Gyanvapi Masjid: Varanasi’s row of mosques could become another religious hotspot in India

NEW DELHI – In Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities, Hindus and Muslims prayed side by side in an adjoining temple and mosque.

The heavily guarded complex underscores its difficult history. The Gyanvapi Mosque is said to have been built on the ruins of the Vishwanath Temple, a large 16th century Hindu shrine. Hindus claim that the temple was partially destroyed in 1669 by order of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor.

Now the place is embroiled in a dispute that could stoke new tensions in Hindu-majority India, where Muslims are the largest religious minority.

A group of Hindu petitioners went to a local court to demand access to pray at a shrine behind the mosque and other places in the compound. A controversial court order allowing videotaping of the mosque allegedly revealed a stone well that is the symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva, a claim that has been disputed by mosque authorities.

After that, part of the mosque was sealed off by the court without giving the mosque authorities a chance to present their case. The dispute has now reached the Supreme Court, which on Tuesday said the compound would be protected and prayers would continue in the mosque.

It has raised fears of a repeat of a decades-long dispute involving the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque that was razed by Hindu mobs in the holy city of Ayodhya in 1992.

The mosque’s demolition culminated a six-year campaign by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party – then in opposition – and sparked riots that killed nearly 2,000 people. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the disputed Ayodhya site should be given to Hindus who are currently building a temple there. The Muslims were given another piece of land to build a mosque.

A 1991 law called the Places of Worship Act prohibits the conversion of a place of worship and maintains its religious character as it “existed” on August 15, 1947, India’s Independence Day.

Critics of the conflict in Varanasi say it is a challenge to the law. Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim leader, says “the mosque exists and it will exist”.

A leader of the ruling BJP in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, thinks nothing is set in stone. “The truth has come out… We will welcome and follow court orders in the matter,” said Keshav Prasad Maurya, Deputy Chief Minister.

But as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent commentator, observes: “Secularism will be deepened if it lets history be history, and does not make history the basis of secular ethics. And that the ongoing protest in Varanasi can only end up opening “another communal front”.

Such concerns are premature, says right-wing columnist Swapan Dasgupta. “There is not yet a demand for the withdrawal of the mosque and the restoration of the state of things existing before… Moreover, the law does not allow any possibility of modifying the current religious character of a sanctuary” , did he declare. wrote. “To this extent, the current struggle in Varanasi is aimed at securing greater leeway for the faithful.”

Such assurances do not find many takers. Last year, the Supreme Court accepted a petition challenging the Places of Worship Act, which alone could open a new fault line.

“This campaign [in Varanasi] is only the beginning of a series of claims against other places of worship on which there are [Hindu] says Madan Lokur, a retired Supreme Court Justice of India. —BBC

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