Mosque dispute becomes religious flashpoint in India

NEW DELHI — For nearly three centuries, Muslims and Hindus in the northern Indian city of Varanasi prayed to their gods in a mosque and temple separated by a wall. Many see it as an example of religious coexistence in a country where episodes of deadly communal violence are common.

This coexistence is now under threat due to a controversial court case.

Earlier this month, a local court began hearing a petition by a group of Hindus seeking access to pray inside the Gyanvapi Mosque compound, arguing that it was built on the ruins of a medieval era temple that was razed by a Mughal emperor. The petitioners say the complex still houses Hindu idols and motifs, a claim that has been disputed by mosque authorities.

The legal battle is the latest example of a growing phenomenon in which Hindu groups are petitioning the courts for land they claim belongs to Hindus. Critics say such cases raise fears over the status of places of worship for Indian Muslims, a minority community that has come under attack in recent years by Hindu nationalists seeking to turn officially secular India into an openly Hindu nation. .

“The idea of ​​bombarding the courts with so many petitions is to keep Muslims in check and keep the communal pot simmering,” said political analyst and commentator Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. “It is a way of telling Muslims that their public display of faith in India is no longer accepted and that the alleged humiliation they suffered from Muslim rulers of the medieval past should be righted now.”

The court case involving the 17th-century Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, in many ways epitomizes India’s contemporary religious conflicts. The widely accepted consensus among historians is that it was built on top of a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva after it was demolished by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.

In the past, the two communities have remained faithful to their demands but have also ensured that the conflict does not escalate. That changed last week when a local court in Varanasi ordered the mosque to be inspected after five Hindu women filed a petition seeking permission to offer prayers there.

A video investigation revealed a stone well said to be a symbol of Shiva inside a mosque tank used by Muslim worshipers for ablution before offering prayers, according to Hari Shankar Jain, a lawyer representing the Hindu women.

“The land on which the mosque is built belongs to the Hindus and should be returned to us,” Jain said.

Representatives of the mosque have refuted these allegations. Rais Ahmad Ansari, a lawyer for the mosque committee, said the alleged stone well found in the reservoir was the base of a fountain.

The discovery of the alleged Hindu symbol led the local court in Varanasi to seal the premises, banning large Muslim gatherings inside. The Supreme Court of India later overturned this judgment and allowed Muslims to pray in the mosque. But he also ordered local authorities to cordon off and secure the area where the stone pit was discovered, dispossessing Muslims of part of the mosque they used until this month.

The dispute over the mosque and the investigation has now been taken up by a higher court in Varanasi, with hearings due to continue on Thursday.

Lawyers representing the Muslim side questioned the legal basis for the investigation, arguing that it was against the law and against precedent recently upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019.

Indian Hindu nationalists have long claimed that thousands of medieval-era mosques are built on the sites of important temples that were demolished by Mughal rulers. Many historians have said the numbers are exaggerated, arguing that a few dozen temples were indeed razed but largely for political, not religious, reasons.

In the late 1980s, Hindu nationalist groups launched campaigns to reclaim these mosques. One such campaign culminated in 1992 with the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya by Hindu mobs.

Hindus believe that the site of the mosque was the exact birthplace of their god Ram. Its demolition sparked massive communal violence across India that left more than 2,000 dead – mostly Muslims – and catapulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to national prominence.

A large Hindu temple is being built on the site after India’s Supreme Court handed the disputed land over to Hindus in a controversial 2019 judgment. However, the court assured Muslims that the order would not be used as a precedent or would not pave the way for other contentious cases.

The court cited in its judgment the Places of Worship Act 1991, which prohibits the conversion of a place of worship and stipulates that its religious character must be maintained as it “existed” on August 15, 1947, the day on which India gained independence from Britain. colonialists.

Lawyers representing the Muslim side argue that the Gyanvapi Mosque trial goes against this very judicial commitment.

“The act was seen as sacrosanct, that it was there not to reopen old controversies. But allowing an investigation is exactly that – you’re scratching old wounds. That’s what it was supposed to be. ban,” said Nizam Pasha, a lawyer. representing the mosque committee.

The Gyanvapi Mosque affair also fits into a narrative of Modi’s party, which has long campaigned to reclaim what it calls India’s lost Hindu past. Many party leaders have openly hinted that they would take such legal battles head-on.

Critics say the party does this by supporting Hindu nationalist groups who often challenge such cases in court. Modi’s party denied this, saying they could not stop people from going to court.

Pasha, the lawyer, said the filing of such court cases was a “very carefully thought out model” intended to support Hindu nationalists.

He said the cases are brought by ordinary Hindu citizens as plaintiffs who claim to be devotees of a deity demanding the right to pray at disputed sites. Once the case goes to court, Hindu plaintiffs push to search the sites and present evidence which is used to build a media narrative and galvanize the public, he said.

“It is then very difficult to convince an audience, already influenced by the media, that it is not true, that it is a fountain,” Pasha said of the Gyanvapi Mosque case. .

Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists began to ogle other such mosques.

Last week, a local court accepted a motion to hear a case at the site of another mosque in the city of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, located next to a temple, which some Hindus say is built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna. Similarly, another court in New Delhi this week heard arguments over the restoration of a temple which the Hindu petitioners say existed under a mosque built on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Qutub Minar. The court said it would deliver its verdict next month.

Many other cases are expected to take years to resolve, but critics say they will help Modi’s party as it prepares for the 2024 election.

“These cases are helping Hindu nationalists with a wave of support for their divisive politics. And that’s what they need,” said Mukhopadhyay, the political analyst.

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Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee reported from Lucknow.

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