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The divisive politics of India’s movement to ‘reclaim’ temples

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The divisive politics of India’s movement to ‘reclaim’ temples

Shortly after midnight on February 1, Hindu worshippers entered the grotto-like cellar of Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, northern India, and held prayers for the first time in more than three decades. Hours earlier, a district court had approved a legal petition by Hindus to allow the acts of devotion to go ahead.

The mosque was built in the 17th century by Emperor Aurangzeb. Hindu nationalists have long contended that a temple devoted to the god Shiva at the site was demolished by India’s then-ruling Mughals, who were Muslim. Today Hindus and Muslims worship in proximity; an alley just a few feet wide separates the mosque from the Kashi Vishwanath Hindu temple, built in its latest version in 1780.

The complex, inside a high-security compound, is patrolled by brooding armed soldiers and police. It is one of the world’s tensest shared religious sites outside the Middle East, where Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews pray in proximity at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque and the Western Wall.

Now Gyanvapi is at the centre of an emotive legal campaign by Hindu nationalists. Their aim is to reclaim physical space for worship at sites where India’s Muslim dynasties razed temples and built mosques. How it plays out will shape religious discourse, social equanimity and the direction of secular democracy in the world’s most populous country.

Hindu revivalism, of which the temple “reclamation” movement is part, will play a key role in India’s upcoming national election, which will be held between April 19 and June 1.

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Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party is widely expected to vanquish India’s divided opposition led by the Indian National Congress and win a third five-year term.

In January, Modi presided over the consecration of a vast new temple on the site of the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, thought to have been built atop the ruins of an older Hindu temple. The mosque was torn down by religious zealots in 1992, in what is now seen as a defining moment for the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics.

Now two other major sites of shared worship are in nationalists’ sights, raising the spectre of further, profound communal disputes surfacing elsewhere in India along the country’s main religious divide.

Hindu litigants are mounting court challenges to have centuries-old mosques torn down both in Varanasi — home to the Kashi Vishwanath complex — and in the northern city of Mathura, revered by Hindus as Lord Krishna’s birthplace.

For Hindu nationalists, the claims are part of a project to restore the religion to which four-fifths of India’s 1.4bn population adhere to its rightful place of supremacy — and to “decolonise” a country shaped, and in their view marred, by first Muslim and then British domination.

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“These disputes which we are fighting are for a cultural restoration and renaissance,” says Vishnu Shankar Jain, an advocate representing Hindu litigants in the cases in Varanasi and Mathura. “It’s a dispute for the restoration of our heritage, of our glorious cultural past, and for the restoration of the rights of our deities.”

But for many of India’s roughly 200mn Muslims, the wrangling over shared religious spaces are an intrusion on their rights by a government they see as promoting Hinduism above other religions, and one that is bent on wiping Mughal heritage and other non-Hindu elements from history books.

It has been accompanied this year by the razing of two mosques, one in Delhi and the other in India’s northern Uttarakhand state, on the grounds that they represented illegal “encroachment”. The Delhi mosque was six centuries old.

The disputes over archaeology, historic legitimacy and religious rituals sit at the heart of a broader discussion about India’s multicultural nature and constitutional rights under the rule of a prime minister and ruling party who embrace Hindu supremacy.

“This is an instrument for inflaming emotions, passions — a way of polarising divisions,” says Zoya Hasan, professor emerita of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “It’s a Hindu-Muslim dispute, and they want to keep the issue alive to consolidate the majority Hindu vote and very importantly to show Muslims their place.”

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Little understood outside India, efforts to reclaim Hindu religious sites destroyed by Muslim rulers have gone on for decades. The current legal struggle by Hindu and Muslim petitioners is an emotionally charged one in which deities are invoked by politicians and, in some cases, are parties to legal petitions.

The Varanasi court gave Hindu petitioners the right to pray in Gyanvapi’s cellar after a controversial government archaeological survey under the mosque found broken idols, regarded as proof a temple once existed on the site. Hindu worshippers had believed this to be the case for centuries, and an idol of Lord Shiva’s bull Nandi faces across the alley towards Gyanvapi’s cellar for this reason. (Muslims say the area housed a fountain used by worshippers for ablutions.)

Indian police and soldiers stand guard outside an ornate mosque
Police and soldiers stand guard near the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, which is at the centre of an emotive legal campaign by Hindu nationalists © Niharika Kulkarni/AFP/Getty Images

“It was like a dream,” says Shailendra Kumar Pathak Vyas, a pujari or Hindu priest, who claims his family has been responsible for prayers at the site for centuries. “Not only did the court judgment come, we were told to just come and the puja [worship] will start.” News that the steel grate barring the cellar entrance had been removed spread “like wildfire” via WhatsApp messages, he says, and Hindu devotees flocked into the cellar from the adjacent temple, taking photos.

Across town, in Varanasi’s densely populated Muslim neighbourhood of Azad Park, news that Hindu prayers were commencing in the mosque’s basement stirred fears that the building’s future was now in peril.

“It was frightening,” says Abdul Batin Nomani, the mosque’s imam. “There was an atmosphere of fear and everybody was disturbed throughout the night.” An advocate representing the Muslims, Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, filed an urgent supreme court petition in the small hours.

In the week that followed, the Muslims’ fears appeared to be confirmed. Varanasi, like Ayodhya and Mathura, is in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the BJP’s heartland. Yogi Adithyanath, a Hindu holy man who is sometimes tipped as a Modi successor, is the state’s chief minister.

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A bulldozer demolishes the walls of a mosque
A bulldozer demolishes a mosque in the Jahangirpuri neighborhood of New Delhi in April 2022 © Altaf Qadri/AP

Speaking at the state assembly in Lucknow days later, in a show of support for reclaiming the site couched in religious language, Adithyanath said that it was Shiva’s bull who had “got the barricading broken overnight” at Gyanvapi mosque.

Hindu revivalism was given a shot in the arm in 2019, when India’s Supreme Court allowed the building of the temple in Ayodhya to go ahead, 27 years after the Babri mosque was destroyed. The ruling followed a long legal struggle by Hindu nationalists and an archaeological survey.

Archaeological evidence and British imperial accounts support their claims that India’s Muslim rulers razed temples to build their grand domed structures in places like Kashi (the Hindu name for Varanasi) and Mathura. Hindus rebuilt their temples alongside them, and generations of Hindus like the Vyas family in Varanasi continued to pray at the old sites, such as in Gyanvapi’s south cellar.

“[Hindus] never forgot the sites, and kept up the struggle to get hold of the site,” says Meenakshi Jain, a former professor of history at Delhi University’s Gargi college, and an author of books about Kashi and Mathura, who is no relation to the lawyer. “If they couldn’t get hold of the site, they got as close as possible.”

But for many Indian Muslims and secular liberals, the issue is not about which community got there first, but protecting minority religious rights and a status quo on worship enshrined in Indian law.

In 1991, under a Congress-led government, India passed the Places of Worship Act, which in effect halted such disputes (except in Ayodhya) by freezing religious sites’ status as it stood in August 1947, when India won independence.

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A bare-chested man kneels and prays in front of a colourful Hindu shrine
A Varanasi court has given Hindu petitioners the right to pray in Gyanvapi’s cellar after a government archaeological survey under the mosque found broken idols, regarded as proof a temple once existed on the site © Jyotsna Singh/FT

The act was passed amid tensions over Ayodhya’s Babri mosque, which was destroyed the following year, leading to deadly religious rioting in 1993 that killed at least 1,000 people in Mumbai and elsewhere. A former Uttar Pradesh state government led by the regional Samajwadi party, which BJP supporters regarded as pandering to Muslim voters, prohibited Hindus from offering pujas in Gyanvapi’s cellar in 1993.

The temple movement has gained momentum since the BJP took power nationally in 2014, and accelerated since the 2019 supreme court decision on Ayodhya. Hindu petitioners have filed a slew of civil cases for surveys in Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque and in Mathura, where the litigants are seeking to have a Hindu-Muslim agreement on the shared complex overturned.

“There is a template and the template is clear: Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] groups make claims to a mosque, claiming there are temple remains behind it,” says Hasan, the academic. “They ask the court to order an archaeological survey, and they almost invariably find — which is not a surprise — that there are some temple remains.”

This, however, is a “legal figleaf”, she asserts. “When an archaeological survey is conducted and temple remains are found, the next step is to lay claim to the site.”


Whereas a mob tore down the Babri mosque, no such violence is now required, analysts say. In Modi’s India, Hindu nationalists believe that they have not just history but a sympathetic government and the courts on their side.

In Varanasi and in Mathura, Jain, the lawyer, and his father Hari Shankar Jain have led the fight by Hindu litigants to restore Hindu worship at the site of mosques.

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In Varanasi the pair were legal advisers on seven civil suits in 2020-21 calling for the Gyanvapi mosque to be removed and similar civil suits calling for the removal of the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura in 2022.

“We want the removal of these mosques,” the younger Jain says in his office in Ghaziabad outside Delhi, where the door is decorated with Hindu religious symbols. “Our legal case before the court is that this is the site of a Hindu temple that has been wrongly converted or wrongly used as a mosque.”

The petition seeking to allow Hindus to pray in the cellar under Gyanvapi was brought by the Vyas family. Separately, five Hindu women with links to nationalist circles have filed a petition to be allowed to offer prayers inside the Gyanvapi mosque complex. Jain says he is working independently: “We are individuals who are working on this issue and we are not affiliated or associated with the ruling party.”

Lawyers representing Muslims in Varanasi are trying to fight back in court.

A man holds up a lighted incense burner to a Hindu statue
On January 22, Narendra Modi presided over the consecration of the new Ram Mandir shrine in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh © Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu/Getty Images

“It’s very surprising that in 2023-4, when we are moving ahead with economic development and technology — to move forward with such things is surprising and painful,” says Ayyubi, who has represented Muslim litigants in both Gyanvapi and Mathura. “For almost 400 years, the mosque has been there.”

While the legal dispute around Ayodhya dragged on for decades, things appear to be moving quickly now. After the decision to allow Hindus to pray in the Gyanvapi cellar was handed down in the evening of January 31, devotees were there saying prayers within hours, giving Muslims no time to appeal against the decision.

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“On Babri, they gave all sides enough time,” Ayyubi says. “This time it’s being rushed through — there is unusual haste.”

At the complex one recent evening, Gulshan Kapoor, president of a committee set up to “liberate” a Hindu shrine located at Gyanvapi’s back wall, pointed to what he said were remnants of Hindu temple architecture along the mosque’s perimeter. “All the walls are still [Hindu] temple walls,” he says.

Kapoor’s group has published a pamphlet about the site, which includes an artist’s rendition of a future temple. When asked what he thinks should happen at the site, he replies: “I have no hesitation in saying that the mosque will have to go to build our temple.”

In the centre of Mathura, the 17th-century Shahi Idgah mosque sits within the Krishna Janmasthan Hindu temple compound. Hindus believe Lord Krishna was born here in a prison cell. Under an agreement reached in 1968, Hindus and Muslims pray in separate designated areas.

Security forces patrol the site, and visitors entering are required to check digital devices, bags, and other belongings — including on one recent day a notebook and a pen because, in the words of a guard, “you might try to draw a map”.

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Hindu litigants are seeking to have the mosque declared null and void in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a god, Lord Krishna, a practice with a long history in Indian law. “We have the proper evidence to prove that this property belongs to Lord Krishna,” says Mahendra Pratap Singh, a Hindu litigant who registered the first case.

When asked what his side would do if they were to prevail in their lawsuit, he says: “Build a temple.”

“These things only started in 2020, when outsiders came and filed a petition,” says Tanveer Ahmed, a lawyer representing the Muslims who are seeking protection from any change at the site under the Places of Worship Act. Ahmed links the court challenge to the 2019 court ruling allowing the Ayodhya temple to be built. “The issue started only when they were done in Ayodhya, and they turned their gaze to this one,” he says.

In recent remarks, members of Modi’s government have described January’s temple opening in Ayodhya as the “start of a new era”. India’s BJP-dominated lower house passed a resolution praising the temple opening; Modi’s powerful interior minister Amit Shah said that January 22, when the temple opened, was set to be recognised as “a historic day for 10,000 years”.

If Modi and the BJP succeed in their goal of winning a third term with a commanding majority, Indian liberals fear it will provide further fuel to the nationalists’ campaign to “reclaim” shared Hindu-Muslim religious sites.

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Inside Mathura’s mosque-temple compound, a security guard muses on the need for religious harmony. “Indians don’t know their fundamental rights. Everybody has the right to their own religion, to worship the way they want, and it’s the government’s duty to ensure the right to worship,” she says. But on a regular basis, she adds, “people come through and ask me, ‘oh, when is that thing [the mosque] going to be torn down?’”

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Joe Biden tells Volodymyr Zelenskyy US weapons will arrive ‘quickly’

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Joe Biden tells Volodymyr Zelenskyy US weapons will arrive ‘quickly’

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Joe Biden has told Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Washington will rapidly escalate military aid to Ukraine as soon as Congress gives final approval to a $95bn security funding package this week.

The US president made the pledge to Zelenskyy during a call on Monday, according to the White House, two days after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives led by Speaker Mike Johnson voted to approve the assistance after months of delay.

The bill includes $60bn in aid for Ukraine, as well as funding for Israel and the Indo-Pacific, and is expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday or Wednesday and enacted into law by Biden later in the week.

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“President Biden shared that his administration will quickly provide significant new security assistance packages to meet Ukraine’s urgent battlefield and air defence needs as soon as the Senate passes the national security supplemental and he signs it into law,” said the White House account of the call with Zelenskyy.

The new security aid is expected to include long-range ATACMS missiles, as well as ammunition and other weapons systems, though White House and Pentagon officials have not offered precise details of what will be in the next package. Zelenskyy cheered the looming arrival of new military aid in his own account of the call with Biden.

Zelenskyy said: “The president has assured me that the package will be approved quickly and that it will be powerful, strengthening our air defence as well as long-range and artillery capabilities.”

Ukraine’s president also added: “Everything has been decided in the ATACMS negotiations for Ukraine. I am grateful to President Biden, Congress, and the entire United States.”

Biden’s and Zelenskyy’s comments highlight how Washington and Kyiv are trying to make up for lost time in the effort to boost Ukrainian military capabilities, after the delays in US funding caused setbacks on the battlefield against Russian forces.

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Analysts at the Eurasia Group said the breakthrough on Capitol Hill would “substantially improve Ukrainian military prospects for stabilising the situation” in the eastern region of the country where they have suffered most.

“Low stocks of artillery and air defence ammunition have hurt the Ukrainian military’s ability to defend against Russian advances in Donetsk and drone and missile attacks against cities and power infrastructure nationwide,” they said.

Biden had been pleading for Congress to approve new funding for Ukraine since August of last year, including during an Oval Office address in October. He also opened his State of the Union address in March by speaking about the urgency of helping Kyiv defeat the Russian invasion.

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How hot is too hot? New weather forecasting tool can help figure that out

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How hot is too hot? New weather forecasting tool can help figure that out

People rest at a cooling station in Portland, Oregon during the deadly Northwest heat dome of 2021. Climate change has made heat risks more dangerous across the country. A new heat forecasting tool could help people stay safe.

KATHRYN ELSESSER/AFP via Getty Images


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People rest at a cooling station in Portland, Oregon during the deadly Northwest heat dome of 2021. Climate change has made heat risks more dangerous across the country. A new heat forecasting tool could help people stay safe.

KATHRYN ELSESSER/AFP via Getty Images

This summer, people across the U.S. will have a new way to keep track of dangerous heat headed their way through a new heat warning system called HeatRisk. The tool, developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be used by National Weather Service offices across the country to give people an understanding of when heat goes from uncomfortable to dangerous.

HeatRisk incorporates a host of factors that make heat dangerous to human health, beyond just temperature. It considers elements like humidity, which reduces people’s ability to cool by sweating, and whether a 90-degree day comes in April versus July — hot weather is more dangerous early in the season before people’s bodies have adjusted.

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“For the first time, we’ll be able to know how hot is too hot for health, and not just today, but for the coming weeks,” says Dr. Aaron Bernstein, director of the National Center for Environmental Health and a pediatrician.

Hopefully, he says, the new tool will be easy to understand. It uses a color-coded scale from zero (green) to five (magenta). At zero, the heat conditions are likely not risky for most people. At 2, or yellow, risks are growing for those who are sensitive to heat—like children, or people with medical conditions that make them heat-sensitive. Four, or bright magenta, signals the heat could hurt nearly anyone. That threshold can be crossed when temperatures go above historical highs, or when extreme conditions stretch for several days in a row.

The National Weather Service (NWS) will be able to issue HeatRisk warnings a full week ahead of dangerous heat. Climate change, driven primarily by human burning of fossil fuels, has increased the intensity, duration, and danger of heat waves across North America.

That extra planning time “will be a game-changer,” says John Balbus, director of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, an office within the Department of Health and Human Services. It will allow crucial extra time for cities to ramp up their emergency response plans and for individuals to think about how to protect themselves, he says.

Why is a heat warning useful?

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When it gets hot, people end up in the emergency room—or even die. Last summer, the hottest ever recorded in many parts of the U.S., nearly 120,000 people went to the emergency room for heat-related concerns—nearly twice as many as in the previous two decades, on average.

High temperatures are a major factor, but only part of the puzzle, says Ambarish Vaidyanathan, a researcher at the CDC who helped develop HeatRisk. Humidity matters too: when the air is saturated with water, people still sweat—but sweat droplets can’t evaporate, so people can’t cool down.

Unusually high overnight temperatures prevent people from getting relief from the heat. People’s past exposure to heat matters, too. The body can adjust to high heat up to a point, but that acclimatization takes time. So a 100-degree day in April poses more health risks than the same temperature in July because most people haven’t had the time to adjust.

Where people live, and what heat conditions they’re used to, also play a role in their vulnerability to heat. “90 degrees in Miami is not the same as 90 degrees in Portland, Maine,” says Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the CDC.

HeatRisk takes all of these factors into account. A town in Michigan, for example, might get a red, or level-3 warning, when the mercury reads 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but a town in Florida with similar conditions might only get a risk warning of yellow, or 1.

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Paul Charlton is an emergency medicine physician who works with rural communities in New Mexico. He thinks HeatRisk could be useful to his patients, emergency managers, and clinicians.

“A lot of emergency departments would know how to care for one person that came in with heat stroke,” he says. “But a lot of emergency departments would not be as well prepared to take care of ten or 50 or 100 or a thousand people that might be coming in.” That could—and did—happen during really extreme heat, like the 2021 heat dome in the Pacific Northwest. Charlton says having a better risk forecast would give people like him invaluable time to plan and prepare for potentially catastrophic heat.

Where did HeatRisk come from?

Scientists at the National Weather Service and the CDC developed the tool. It was conceptualized a decade ago after some local weather bureaus in the western U.S. realized they needed a better way to warn people about upcoming heat waves.

HeatRisk has been tested and refined over the years across the West since its inception in 2013. Now, school systems in California use it to decide when outdoor activities are safe. Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix metro, has incorporated its use into its heat management plans.

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NWS and CDC scientists looked at heat-related deaths around the country and analyzed the weather conditions when people died. That allowed them to find links between people’s risk of dying and heat-related factors like temperature, humidity, and how long heatwaves lasted for hundreds of places across the U.S. They used those relationships to predict how different hot-weather conditions will impact people’s health in different parts of the country, at different times of year.

In Phoenix, a recent analysis showed that about two-thirds of heat-related deaths happened on red or purple HeatRisk days, says Michael Staudenmaier, chief of science for the NWS’s Western Regional Headquarters. But more than 30% of the heat-related deaths occurred in the yellow and orange categories when heat conditions were bad but not anywhere near record-breaking extremes, he says. It shows there is a “wide range of temperatures where heat-related impacts can occur,” even in places well-accustomed to it.

It shows that people can be vulnerable to heat illness or even death at levels much lower than they might think, Staudenmaier says.

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Donald Trump trial opens with allegations he tried to ‘corrupt’ 2016 US election

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Donald Trump trial opens with allegations he tried to ‘corrupt’ 2016 US election

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Donald Trump attempted to “corrupt” the 2016 election when he directed his team to buy the silence of a porn actor who threatened to go public with claims of an extramarital affair, Manhattan prosecutors said during opening arguments in the first criminal trial against a former US president.

A lawyer for Trump, Todd Blanche, countered that his client was “cloaked in innocence” and had merely been trying to “protect his family, his reputation and his brand”. The 77-year-old former president was “not on the hook” for the way the payments were organised or recorded by his employees, with which he “had nothing to do”, Blanche added.

The competing narratives of the events that form the core of the “hush money” case against Trump came during the opening salvos of the first — and possibly only — criminal trial to proceed against the Republican nominee for president before November’s vote.

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As Trump sat feet away at the defence table in a cold Manhattan courtroom on Monday morning, silently glowering, the seven men and five women on the jury heard assistant district attorney Matthew Colangelo outline a “catch and kill” scheme allegedly orchestrated by the former president and his inner circle to buy the silence of porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Daniels had threatened to go to the press with her story of how she had a tryst with the then-reality television star in 2006, Colangelo said, a revelation that would have been all the more damaging to Trump’s campaign following the furore over the publication of an Access Hollywood tape, in which he was heard to be bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.

Trump went on to disguise the transactions behind the $130,000 payment, Colangelo added, because he “wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct”. 

“This was a planned, co-ordinated, long-running conspiracy . . . to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures,” he said. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Blanche said Trump was tackling a “sinister” attempt to embarrass him with false allegations, and had acted entirely lawfully in trying to suppress the story. “You will learn that companies do that all the time,” he told jurors, adding: “There is nothing wrong with trying to influence an election — it is called democracy.”

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The start of the six-week trial comes just over a year after Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg brought the first criminal charges against a former US president, indicting Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

Like any criminal defendant, Trump must be in attendance every day, a requirement that he has complained will limit his campaigning ahead of November’s election. The court will break on Wednesdays if the case is proceeding on schedule, Judge Juan Merchan said last week.

Trump railed against the court and prosecutors on social media and once again denounced the case as a witch hunt on his way into the courtroom on Monday morning. “This is done as election interference, everybody knows it,” the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee for the White House told reporters. 

After opening arguments concluded, the court briefly heard from the prosecution’s first witness, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who was allegedly involved in the “catch and kill” scheme by purchasing exclusive rights to anti-Trump stories — and then preventing them from being published.

Merchan adjourned early for the day due to the Passover Jewish holiday and to allow a juror to attend an emergency dental appointment.

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Last week, 12 jurors and six alternates were chosen from a pool of almost 200 New Yorkers from the borough of Manhattan, who were carefully vetted to ensure they did not harbour insurmountable bias towards Trump. All said they could be impartial in deciding the facts of the case, although some expressed distaste for his policies and persona.

The former president still faces criminal charges in three different courts over his alleged attempts to thwart the peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election, and over his retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida. It is unclear when the other criminal cases will go to trial.

Trump also faces a number of civil proceedings, and is appealing against a nearly half-billion dollar civil fraud judgment awarded to the New York attorney-general earlier this year. A judge on Monday declined to heed a request by the attorney-general to invalidate the $175mn bond Trump had posted in that case, in a reprieve for the former president.

Another milestone in Trump’s legal travails will be reached later this week, when the US Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether he can claim presidential immunity for acts that he has been charged with that took place while he was in office. The outcome of that challenge has no bearing over the New York case, which has been brought under state rather than federal law.

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