'Kashi imbued with divinity; even when an idol is removed, its energy remains': Vikram Sampath

Historian Vikram Sampath has released his new book 'Waiting for Shiva'

30-Vikram-Sampath Vikram Sampath | Sanjay Ahlawat

Interview/ Vikram Sampath, historian and author

With elections looming, Varanasi is once again poised to become the epicentre of the discourse on a contentious issue. Historian Vikram Sampath's new book, Waiting for Shiva, contributes to the sparse literature on the Gyanvapi case. Sampath delves into historical records, scriptures and the competing claims presented in court to offer a comprehensive examination of the matter.

In an interview with THE WEEK, he suggested that Hindus and Muslims should engage in dialogue outside the realm of courts and political influence to resolve contentious issues amicably. Edited excerpts:

Q/ The demand for the Ram Temple became a movement. Similar support is missing in the Gyanvapi case.

A/ I think this is a better route. The Ayodhya movement was an important one to awaken the Hindu community, which was in a decades-long slumber. Now that they are awake, there is no need for such a big movement. That is where works like this (book) come into the picture, where civil society, scholarship step in and ensure that the message goes out to the masses. With social media and the proliferation of media, the message can reach a large number of people without actually making it a big movement.

Q/ We cannot delink the issue from politics. With elections approaching, the BJP is usually the beneficiary of a polarising debate. The government is also seen as supporting one side.

A/ I am not a part of any political grouping. So I am not sure if the government or the party has any stated position on Kashi, though it is the prime minister's constituency. It is a legal matter. The politics will invariably come into it. That is why I think the best solution is to get out of the courts and for both communities to sit together. Say [that] there are certain places which mean a lot to the Hindu community and provide the evidence. So instead of getting politicians involved, instead of even getting the courts involved, let us do an out-of-court settlement in the larger interest of national unity and brotherhood. I think both communities must meet halfway.

Q/ What should be reclaimed? Undoing “mistakes” of the past maybe a potent idea, but can it not throw us into an unending cycle of strife?

A/ I fully agree. And I think there is no easy answer to that. We do not even know how many temples were demolished in the first place. Some documents put it at 1,826, with evidence where mosques were constructed in its place. Some say it is 20,000; some say it is 40,000. We just do not know the numbers. It is my personal opinion that it is impossible to reclaim all these temples. Whichever temples are of paramount importance to the Hindu community and where the evidence is staggeringly large..., where there is historical evidence, puranic evidence, legal evidence and archaeological evidence. And, [places which] our ancestors never gave up on. Religious leaders can sit together and mediate a full and final settlement. The historians and civil society can play a role.

Q/ Is that what you are attempting through Waiting for Shiva?

A/ I would not be so presumptuous to think that it will lead to something so big. It is like a compilation of the facts and documents, right from the ancient times, drawing from various sources, scriptures, historical traveller's accounts, Persian accounts, British legal files from 1810 when there were riots in Varanasi over this to the latest ASI survey. Without a movement, there is not much of public consciousness on it. I think people do not know the background of why it is important and why we are fighting for this case. So, this book is just a way to ensure that this information reaches the common man.

Q/ Have you taken a side in this debate?

A/ No, I have tried my best to be objective. We all have biases, but as much as possible, I think the facts and documents need to speak for themselves. For every claim I am making, there is a source, there is a footnote and I am sure the readers will judge that. I have been unbiased, including in the 1936 case... the Muslim witnesses and their testimonies, equal space for every voice. I am sure the readers are discernible enough to make up their minds.

Q/ In the past, coexistence of temples and mosques have been hailed as an example of our syncretic culture.

A/ When you demolish the most sacred shrine of another community and build a mosque, how can it be syncretic? Syncretism has to be a two-way street. We do not want bad relations with any community, for national unity, but both should meet midway.

Q/ But, minorities cannot be made to pay for events of the distant past.

A/ I have said that Muslims cannot be made to pay for the happenings in the distant past, when an aggressor attacked. But, then they should not identify themselves with these [aggressors]. There should be de-hyphenation of communities today with invaders of the past.

Q/ How can the conversation between communities take place so that issues are resolved?

A/ True conversation is not happening, but confrontation. That is where politicians enter the field and vitiate the atmosphere. Even this book is written not with a sense of confrontation. Let the civil society, historians, academics, scholars and religious gurus from both faiths sit together and have an open, candid conversation... for the next 100, 200 years and our future generations. Let us put these battles of the past behind us. Let us make peace with our past and move on to a better future.

Q/ During the Ram Temple debate, Muslims were told that if they gave up Ayodhya there would be no debate over Kashi or Mathura. So where does one stop?

A/ Who promised that? It may be elements of the sangh parivar. They do not represent every Hindu and cannot promise on behalf of the larger community. There are many temples where local sentiments are involved. [But,] it should be addressed peacefully, either through court or through negotiations and discussions.

Q/ You talk about the importance of the site. The Kashi temple is not as important as a birth place.

A/ The site for a temple is chosen based on many considerations as defined in texts. Once it is consecrated, the deity is present there and the divine is invoked in the form of an idol. Even when an idol is removed, its energy is still there till formal visarjan is done. So once a temple, always a temple. That has been the Hindu thing. So, until a visarjan is done, the place is imbued with the divinity of the deity.

Q/ We are moving from discovery of India to rediscovery of Bharat.

A/ Certainly, earlier a particular narrative was crafted. I think that was unchallenged for 70 years. There are voices coming up saying this is not how it was. There is another version which was suppressed all the time.

Q/ Even your version may get challenged at some point.

A/ There is no final draft. As a famous historian said, every work of history is an interim report. So you keep revising it. However good, however well researched, written and accepted your book maybe.

I may have not looked at [all] the evidence or I may be biased. Someone new may come and do better, make a new discovery. Then, my entire thesis can be thrown in the dustbin. That is the beauty of history. Otherwise, if everything about the past is already known, what do we historians sit and write? We will be out of a job.

Waiting For Shiva

By Vikram Sampath

Published by BluOne Ink

Pages 368; price Rs699