The bustle of roadside shoppers, with devotional songs on Radha and Krishna playing in the background, is a sight to behold at the entrance to the Katra Keshavdev temple of Lord Krishna in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. The queue at the entry gate is full of kids and elderly women holding small brass or steel plates with vermillion paste, urging devotees to wear a tilak and pay dakshina.
Other devotees in the queue click selfies to upload on social media “to let everyone know we’d come to see Thakur Ji (Lord Krishna)”. They greet each other with “Radhe-Radhe” or “Jai Shree Krishna”.
Just behind the temple stands the Shahi Idgah mosque, where, unlike the temple, one needs an Aadhaar or other identity proof to enter. Muslim devotees hurriedly enter the mosque, squirming under an imagined gaze. Nobody is taking selfies inside the mosque premises.
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Security arrangements are tight in both temple and mosque, which stand back-to-back on a 13.77 acre plot that contains other temples and structures. The mosque occupies 2.5 acres, with the temple complex on the rest of the area—that includes the Keshavdev temple, another temple representing the garbhagriha (where Lord Krishna was born, a prison cell) and a step well called Potra Kund. The plot had been acquired by Raja Patni Mal of Benaras in 1815 from the British East India Company, whose descendant sold it to industrialist Jugal Kishore Birla in 1944. Birla set up the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan in 1951, and handed over ownership of Katra Keshavdev temple to it. The maze of ‘shell’ trusts and other bodies—some registered, some not—that have been legally contesting the claims on the land on which Mathura’s Shahi Idgah mosque stands, are eerily reminiscent of the holdings of old Baniya business families.
On May 20, the district court allowed a plea, seeking removal of the Shahi Idgah mosque in a case of ownership of 13.37 acre land, which the petitioner believes belongs to the deity Lord Krishna Virajman. The litigants claim the Idgah sits on land that belongs to the Katra Keshavdev temple.
Clearly, with Ayodhya in their kitty, Mathura is now the focus of the temple movement fueled by BJP. A slogan that has gained popularity in the last couple of years, “Yeh to sirf jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura abhi baaki hai (This is just a trailer, Kashi and Mathura are still pending)”, epitomises Hindutva aspirations.
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During the recently concluded UP assembly elections, BJP made these instrumental in their campaigns. Many believe it helped them win the election. For instance, five days before December 6 (the date of the Babri Masjid demolition), Uttar Pradesh deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya tweeted that preparations were on in Mathura to build a Krishna temple. The Opposition accused him of raising communal tension for electoral benefit.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath had also stated his government’s intent to build the temple. At a rally in December 2021, he said, “We’d promised to start work on a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya. Modi ji has done that, isn’t it? Also, a grand abode of Lord Shiva is coming up in Kashi. You’ve seen it, right? Then, how can we leave behind Mathura and Vrindavan?”
The demand for the removal of the Shahi Idgah mosque has fanned communal tensions in Mathura over the last few years. In 2021, a Hindutva outfit, Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, threatened to install a Krishna idol inside the Shahi Idgah on the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. “Tensions have increased in the last couple of years. We have to stay vigilant all the time,” says a sub-inspector on duty near the temple.
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Though the city has largely remained peaceful, “low intensity scuffles have started to happen”, the SI adds. In June 2012, a minor scuffle led to a riot, leaving four dead in the Kosi Kalan region of Mathura. Now, with the temple-mosque debate flaring up, Muslim residents are fearful of fresh riots. “Mathura is peaceful, but I’m afraid of outsiders. We can’t afford any violence. The struggle to run a family is huge,” said Shahid, who runs a tyre repair shop near the mosque.
Hindus living in the area believe the mosque land belongs to the Katra Keshavdev temple, and stands on the ruins of its garbagriha. Pawan Kumar Shastri, one of the petitioners who lives near the temple, says, “The great-grandson of Lord Krishna Virajman built four temples—the Keshavdev temple in Mathura, Haridev temple in Vrindavan, the Baldeo temple in Dauji, and the Govinddev temple in Govardhan. The prison cell/garbhagriha of the Keshavdev temple was destroyed by Muslim rulers, who built the Shahi Idgah mosque on it. I’m just doing God’s work and have no other purpose.”
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In 1956, the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh (SKJSS) was established by Shri Krishna Janmasthan Sansthan to manage the affairs of the temple. It took up the cause of the Hindu claim in courts in 1967. A “compromise agreement” was signed out of court between the SKJSS and the Shahi Masjid Idgah Trust in 1968, in which it was agreed that the mosque will not be removed. This has now become a bone of contention. The Shri Krishna Janmasthan Sansthan claims the SKJSS had no right to strike an agreement on its behalf, because the land belongs to it.
Deepak Sharma, one of the lawyers representing the petition in the district court, says, “Even the court has admitted that the compromise struck in 1968 is invalid. Now, the fight is on for ownership rights of the land, which doesn’t belong to the Shahi Idgah mosque.”
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Local Muslim residents say dragging the issue to court disturbs peace. “The ownership of the mosque land was settled in an agreement between the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Sansthan and the Idgah Trust. We should not fight over it,” says a Muslim resident of Mathura, who came to pray at the mosque.
Another local, Shahid, echoes his sentiments. “The mosque is there under an agreement. We don’t want any dispute over it.” He says a majority of Muslims in Mathura are daily wagers and are only interested in peace. “Muslims of Mathura are very poor. Unlike Aligarh and other cities, most Muslims here run rickshaws and small shops.”
Shahid’s father Usman quips, “We can even pray on the roads.” Usman believes “outsiders are disturbing the peace in this region. Locals are good people.” Z. Hassan, president of the Shahi Masjid Idgah Trust, told Reuters in January 2022 that the mosque and the temple had remained like “two sisters” until 2020, when legal action to demolish the mosque was launched.
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Construction worker Khillu Ram, a local, disagrees. “Ruins of ancient temples lie buried across this entire land. On the plot where the Idgah now stands, was the jail in which Lord Krishna’s maternal uncle Kamsa had imprisoned Devaki and her husband Vasudeva. The Lord was born in it. No point in keeping the mosque here,” he says.
Many Hindu and Muslim residents believe this place is an example of syncretic traditions. Md. Barkat Ali, an artisan who makes crowns for Lord Krishna idols in every temple across the city, says, “Around 1,500 Muslim workers across Mathura are involved in this work, which we do for our Hindu brothers. The crowns and costumes of Thakur ji (Lord Krishna) we make are also used by devotees the world over. It’s an example of Mathura’s harmony for the world. This is the land of Thakur ji. Our livelihood runs by his grace. We feel honoured to do this for our Hindu brothers.”
On the burning debate, Ali says, “We shouldn’t fight. We should be aware that politicians use this for their benefit. The mandir-masjid complex is an epitome of brotherhood.”
What is the controversy?
In 1670, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb built the Shahi Idgah mosque on land that Hindus believe is where once stood the prison cell in which Lord Krishna was born, later converted into a temple. They believe the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of that temple is buried under the mosque. There is a demand for carbon-dating and ASI-led videographic survey to ascertain the presence of the garbhagriha.
While allowing the plea seeking removal of the mosque on May 20, the district court observed that a “compromise decree” between Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh (SKJSS) and the Idgah Trust had been signed before the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, was enacted, and is thus not applicable.
Members of the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan (name adopted by SKJSS in 1977) have already started voicing this line of argument. In a press conference on May 19, Gopeswar Nath Chaturvedi, a member of Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan said a SKJSS secretary had filed a case in a civil court in 1967 for removal of the mosque built on “property belonging to the Katra Keshavdev temple”. “This secretary had signed a compromise agreement on November 12, 1968. But when Shri Krishna Janmasthan Sansthan heard the news, he was removed and SKJSS was renamed as Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan, as the SKJSS executive member had no right to sign any agreement on land that belonged to the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Another Mosque, Another Temple")