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Dispute over Indian mosque stokes tensions

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A north Indian mosque adjacent to a Hindu temple has become the focal point of a religious dispute after reports that a stone well believed to be the symbol of a Hindu god is on the premises of the mosque.

It is the second mosque in northern India to be subject to disputed claims. A decades-old dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups involving a 16th-century mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya led to its demolition by a Hindu mob in 1992.

The Gyanvapi Mosque, over which the latest dispute has erupted, sits next to the grand Kashi Vishwanath Hindu temple in Varanasi, India’s holiest city for Hindus and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency.

A team appointed by a local court to inspect the mosque said a stone well found in the complex is the representation of the Hindu deity Shiva. The mosque authorities have refuted this claim and claim that the relic is in fact a fountain.

The videotaped investigation was ordered after five Hindu women petitioned a local court for the right to pray at the mosque compound.

The issue is feared to deepen religious divisions between India’s Hindu majority and the Muslim minority even as it winds its way through the courts.

“The question has the potential to catch people’s feelings. No one is going to get into logic or reasoning because in matters of faith people are driven by sentiment rather than the legality of it,” said author and political analyst Rasheed Kidwai.

Right-wing Hindu groups have long claimed that the Mughals, who ruled India for about 300 years from the 16th century, built several mosques on the site of important temples which they demolished, and they say the Gyanvapi mosque is one of them.

The Supreme Court has allowed Muslims to pray in the mosque, overturning a lower court ruling that banned large prayer gatherings earlier this week. He also ordered local authorities to cordon off and secure the area where the stone pit was discovered.

The current dispute is reminiscent of what happened with the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, where Hindu groups are currently building a large temple on the site of the mosque demolished by Hindu mobs. Deadly riots tore through India after it was demolished in 1992.

Rakhi Singh, Sita Sahu and Laxmi Devi, three of the five petitioners who filed a plea to pray every day before a goddess idol and relics inside the Gyanvapi Mosque, speak with the media after leaving the mosque in Varanasi, India, May 14, 2022.

After Hindu and Muslim groups failed to reach a settlement, the Supreme Court handed over the site to Hindus in 2019 and an alternative site for Muslims to build a mosque. It was seen as a huge victory for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, which had been at the forefront of the campaign to build the temple in the 1980s when it was in opposition. The dispute had played a key role in catapulting the party to national prominence.

“The issue of the Gyanvapi Mosque is obviously being conducted at the behest of Hindutva forces linked to the BJP. It’s a way to boil the common pot and take advantage of the polarization we’ve witnessed,” said Niranjan Sahoo, political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, referring to a Hindu nationalist movement. “We will see more and more controversial claims made by Hindu groups about mosques.”

Hindu groups are also considering another mosque. This week a court agreed to hear a lawsuit seeking the removal of a mosque in the city of Mathura because they say it was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.

Leaders of Muslim political groups view the moves as attempts by hardline Hindus to undermine their right to worship and say they will wage legal battles against Hindu groups that disturb the sanctity of mosques and tombs.

“We will not allow them to sting us a second time and it is our responsibility to keep our mosques intact by regularly offering prayers there,” Asaduddin Owaisi, a federal lawmaker and leader of a regional Islamic political party, tweeted this week. .

Questions have also been raised as to whether such disputes violate a 1991 law 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 of India’s independence. The law was passed to prevent communal disputes of the type that erupted over the Babri Mosque.

While it may take years of litigation to resolve the Gyanvapi Mosque case, the focus will be on the stance the ruling BJP is taking ahead of the 2024 national elections.

“The truth has come out. We will welcome and follow court orders in the matter,” said Keshav Prasad Maurya, Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, referring to the Gyanvapi Mosque dispute after the information about the relic of the Hindu deity has been made public.The city of Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh.

Several analysts, who say Modi’s government followed a Hindu-first agenda, warn the latest dispute could become a flashpoint.

“There are elements in the political class that want to accentuate religious polarization,” Kidwai said.

“I think this poses a challenge to the liberal ethos and composite culture of India that we are very proud of. There is still great diversity in India, but the BJP has taken the upper hand in pointing out these emotional issues “, did he declare.