An ongoing legal challenge over the status of a mosque in northern India is raising fears of a new round of violence between the country's Hindu and Muslim communities.
Petitions filed by a group of women claim that the 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi stands on the site of a Hindu temple that was demolished to make way for its construction.
The petitioners are asking the courts to grant Hindus free access to the mosque complex for holding prayers and rituals, effectively changing the nature of the religious structure to a temple.
Mosque officials and their legal team have rejected the claim and argued that the case cannot stand as the structure is protected under India’s Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
The law prohibits changing or converting the character of historic and religious places as they existed on August 15, 1947 — the day India gained freedom from colonial British rule.
The legislation was brought in to prevent any future disputes over historical religious sites in a country where inter-religious tensions have often turned deadly.
Syed Mohammad Yasin, 70, caretaker of the Gyanvapi mosque and joint secretary of the Anjuman Islamia Masjid Committee that looks after its upkeep, says such disputes are increasingly alienating India's Muslim population of about 200 million.
“If we fight for our rights, this would mean civil war and that won’t be beneficial to anyone, neither for the country nor for the people. They want us to remain silent despite making all attempts to crush us,” Mr Yasin told The National.
“If they keep pushing us, we will have no other option but to stand up. That will happen one day, which they are failing to understand,” he said.
Right-wing Hindu groups have campaigned for decades to reclaim the site of the mosque built by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, which they say stands on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva.
The western wall of the mosque has stone carvings of Hindu deities and is opened to Hindu devotees once a year for special prayers.
An 18th-century temple dedicated to Shiva, the Kashi Vishwanath temple, is located less than 50 metres from the mosque.
The petitions filed in a Varanasi court by five women, all claiming to be acting in an individual capacity, seek year-round access to the Gyanvapi mosque to pray to all “visible and invisible deities" there on the grounds that a Hindu temple existed there previously.
The court ordered an inspection of the mosque complex to look for any evidence of Hindu relics, along with a video recording, which was completed on May 17.
One of the officials from the survey team leaked footage to the media that allegedly showed a shivling — the phallic representation of Shiva — in the mosque's ablution pond, triggering a public outcry.
Acting on a petition from Muslims, the Supreme Court then shifted the case from the civil judge to a district judge due to the “sensitivity and complexity” of the issue. It also ordered the pond area to be sealed off, while allowing Muslims to pray as usual in the complex.
Mosque officials told the court that the purported shivling was a fountain inside the ablution pond.
Mr Yasin said the legal challenge and overall atmosphere pointed to a pattern that led up to the demolition of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya by a mob of Hindus in 1992, triggering deadly religious riots across the country.
Hindus claimed that the Babri Masjid, built by Mughal dynasty founder Babur, was erected on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram after demolishing a temple that stood there.
The Supreme Court in 2019 awarded the land on which the mosque stood to a Hindu trust, overturning a high court order that had divided the contested site between Hindus and Muslims. The move was largely seen as an attempt to end the decades-long dispute.
“After the demolition of Babri Masjid, we accepted the [court] decision half-heartedly to ensure peace in the country. But a lot of people don’t seem to like peace and hence they have started this issue,” Mr Yasin told The National.
He said the Muslim community does not oppose Hindus worshipping carvings of the Hindu deity Shringar Gauri on the mosque's western wall “outside our barricade, but they are asking to pray inside the mosque — we have an objection to that”.
Mr Yasin fears the Gyanvapi litigation would encourage right-wing Hindus to file legal claims to other mosques in the country.
“This would not remain a matter of two or three mosques; there would be lawsuits against mosques everywhere, in every neighbourhood. They will say that they are only asking for the right to worship, but why are they asking for prayers in our mosque?”
The Varanasi court will hold the next hearing in the case in January.
Mr Yasin said the Muslim community was losing faith in the judiciary.
“The 1991 Act was passed to ensure that such issues are not raked up in future. It should have been accepted [as the mosque’s argument]. But that did not happen,” he said.
“We are failing to understand the motive. The government is not taking a clear stand; the government lawyers also speak their language. We are extremely disheartened. We are losing all hope now.”
Radical Hindu groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that led the campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid have publicly stated that their goal is to reclaim scores of historical Muslim religious structures and reconvert them into temples.
“The world knows about Muslim rulers, how they converted Hindus and desecrated our temples. This case is not about any religion but the truth of the existence of the temple," Vinod Bansal, VHP’s national spokesman, told The National. "Hindus believe there's a shivling yet Muslims do ablution there. We have knocked the court's door for justice.”
But Arati Jerath, a Delhi-based political analyst, said: “Clearly, these are attempts to polarise communities ... the right-wings have been making bizarre claims about historic buildings but where will they stop? India has a history of invasions for centuries and their cultural imprint. How far will they go back and rewrite history?”
Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said: “There is a technical aspect of the [Places of Worship] law … one can certainly challenge the status of an existing disputed site in the court of law. But when you make a case out of it, the judgment won't come in a day as it is a civil suit,” Mr Ahmed said.
“It will certainly open up new possibilities to evoke the question of historic injustice done towards the Hindu community. Hence, the Hindu victimhood in historical sense would be legitimised and nurtured using such court cases."