A mosque in northern India adjacent to a Hindu temple has become the focal point of a religious dispute after reports that a stone shaft believed to be the symbol of a Hindu god lies on the mosque’s premises.
This is the second mosque in northern India to be caught up in contentious claims. A decades-old dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups involving a 16th-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya led to its demolition by a Hindu mob in 1992.
The Gyanvapi mosque, over which the latest dispute has erupted, is next to the grand Hindu Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, the holiest city in India for Hindus and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency.
A team appointed by a local court to survey the mosque has said that a stone shaft found in the complex is the representation of Hindu deity Shiva. Mosque authorities have refuted the claim and say the relic is in fact a fountain.
The video-recorded survey was ordered after five Hindu women petitioned a local court for the right to pray within the mosque complex.
There are fears that the issue could deepen religious fault lines between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims even as it winds its way through courts.
“The issue has the potential to catch people’s sentiments. No one is going to get into the logic or rationale because in matters of faith people are driven by sentiment rather than the legality of it,” said Rasheed Kidwai, author and political analyst.
Right-wing Hindu groups have long claimed that Mughals, who ruled India for about 300 years, starting in the 16th century, built several mosques on the site of prominent temples that 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 judgment that had banned large prayer gatherings earlier this week. It has also ordered local authorities to seal off and protect the area where the stone shaft was found.
The current dispute is reminiscent of what happened with Babri mosque in Ayodhya, where Hindu groups are now building a grand temple on the site of the mosque torn down by Hindu mobs. Deadly riots wracked India following its 1992 demolition.
After Hindu and Muslim groups failed to reach a settlement, the Supreme Court handed the site to Hindus in 2019 and an alternate site to Muslims to build a mosque. It was seen as a huge victory for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which had been in the forefront of the campaign to build the temple during the 1980s, when it was in the opposition. The dispute had played a key role in catapulting the party to national prominence.
“The issue over Gyanvapi mosque is obviously being spearheaded at the behest of the Hindutva forces linked to the BJP. This is one way to keep the communal pot boiling and to benefit from the polarization we have witnessed,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a 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 over mosques.”
Hindu groups are also eying another mosque. This week a court agreed to hear a lawsuit demanding the removal of a mosque in the town of Mathura because they say it was built on the birthplace of 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 fight legal battles against Hindu groups disrupting the sanctity of mosques and tombs.
“We won't allow them to sting us for the second time and it's 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 whether such disputes violate a 1991 law that forbids the conversion of a place of worship and stipulates its religious character should be maintained as "it existed" on August 15, 1947, India's Independence Day. The law was passed to prevent communal conflicts of the kind that erupted over the Babri mosque.
While it could take years of litigation to resolve the case over the Gyanvapi mosque, the focus will be on the stance that the ruling BJP takes in the run-up to 2024 national elections.
“The truth has come to light. We will welcome and follow orders of the court in the matter,” Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, said, referring to the Gyanvapi mosque dispute after reports of the relic of the Hindu deity became public. Varanasi city is in Uttar Pradesh.
Several analysts, who say Modi’s government has been following a Hindu-first agenda, warn the latest dispute could emerge as a flashpoint.
“There are elements in the political class who want to sharpen the religious polarization,” Kidwai said.
“I think it is posing a challenge to the liberal ethos and composite culture of India that we have been very proud of. There is still great diversity in India, but BJP has got an upper hand because of flagging these emotive issues,” he said.