By SHEIKH SAALIQ and KRUTIKA PATHI, Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) – For nearly three centuries, Muslims and Hindus in the northern Indian city of Varanasi have prayed to their gods in a walled mosque and temple. Many see it as an example of religious coexistence in a country where attacks of deadly community violence are common.
This cohabitation is now threatened due to a controversial court case.
A local court earlier this month began hearing a petition filed by a group of Hindus asking for access to pray inside the Gyanvapi mosque grounds, arguing that it was built on the ruins of a temple in the Gyanvapi temple. ‘medieval period that was razed by a Mughal emperor. Petitioners say the complex still houses Hindu idols and motifs, a claim that has been challenged by mosque authorities.
The legal battle is the latest instance of a growing phenomenon in which Hindu groups are asking the courts that the land they claim belongs to the Hindus. Critics say these cases raise fears about the state of religious sites for Muslims in India, a minority community that has been attacked in recent years by Hindu nationalists seeking to make India officially secular in a nation declared Hindu. .
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“The idea of bombing the courts with so many petitions is to keep Muslims under control and the communal pot on slow fire,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst and commentator. “It is a way of telling Muslims that their public demonstration of faith in India is no longer accepted and that the alleged humiliation accumulated by the Muslim rulers of the medieval past should be repaired now.”
The court case involving the 17th-century Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism, embodies in many ways contemporary religious conflicts in India. 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 overthrown by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.
In the past, the two communities have adhered to their claims, but have also made sure that the dispute does not get worse. That changed last week when a local court in Varanasi ordered the mosque to be surveyed after five Hindu women filed a petition asking permission to offer prayers.
According to Hari Shankar Jain, a lawyer representing Hindu women, a video survey found a stone shaft that was allegedly a symbol of Shiva inside a mosque depot used by Muslim devotees for ablution before offer prayers.
“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 the allegations. Rais Ahmad Ansari, a lawyer for the mosque committee, said the alleged stone well found in the reservoir was the basis of a source.
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 the ruling and allowed Muslims to pray in the mosque. But he also ordered local authorities to seal and protect the area where the stone well was found, stripping Muslims of part of the mosque they had used until this month.
The dispute over the mosque and the inquiry has now been taken over by a Varanasi high court, and hearings will continue on Thursday.
Lawyers representing the Muslim side have questioned the legal basis of the inquiry, arguing that it was against the law and a precedent recently confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2019.
Hindu nationalists in India have long claimed that thousands of medieval mosques were built on the sites of prominent temples that were demolished by Mughal rulers. Many historians have said the figures are exaggerated, arguing that a few dozen temples were in fact razed, but largely for political and non-religious reasons.
In the late 1980s, Hindu nationalist groups began 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 tourists.
Hindus believe that the site of the mosque was the exact birthplace of their god Ram. Its demolition sparked massive community violence in India that left more than 2,000 dead, mostly Muslims, and catapulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party into national prominence.
A large Hindu temple is now being built on the site after the Supreme Court of India handed over the disputed land to the Hindus in a controversial 2019 ruling. However, the court assured the Muslims that the order would not be it would use it as a precedent or pave the way for more controversial cases.
The court in its ruling cited the Places of Worship Act of 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. of 1947, the day that India gained its independence from the British. colonialists.
Lawyers representing the Muslim side say the Gyanvapi mosque court case goes against this judicial commitment.
“The act was seen as sacrosanct, which was there not to reopen old controversies. But to allow a survey is to do just that: you are scratching old wounds. That’s what was meant to be banned, ”said Nizam Pasha, a lawyer representing the mosque committee.
The case of Gyanvapi Mosque 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 suggested that they would take on these legal battles head-on.
Critics say the party does so by supporting Hindu nationalist groups that often dispute such cases in court. Modi’s party has denied it, saying it could not stop people from going to court.
Pasha, the lawyer, said the filing of these court cases was a “carefully thought-out pattern” aimed at strengthening Hindu nationalists.
He said the cases are presented by ordinary Hindu citizens as plaintiffs who claim to be devotees of a deity claiming the right to pray in disputed places. Once the matter goes to court, Hindu plaintiffs insist on searching the sites and presenting evidence that is used to construct a media narrative and galvanize the audience, he said.
“It is very difficult then to convince an audience, already influenced by the media, that this is not true, that this is a source,” Pasha said of the Gyanvapi mosque case.
Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists have begun to look at more such mosques.
Last week, a local court accepted a petition to hear a case at the site of another mosque in the town of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, next to a temple, which some Hindus claim is being built on the site of birth of the Hindu god Krishna. Similarly, another court in New Delhi heard arguments this week about the restoration of a temple that Hindu petitioners say existed under a UNESCO World Heritage-built mosque, the Qutub Minar. The court said it would issue a ruling 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 elections.
“These cases are helping Hindu nationalists with strong support for their divisive policy. And that is what they need,” said Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst.
Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee reported from Lucknow.
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