NEW DELHI (AA) – An Indian court on Monday admitted for hearing a petition by a group of Hindus to allow them to pray inside a historic 17th-century Gyanvapi Mosque in the ancient city of Varanasi.
Gyanvapi Mosque, adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, has been at the center of an ongoing legal battle in India. The mosque is situated in Varanasi city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Hindus widely believe that the Gyanvapi Mosque was built on the orders of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb by pulling down a part of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the 17th century. After the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Gyanvapi is another medieval mosque being claimed by Hindus.
Advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, representing the Hindu side, told reporters: “The court ruled the suit is maintainable and fixed the next hearing of the case for Sept. 22. The plea of the Muslim side was rejected.”
The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (Mosque Management Committee) had challenged the maintainability of the suit, arguing that Hindu worshippers’ plea is barred by law.
Citing a 1990 law, Muslims had pleaded the court to reject the petition as the law known as the Places of Worship Act has frozen the status of any place of worships as it existed on Aug. 15, 1947 at the time of country’s independence.
However, the court observed that the 1991 law only prevents the conversion of religious places of worship, but does not stop the “ascertainment of religious character” of these places.
Meanwhile, lawyer Merajuddin Siddiqui, representing the Muslim side, said they will approach the High Court against the order of the district court.
The continuing legal dispute over Gyanvapi Mosque is the most recent example of a growing trend in which Hindu groups petition courts for the land they allege belongs to Hindus.
Given the Hindu-Muslim sensitivities, security was beefed up around the court premises before the verdict.
What is Gyanvapi Mosque case?
The present controversy was ignited when five Hindu women filed a petition in a local court last year, seeking to worship the Hindu deities whose idols are located within the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The court appointed a committee to carry out a video survey of the Gyanvapi complex.
The survey was completed on May 16. The committee said that a ‘Shivling’, a stone shaft that is a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, was found inside a reservoir on the mosque complex which strongly suggests the mosque was originally a temple of the Hindu deity Shiva. The Muslim side, however, rejected the claim and said it was only a “fountain.”
The proceedings in the Varanasi court have been challenged by the Muslim side, represented by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee that runs the Gyanvapi mosque, in the country’s top court. The Supreme Court said that the place where Shivling was found on the premises should be kept safe but the Muslims should not be stopped from offering prayers.
On May 20, the Supreme Court ordered the transfer of the case to a senior district judge of Varanasi.
Muslims believe that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would use this issue to stir up Hindu sentiments and polarize communities ahead of the 2024 national elections.
Uttar Pradesh, where the mosque is situated, is currently ruled by BJP under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Many BJP leaders are pushing for a relook at the provisions of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, and a campaign to repossess the other Hindu temples which they say were demolished by Muslim invaders to build mosques.