A Varanasi court has allowed Hindu petitioners to offer daily prayers at the disputed Gyanvapi mosque complex, a hugely significant move in a prolonged legal battle. This sensitive dispute threatens to create new inter-religious tensions in India.
Background of the Dispute
The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, has been at the center of controversy for decades. Hindu groups claim the mosque was built on top of a demolished temple during Mughal rule in the 17th century.
The current legal case challenging the mosque’s status was filed in 1991, but languished in India’s sluggish court system for years. Last year, a local court finally allowed a video survey of the mosque complex. The survey team said they found relics of Hindu icons and motifs inside, boosting the Hindu petitioners’ case.
Court Allows Limited Hindu Worship at Disputed Site
On Tuesday, the Varanasi court stripped away the mosque’s exclusive use of the site. The court directed administrators to make arrangements for Hindu worship on a small portion of the premises.
Specifically, the court order permits daily Hindu prayer services in the sealed “wazu khana” (ablution tank) in the basement of the mosque. This space will be referred to as “Vyas Mandal”, restoring its Sanskrit name, according to the Hindu petitioners.
The court order is seen as an incremental but important legal win for Hindu groups pressing for access to pray within mosque premises claimed to be built over destroyed temples. However, the ruling does not hand over ownership of the mosque itself.
First Hindu Prayers Offered After 30 Years
Just hours after the court verdict, a Hindu priest entered the Gyanvapi complex for the first time in over 30 years on Wednesday evening. He offered the traditional ‘aarti’ prayer ritual inside the barricaded basement space.
Some Hindu devotees celebrated by blowing conch shells and chanting hymns on the streets outside. But Muslim leaders decried this as a violation of the mosque’s sanctity. They say they will appeal the controversial order to allow Hindu rituals on the premises.
What Comes Next?
This dispute seems destined to drag on longer through India’s court system. The Muslim side running the Gyanvapi mosque has already challenged this week’s court order allowing Hindu prayer services. Their appeal will be heard in the Allahabad High Court.
Meanwhile, the original civil suit seeking to reclaim the entire disputed land for a new Hindu temple is still pending before a Varanasi district court. Hindu petitioners are also demanding the right to pray on other sealed parts of the mosque complex. And a separate case filed last year demands that the Gyanvapi mosque be included in a survey of Varanasi’s religious sites.
Clearly, this long-running legal and religious feud is entering a newly contentious phase. This week’s court ruling permitting Hindu prayer services, though limited in scope, may encourage more aggressive legal and public actions by Hindu nationalist groups to reclaim this site. That could spark tensions with Muslims determined to defend the centuries-old Gyanvapi mosque.
Timeline of Key Events in Gyanvapi Mosque Dispute
|Gyanvapi Mosque supposedly built under orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb after demolishing an ancient Hindu temple at the site
|Hindus unsuccessfully petition court to allow worship on Gyanvapi premises they claim covers temple remains
|New lawsuit filed seeking permission for Hindus to worship inside the disputed Gyanvapi complex
|Local court orders videography survey of mosque complex to find if Hindu relics present
|Survey finds shrine-like structures and Hindu motifs inside mosque, as per Hindu petitioners
|Varanasi court takes up decades-old plea demanding unhindered Hindu right to pray inside Gyanvapi
2024 January | Court rules Hindu side can offer daily prayers in barricaded basement ‘wazu khana’ |
2024 February 1 | First Hindu ‘aarti’ prayer service held at Gyanvapi basement after 30+ years |
Reactions to the Court Ruling
Hindu groups and leaders allied with India’s ruling BJP party mostly welcomed this week’s court order permitting Hindu worship on part of the disputed complex:
“Our prayers have been answered,” said a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, adding “the hearts of Hindus have been filled with joy.”
But Muslim leaders and opposition politicians accused the court of tacitly enabling the Hindu right wing’s intentions to undermine minority rights:
“This judgement is a violation of the Places of Worship Act” said Asaduddin Owaisi, an outspoken Muslim MP.
Some experts also argue the court order goes against laws meant to preserve India’s religious sites as they stood since Independence:
“The Varanasi Court judgement permitting Hindu prayer services seems to ride roughshod over The Places of Worship Act, 1991,” commented historian Audrey Truschke on Twitter.
Academics and liberals fear the Gyanvapi dispute threatens India’s foundations of religious pluralism. They accuse BJP politicians of inciting tensions to rally their Hindu base. However, Prime Minister Modi’s government insists people of all faiths have equal rights.
The concern remains that this week’s court ruling allowing Hindu worship at the Gyanvapi mosque may encourage Hindu activists to pursue more aggressive campaigns targeting disputed Muslim sites elsewhere in India too. That in turn could further strain inter-faith relations that are already under pressure amid recent incidents of communal violence.
The influential Muslim country Turkey condenmed the controversial court order on the Gyanvapi Mosque:
“Decision by Indian court to allow Hindu prayers on grounds of Muslim Gyanvapi Mosque violates international law on religious freedom, relevant decisions of UN Human Rights Council,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Islamic countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are monitoring events closely but have not yet officially reacted.
However, Pakistan strongly critized the court ruling:
Pakistan’s foreign ministry called it a “reflection of communal mindset” aiming to damage Islamic heritage sites. “This is another shameful episode in the rising religious discrimination in India targeting Muslims,” said a statement.
But India dismissed these reactions as interference in internal affairs and politically motivated propaganda. The Indian foreign ministry insisted the court verdict was purely a domestic civil matter following established laws.
This renewed legal tussle over Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque threatens to become another flashpoint sparking religious tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority.
Hindu petitioners have won a small but tactically useful victory from the local court allowing them to offer prayers within the barricaded basement of the disputed mosque complex they claim covers a demolished temple.
However, Muslim authorities plan to appeal this order allowing Hindu rituals on mosque premises they allege violates their right to administer their own religious sites.
As rival claims over the same sacred ground get litigated further, the risk remains of inflaming communal passions on the streets. That could play into the hands of Hindu nationalist politicians who relish making muscular demands regarding disputed religious sites a part of their strongman appeal to their vote base.
Yet the courts are also clearly influenced by prevailing public sentiments stirred surrounding such emotive temple-mosque disputes. The decades-old Gyanvapi case happens to be getting revived at a time when Hindu assertiveness and anti-Muslim sentiment also appears on the rise in pockets of Indian society.
All this suggests the messy legal and social battle pitting faith against faith at the gates of the historic Gyanvapi mosque may be destined to stretch on for longer. Unless cooler heads prevail, the slow-burning fuse threatens to keep erupting in intermittent communal bursts of unrest.
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