Hindu prayers begin inside India’s Mughal-era mosque after court order

Right-wing Hindu groups have been claiming the 17th-century mosque adjacent to a famous temple in Varanasi city for decades.

India Gyanvapi
An aerial view shows Gyanvapi Mosque, left, and Kashi Viswhanath Temple on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India [File: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP]

Hindu worshippers have begun praying inside a 17th-century mosque in the Indian city of Varanasi, hours after a court order gave them the go-ahead at the disputed site.

The Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi is one of several Muslim places of worship that right-wing Hindu groups, backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have sought for decades to reclaim.

Varanasi is Modi’s parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, also governed by the BJP.

On Wednesday, a local court ruled that Hindu worshippers could pray in the building’s basement and ordered the authorities to “make proper arrangements” for worshippers within a week.

Indian media reports said the family members of Hindu priests started praying in the mosque’s basement in the early hours of Thursday.

Akhlaq Ahmad, the lawyer representing Muslim petitioners, said the court order would be appealed.

The Gyanvapi Mosque was built during the Mughal Empire in a city where Hindus from across the country cremate relatives by the Ganges river. Hindu worshippers claim the mosque replaced a temple to the Hindu deity Shiva.

Last month, the Archaeological Survey of India said a survey of the site appeared to corroborate the belief that it was originally home to a temple.

Emboldened right-wing Hindu groups have laid claim to several Muslim sites of worship they say were built atop ancient temples during Mughal rule.

Centuries-old mosque razed in Indian capital

Meanwhile, bulldozers have knocked down a centuries-old mosque in India’s capital, a member of the building’s managing committee said.

The Masjid Akhonji in New Delhi, which its caretakers say is about 600 years old, was home to 22 students enrolled in an Islamic boarding school.

It was torn down on Tuesday in a forest of Mehrauli, an affluent neighbourhood dotted with centuries-old ruins from settlements predating modern Delhi.

Mohammad Zaffar, a member of the mosque’s managing committee, told the Agence France-Presse news agency it did not receive any prior notice before a demolition was carried out “in the dark of the night”.

He said many graves in the mosque compound were also desecrated and no one was allowed to take out copies of the Quran or other materials from inside the mosque before it was razed.

“Many of our revered figures and my own ancestors were buried there. There is no trace of the graves now,” Zaffar told AFP. “The rubble from the mosque and the graves has been removed and dumped somewhere else.”

The officials said the demolition was part of a drive to remove “illegal” structures from a forest reserve.

Calls for India to enshrine Hindu supremacy have grown rapidly louder since Modi took office in 2014, making its roughly 200-million-strong Muslim minority – the world’s third-largest Muslim population – increasingly anxious about its future.

Last week, Modi presided over a grand inauguration ceremony in the nearby city of Ayodhya for a Hindu temple built on the former grounds of another Mughal-era mosque.

Hindu zealots had torn down the Babri Mosque in 1992 in a campaign spearheaded by members of Modi’s party, sparking sectarian riots that killed 2,000 people nationwide, most of them Muslims.

A decades-long court battle that ensued over the future of the Babri site ended in 2019 when India’s top court permitted the construction of a temple to the deity Ram, who, according to Hindu scripture, was born in the city.

The consecration of the Ram temple by Modi fulfilled a 35-year-old pledge of the BJP and has been portrayed by the party and its affiliates as a Hindu reawakening. It also came months ahead of national elections due by May and is expected to boost Modi’s chances of winning a third term.

Critics accuse Modi of pushing a pro-Hindu agenda and promoting discrimination against Muslims, but he says his government does not do so.

Last week, a senior leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s far-right ideological mentor, questioned whether Gyanvapi Mosque and three others, including the razed one in Ayodhya, were mosques at all.

“Whether we should consider them mosques or not, the people of the country and the world should think about it. They should stand with the truth, or they should stand with the wrong?” Indresh Kumar told Reuters news agency in an interview.

“Accept the truth. Hold dialogues and let the judiciary decide.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies