A court in India’s northern holy city of Varanasi has agreed to hear a petition from Hindus who want to conduct regular prayers at a centuries-old mosque, rejecting a Muslim plea to have the petition dismissed. 

A group of five Hindu women had filed the suit earlier this year, seeking the right to hold daily prayers in the Gyanvapi mosque that they believe was once the site of a Hindu temple. The women argued that they had the right to worship in front of the “visible and invisible deities” inside the structure. 

Built by Islamic Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669, allegedly after the demolition of a Shiva temple at the site, the mosque has become the latest potential flashpoint between India’s majority Hindu community and its Muslim minority, who make up some 13% of the country’s 1.4 billion people. 

Disputes between religious communities over such sites have flared since India’s independence from Britain in 1947, but they have become more common since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014. 

A committee that manages the mosque, where Muslims have worshipped for at least 350 years, challenged the women’s suit earlier this year. The committee cited the 1991 Places of Worship Act, which says the religious character of all public places of worship must be maintained as they were on August 15, 1947. 

Petitioners have said a Hindu temple predated the mosque at the site and an idol of a deity and relics were still there. Judge Ajay Krishna Vishwesha said the Muslim side had failed to make the case for the plea’s dismissal and set the next hearing of the case for September 22, according to Shivam Goud, a lawyer for the Hindu petitioners. 

“It’s a win for the Hindu community,” said Sohanlal Arya, a lawyer also representing the Hindu side. “The decision of the court should be viewed as a foundation stone for the Gyanvapi temple.” 

The mosque committee said it would appeal to the high court to challenge the order, which was issued Monday. 

Muslim community leaders said they fear that the ruling may set in motion events similar to the deadly 1992 religious riots over the Mughal-era Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, which Hindus had long recognized as the birthplace of their deity Ram. A Hindu mob razed the mosque, sparking a series of protests around the country that claimed more than 2,000 lives, most of them Muslim. 

In the most prominent dispute, India’s Supreme Court in 2019 awarded the bitterly contested Babri Mosque religious site to Hindus. The verdict cited the Places of Worship Act, saying the nature of all other places of worship in the country will remain unchanged. 

Delhi-based Muslim community leader Zafarul-Islam Khan said the Act has been rendered meaningless with Monday’s order. 

“Similar court cases involving mosques and other Islamic structures are going on at various places across India,” he told VOA. “Gradually, cases for Hindu rights will be made and later all of them will be usurped at the right moments in the future, as happened with the Babri Mosque. No law and no commitment are now sacred in India. 

“Everything is at the sweet will of bigoted people running roughshod under the banner of Hindutva,” Khan added, referring to India’s right-wing Hindu movement. 

University of Delhi professor of Hindi Apoorvanand said Monday’s court order has created a Hindu stake in the Gyanvapi Mosque. 

“The court order has started the process of dismantling the Places of Worship Act,” he told VOA. “The leaders of the Hindutva network have started threatening action against other mosques in India. It makes clear that this order is an act of judicial irresponsibility which was in fact prompted by the Supreme Court of India, pushing the country into yet another round of uncertainty and violence.” 

Armed police officers patrolled the area outside the court before the reading of Monday’s verdict to prevent any unrest. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 


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