, at 3:40 minutes into the recording.

The April 1 rally was the first in a series of rallies held during the nine-day Navratri season, all the way till Ram Navami on April 10. Vishnu Tiwari, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said they were organised by the morcha in collaboration with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

In other parts of the country, Navaratri rallies sparked off communal conflagrations. In Varanasi, matters went no further than slogans.

However, the wheels were slowly turning in a court case filed last year. In August 2021, five women had petitioned a Varanasi trial court asking for permission to offer daily prayers at the Gyanvapi mosque. The mosque held “Hindu gods Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesha, Lord Hanuman and other visible and invisible deities”, the petition claimed.

On May 7, the Varanasi court allowed a video survey of the mosque. Ten days later, the survey commissioners reported they had found an oval object in the mosque premises. The Hindu petitioners claimed this was a “shivling”. Mosque committee members objected, saying it was part of a fountain in the “wazu khana”, or ablution tank. However, the court ordered the tank to be sealed, even before the commission’s report was officially submitted.

While the matter meanders through the judicial system, Hindutva groups in Varanasi are impatient for more immediate action. “Some people will go to the high court, others will go to Gyanvapi directly,” said Tiwari, grinning.

The apparent discovery of a “shivling” in the mosque has increased their appetite for a demolition. “What happened with Babri – something even better will happen with Gyanvapi,” said Tiwari, who is 25 and calls himself a kattar, or strict, Hindu.

Did he mean the kind of demolition seen in Ayodhya in 1992, when kar sevaks waved saffron flags from the dome of the Babri Masjid before they tore it down?

“No, that will not happen,” said Tiwari, laughing by now. “A bulldozer will arrive at the site this time.”

Vishnu Tiwari is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha as well as the head of Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasabha. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer

‘Waiting for orders’

Tiwari was making an oblique reference to recent events in the country. After communal clashes broke out during Navratri rallies, the administration in states or municipalities controlled by the BJP ordered demolition drives. Most targeted Muslim homes and establishments, which were suddenly identified as illegal encroachments. In Delhi, the gateway to a mosque in Jahangirpuri was demolished on the grounds that it violated building rules.

The practice of punishing alleged Muslim offenders by demolishing their homes may be traced back to the first term of the Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. So common did the practice become in the state that chief minister Adityanath, now in his second term, earned himself the monicker of “bulldozer baba”.

Valmiki Upadhyay, a member of the Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, claimed Muslims have remained largely quiet about Gyanvapi so far and will accept what the government and courts decide because they know that if they protest, they would be jailed and their property razed down by bulldozers. “There is fear that their property will be taken away,” Upadhyay said.

Valmiki Upadhyay is a former president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer

Amit Pandey, district head of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, agreed. According to him, clashes had not broken out because Muslims feared “the double engine” – a reference to BJP governments at the Centre and in the state.

For now, there is a tense calm in Varanasi. Police personnel patrol the streets of Varanasi. For the last few weeks, Friday prayers have been held under heavy security.

Hindutva groups say they are willing to act against Muslims, should they be called upon to do so. “Hum logo ko aadesh mil jaaye, turant chale jayenge” – as soon as we get the orders, we will be there – Upadhyay said.

Pandey said they were arming themselves and exhorting other Hindus to prepare as well. Tiwari said the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha has been conducting sessions to chant the Hanuman Chalisa – an invocation to Hanuman, a deity who symbolises physical prowess – five times a day.

“We also put up speakers but the administration recently removed it,” he said. “Now we are discussing the need to start a programme under which every single Hindu household will have a sword.”

Pandey, who has served as Shareerak Shikshan Pramukh, or head of physical training, at several RSS shakhas, said members of the Yuva Morcha had enough weapons at home for use in a “violent situation”.

‘Places of Worship Act must go’

While they are prepared for street clashes, Hindutva groups in Varanasi are confident the court ruling will favour their side in the Gyanvapi case. “We will not get a bad decision,” said Pandey. “Because we have our governments in the state and at the Centre.”

If the lower courts did not deliver the judgement they wanted, the higher courts would surely oblige, he added. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2019 Ayodhya verdict, which paved the way for a Ram Temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. “If it has happened there, it will happen here,” said Pandey.

Their ambitions are not limited to the conversion of the Gyanvapi mosque. The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 came up repeatedly during conversations in Varanasi. The act stipulates that the “religious character” of holy places would remain the same as it was on August 15, 1947, the day of Independence. The only exception to the law is the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

As the Gyanvapi case winds its way through courts, Muslim groups contend that changing the character of the mosque would violate the 1991 law. But last year, the Supreme Court admitted a petition challenging the law itself. In Varanasi, Hindutva groups feel the law must go.

“The act was driven by a political agenda,” said Pandey. The 1991 law was passed by the Congress government headed by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. “It was done to appease Muslims, to attract the Muslims vote bank,” Pandey continued. “This is a wrong law. India belongs to Hindus.”

Local BJP leaders believe the various legal appeals may also reopen a political conversation on the 1991 law – the courts may not be the only way out of it. Neeraj Dadlani, head of a ward unit of the BJP, said the party was rethinking the law. In December 2021, in Rajya Sabha, a BJP MP had raised the demand for a repeal of the law.

It is not just Hindutva activists and BJP workers who want the law to go. Several Hindu residents of Varanasi feel the same. Take 29-year-old Shivam Shukla, who runs an institute where students are trained to compete for medical entrance examinations. He also feels the law was an act of “minority appeasement” – and that the era of appeasement is over.

Passersby catch a glimpse of the Gyanvapi mosque that is visible through the grand boundary wall of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer

‘We do not want a riot’

Ask ordinary Hindu residents in Varanasi about the Gyanvapi case and most want to know whether Hindu idols are indeed buried inside the mosque. However, they would rather leave it to the courts to decide the mosque’s fate. Few in the area want a riot. In the city of Varanasi, art, craft and business bind the two communities.

Fifty six-year-old Vijay Tiwari, who owns a shop in the Kashi-Vishwanath complex, fears economic losses. The last few years have been hard, with the pandemic and tourists thin on the ground. “I have to pay Rs 30,000 rent each month for this shop. How can I afford it if there are tensions?” he asked.

Among other things, Vijay Tiwari sells Hindu idols. “See these idols in my shop,” he said. “They are all made by Muslim artisans. If they stop dealing with me, what will I do?”

He blames the media for fomenting trouble. “Let the court and government do what they must in a peaceful way,” he said. “At the end of the day, where will the Muslims go? All these debates on television shows are only creating tensions.”

While there was calm at the moment, he said, Hindus were apprehensive about crossing Muslim-majority localities.

According to 42-year-old Ishwar Chandragiri, who sells cosmetics and bangles, the fear ran both ways. These days, he has been getting calls from Muslim customers asking if it is safe to visit his shop. “Everyone should just listen to the courts,” he said in exasperation. “How can we do business in such a climate? How can this go on?”

A shopkeeper selling tourist souvenirs near Assi Ghat was confident the tensions were temporary and the matter would soon be sorted out by the government and the court – in favour of the Hindu side. “Someday there will also be a corridor between Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya,” he said. “Already we are seeing an increase in tourists since the [Kashi Vishwanath] corridor was made. This will only be better for us.”

The corridor, inaugurated shortly before the Uttar Pradesh elections this year, connects the Kashi Vishwanath temple to the ghats along the Ganges.

Amit Chaturvedi, a 26-year-old driver in the city, also believes the conversion of the Gyanvapi mosque to a temple is a fait accompli, and even local Muslims would not object. “The locals know that this is a temple,” he said.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, professor and head of department of electronics engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology-BHU in Varanasi, is also the head priest of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi. He still believes the old syncretic culture of the city is a safeguard against violence.

“I know the people of Benares,” he said. “People here have seen a lot of changes and one will not be able to end the sense of love here. There have been riots, but there has also been a growth of understanding.”

Priyesh Pandey, pursuing a postgraduate degree in peace studies at the Banaras Hindu University, does not share this optimism. “I clearly see animosity between people of both communities,” he said. “One community can be heard talking of revenge for the past while the other community is fearful but also ready to defend their place of worship.”

“Muslim parents try to ensure the chidlren are home before dark,” he added.

Everyday life at the Nishadraj Ghat in Varanasi. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer

‘Nothing happened today’

Within the Muslim community, there are worried discussions about the need to ensure tensions don’t spill over into violence, especially with the increased attendance at Friday prayers.

Muslims must exercise greater caution, several members of the community said, because of the difference in the way Hindus and Muslims are treated by the law. They pointed out that the police did not take action against Hindutva processions chanting slogans to bring down the Gyanvapi mosque, but a poor Muslim labourer who had shouted a few stray slogans on May 7 has been in jail for weeks.

Scroll.in attended a gathering where elders and members of the mosque management committee discussed ways to keep the peace. Many of them warned Muslims not to speak to television channels or even bring young sons to the Friday prayers. “There is no point talking to them, all they do is provoke us,” said Shamsher Ali, a member of the mosque committee.

Raju Nadeem, a locally influential businessman, said whenever he saw a large Muslim crowd around the mosque, he promptly asked them to disperse. Everyone shared stories of how they had tried to calm tempers.

Every day that passed without incident was a boon. “Thank god, nothing happened today,” an elderly man sighed.

Shamsher Ali, a member of the mosque committee, attended a discussion about how Muslims can help keep the peace. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer