On Friday morning, as Special Advocate Commissioner for the Gyanvapi mosque complex survey, Vishal Singh, visits Assi Ghat, surrounded by armed security guards and his associate lawyers, he causes a minor stir. Looking at the small crowd of onlookers tailing the officer, a befuddled Rudra Kumar, who runs a tea stall on the steps of the ghat, says, “Lagta hai yagan bhi survey hoga. Survey ho gaya to yahan bhi kuch niklega (Looks like there will be a survey here too. If that happens, they will find something here too.)”
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In Varanasi, a city that’s three cities in one, where Kashi, Benaras and Varanasi have ebbed and flowed into each other for centuries, the ‘survey’ is what holds out both promise and fear — the promise, to some, that ‘historical wrongs ‘ can finally be corrected and the glory of the city restored to match the grandeur of the newly refurbished Kashi Vishwanath temple complex. And the fear that, with that, some more of the old, unvarnished Varanasi could be lost forever — a city whose cramped lanes held countless small temples and mosques and remarkably still had space left for its people.
Hearing a petition by five Hindu women seeking access to pray at “a shrine behind the western wall of the mosque complex”, a court in Varanasi had on April 8 ordered an inspection of the site along with a videographic survey of the action.
On May 17, the Supreme Court asked the Varanasi district magistrate to secure the area where a shivling had claimed to have been found during the videographic survey of the mosque area without impeding or restricting the rights of Muslims to access and offer namaz at the mosque.
Two separate reports on the videography survey of the Gyanvapi mosque, which were submitted to the Varanasi court on May 19, stated that debris from old temples were found at the corner of the northern and western walls outside the barricading, and Hindu motifs such as bells , kalash, flowers and trishul were visible on pillars in the tehkhana (basement).
A day later, across Varanasi, the survey and its ‘findings’ continue to be spoken of with excitement — or carefully sidestepped.
Rudra, the tea seller on the steps of the Assi Ghat, has realised that there won’t be any more surveys — the officer was here only for a TV interview.
“We already knew that the mosque area was part of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The survey report has only confirmed that,” he says. On the objects raised by the Muslim side, he says, “Kehne dijiye unko (let them say what they want to).”
Kanhaiyya Kumar, 31, who has just bought a cup of tea from Rudra, joins in the conversation. “Apne itihaas ko janana zaroori hai (It is important to be aware of our history). When the Mughals ruled, they plundered us and destroyed our temples. Now it’s our waqt (time) and Modiji is in power, so we can hope to get back what we lost,” says Kumar, who owns a dosa stall outside Assi Ghat.
Once the court upholds the claims of the Hindu petitioners, the temple will extend into the mosque, he says, extending a warning, “Jo Ayodhya me hua, wahi Kashi me hoga (whatever happened in Ayodhya will happen in Kashi).”
At the same ghat, Ved Prakash Pandey, 86, has just finished his yoga session as part of Subah-e-Banaras, a cultural program that the state government began in 2014 and is now a tourist draw. The survey and the “truth it has brought out”, he says, was much needed – “sanskaron ke liye (for the sake of tradition)”.
The talk rarely veers away from the survey, and when it does, Pandey is largely forgiving of the government. “Inflation is a global problem, not just India’s. Petrol is costly, but then you see queues of vehicles at petrol pumps these days… If lemons are expensive, that is good for the poor farmer,” he says.
The city’s famed “Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb” seems a little jaded in the new Varanasi, yet those who talk of it, like Hazi Mohammad Naseer, who runs a cosmetics shop in Dalmandi, a market area less than a kilometer from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple -Gyanvapi Mosque complex, point to the fact that the city has had no communal clash in recent history, or that the late Bismillah Khan played his shehnai at Hindu weddings, or that some Muslim homes even have Hindu temples inside them.
On more recent events, Naseer prefers a strategic silence. “We have decided not to say anything about the Prime Minister and Chief Minister while speaking on this issue. Otherwise bulldozers will start working. We have been asked by the imams of our mosques to pray for the safety of Gyanvapi Mosque during the Friday prayers,” he says.
The city had barely recovered from the rancour of the elections, he says, when the survey controversy has stoked fresh fears. The BJP had made a clean sweep of Varanasi in the elections earlier this year, winning seven of the eight seats with its ally Apna Dal (S) winning one.
Seated next to Naseer, Mumtaz Ahmed, who works in a garment shop, is more forthcoming. “I have prayed at the Gyanvapi Mosque several times in the past. There is no shivling in the wuzu khana. All this is being done to divide the 80 per cent and 20 per cent for political reasons,” he says, adding that only outsiders stand to benefit from the dispute, not the people of Varanasi.
On Friday, as the loudspeakers — much muted after the enforcement of a recent order to lower decibel levels — announce the end of the azaan, devotees file out of the Gyanvapi Mosque. Any talk of the survey is strictly avoided.
“Our stand is being presented in the courts by lawyers of the mosque committee. Now the matter is also in the Supreme Court. We should wait for justice from the court. It is better for us to argue inside the court, not on the roads,” says a namazi who doesn’t want to be identified.
Inside the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, the idol of the Nandi bull, gazing in the direction of the Gyanvapi Mosque, has been drawing crowds since last week when talk of a shivling being discovered during the survey first came up. “Is that where they found the shivling?” more than one devotee asks the priests, security personnel and local visitors, pointing in the direction of the masjid wall.
Ganeshi, a priest seated near the Nandi, answers most of these queries and engages in some speculation of his own about the mosque and the court case.
Guru Prasad Jaiswal, a devotee from Gorakhpur, hangs around the Nandi for a while before heading to the shrine. “God alone knows what is happening these days. The controversy will now shift to Kashi because you can no longer milk Ayodhya for votes.”