Multiple claims by far-right Hindu groups over at least six religious sites in India has triggered fears of a re-run of the Babri Masjid incident across the country.
On December 6, 1992, a day remembered as ‘black day’ in India, a crowd of almost 150,000 people broke through barricades around the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya’s city of Uttar Pradesh state.
In a few hours, they demolished the 16th-century mosque.
Prior to the demolition of the mosque, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began a court-ordered survey to find out if a Hindu Ram temple existed at the site. It found evidence of a temple but Muslims dispute the finding.
In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered a 2.77-acre land to be given to a trust to build a Hindu Ram temple.
The Sunni Waqf Board was given an alternate land of five acres to build a mosque.
For now, it remains an open, barren lot lined with barbed wires - a reminder of the day that triggered communal disharmony in a country where Hindus and Muslims have for decades prayed close to each other in a temple and a mosque adjacent to each other.
Fast forward to 2022, the Gyanvapi mosque in the Varanasi city of Uttar Pradesh state now lies in the throes of a dispute which could potentially stoke fresh tensions in Hindu-majority India.
The mosque was built on the ruins of the Vishwanath temple, a grand 16th Century Hindu shrine in 1669, partially destroyed on the orders of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor.
Far-right-Hindu groups have gone to a local court to ask for access to pray within the complex. As a result, a local court ordered authorities to do a video-recorded survey of thetra premises.
It discovered a shivalinga, a stone shaft representing the Hindu god Shiva, at the site, a claim that the mosque authorities have disputed.
Since then, a part of the mosque has been sealed by the court.
This has now triggered fears of a re-run of the Babri Masjid across the country, despite the 1991 law called the Places of Worship Act. The law prevents conversions of a place of worship since the country's independence in 1947.
“The only way forward for India is to draw a line and say, “This far and no further.” And the only point where we can possibly draw the line is August 15, 1947,” a political analyst Yogendra Yadav said in his article ‘Here’s the case for restoration of desecrated Hindu temples—and why it loses the debate’.
“Whichever sacred structure existed in whatever form that day cannot be changed. That is precisely what the Act of 1991 said. That is why that Act must guide us today, not just because it is the law of the land (it may be repealed any day) but because it formalises a condition of our civilised existence.”
Historians say at least 14 temples were "certainly demolished" by Mughal officers during Aurangzeb's 49-year rule, according to Richard M Eaton, who teaches South Asian history at the University of Arizona. He has recorded 80 examples in India between the 12th and 18th Century.
However, far-right Hindu groups say that up to 60,000 temples were demolished under Muslim rule - a claim Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a Professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University, says is ‘exaggerated’.
“The number of contested places is much less than what these figures are cited. However, one cannot deny that there are places which were temples before and were converted into mosques,” he told TRT World.
Besides the Gyanvapi mosque, at the moment, the same pattern of claims by far-right Hindu groups is seen in at least five religious sites: the Shahi mosque in Mathura, the Bhojshala complex in Dhar, the Qutub Minar in Delhi, the Teeli Wali mosque in Lucknow and the Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Dargah in Ajmer.
The Shahi Mosque in Mathura is one of the mosques which is the subject of claims that it was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna and 'should be removed'.
More petitions are lined up to be heard on July 1 demanding the sealing of the mosque complex and its security increased so that 'evidence of the temple like Hindu religious symbols etc., existing there are not destroyed'.
The Qutub Minar, at 240 ft, is one of Delhi’s most iconic monuments.
The World Heritage site was built as a tower of victory by the first sultan of Delhi, Qutbuddin Aibak after he defeated the Hindu rulers in 1192. According to historians, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were demolished there, and the debris was used to construct the mosque.
Now more than 800 years later, far-right Hindu groups claim the restoration of those temples in the complex.
Last year, a civil court rejected the initial plea saying "wrongs committed in the past "cannot be the basis of disturbing the peace of our present and future".
Followed by a demand to rename the complex Vishnu Stambha, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) ex-Regional Director Dharamveer Sharma said that it was constructed by Raja Vikramaditya, an Indian king in the 5th Century, to study the direction of the sun and not by Qutbuddin Aibak.
"There is a 25-inch tilt in the tower of the Qutb Minar. It is because it was made to observe the sun and hence, on June 21, between the shifting of the solstice, the shadow will not fall on that area for at least half an hour. This is science and archaeological fact," he was quoted as saying in media reports.
On June 9, the court deferred its order for August 24.
The Bhojshala complex in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district is an ASI-protected 11th-century monument, which far-right Hindu groups claim is a temple of Vagdevi (Hindu Goddess Saraswati). At the same time, the Muslims call it the Kamal Maula Mosque.
In 2003, the ASI arranged for Hindus to perform prayers at the premises every Tuesday while Muslims do on Fridays.
However, in May, a litigation was filed by the Hindu right-wing group Front for Justice, challenging the ASI order.
“Only the members of the Hindu community have a fundamental right under Article 25 of the Constitution of India to perform puja (prayers) and rituals at the place of Goddess Vagdevi/ Saraswati within the premises of ‘Saraswati Sadan’, commonly known as ‘Bhojshala’ situated in Dhar,” the petition said.
We did them nothing wrong, still do you have any idea of the cruelty they have done to our ancestors?— Reclaim Temples (@ReclaimTemples) June 22, 2022
Hindu temples were mute witnesses for long, no longer. Do you hear them speak?#ReclaimTemples pic.twitter.com/vYN7Qow0Me
“The members of Muslim community have no right to use any portion of the aforesaid property for any religious purposes.”
The Teele Wali Masjid, which, according to historians, was built in the 16th Century, is also disputed based on the grounds that historic temples devoted to Shesh Nageshatileshwar and other deities on the complex were damaged.
The Teele Wali Masjid is Laxman Tila and should be restored to Hindus, according to the petition.
Another petition against the Hazrat Khwaja Garib Nawaz Dargah in Rajasthan's Ajmer district has shocked the Muslim community. It is the tomb of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a 13th-century Sufi saint, and philosopher.
In May, a petition was filed by a Hindu far-right group Maharana Pratap Sena claiming that the site was a temple and demanded a survey of it by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
“The dargah of Khwaja Gareeb Nawaj was an ancient Hindu temple earlier. The symbols of Swastik are there on the walls and windows. We demand that ASI should conduct a survey of the dargah,” the group leader told reporters.
According to Rezavi, the current demands to restore temples are more about retribution rather than justice, as courts now allow petitions against mosques frequently, thus "helping Hindu groups".
The Hindu right's agenda has almost always been to demonise Muslims by invoking a version of history that shows India's Muslim rulers of medieval times as unruly and unjust.
"Hindu nationalists now believe that the state is with them, and they could now demand the returning of other Muslim places of worship to Hindus. This is why whether in Mathura or Mysuru, Hindu nationalists are demanding the right to worship at Muslim shrines or threatening to demolish them," Manimugdha Sharma, a PhD research scholar in History at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and a fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, told TRT World.
Rezavi echoed a similar view, saying Muslims being scapegoated for what some medieval kings did to Hindus in the 17th century is a major part of the Hindu far-right's revisionism, which is in total contrast to what had been taught in Indian textbooks since the country won independence from Britain in 1947.
For Sharma, India has come to the point where the Hindu nationalistic fervour prevails over scholarship.
"Facts don’t matter here. In the battle of faith versus facts, facts have rarely won," he told TRT World.
"Beliefs need no proof or validation. And believers of all faiths assume that theirs is the most tolerant faith while other faiths have intolerance as their calling card."