NEW DELHI: Thousands of Hindus have been flocking to the site of India’s 17th century Gyanvapi mosque where priests have been allowed to say prayers from a cellar in the latest sectarian dispute over holy sites.

A court ruled on Jan 31 that Hindu priests can use that part of the mosque in Varanasi, in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, after an archaeological survey said it was built following the destruction of a temple there.

Conflicting religious claims have been dividing India — which has a Hindu majority of about 80 per cent of its 1.42 billion people but also the world’s third largest Muslim population — since independence from British rule in 1947.

Hindu priests in the adjoining Kashi Vishwanath temple, devoted to Shiva, now offer prayers at the Gyanvapi mosque’s cellar five times a day, said priest Ashutosh Vyas, who comes from one of the petitioner families in the legal case.

“Every day, more than 10,000 people visit the Gyanvapi area to get a glimpse of their lord from a distance,” he said. “The number has been increasing since the court order. People are very desperately waiting to see a temple at the site.”

Worshippers raise objectionable slogans, Muslims say

A government official, who declined to be named, said many among the tens of thousands of devotees who come to Kashi Vishwanath now also visit an area near the mosque from where the Hindu praying site can be seen.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, told the state assembly on Wednesday that now that the Ayodhya temple has been inaugurated, the deities of the other two sites, Shiva of Varanasi and Krishna of Mathura, “were not going to wait”.

Senior police officer Ashok Mutha Jain said there had been no change in the security arrangement of the area with plainclothes officers in three shifts, as well as armed and unarmed forces, guarding it like before.

Syed Mohammad Yaseen, joint secretary of the Gyanvapi mosque committee, said Muslims are still praying there five times a day. “But I am a bit worried about the security of the mosque because pooja (Hindu prayers) have started and some objectionable slogans were once raised,” he added, without specifying.

Syed Tufail Hasan, a Muslim lawmaker from the opposition Samajwadi Party, said the mosque-temple disputes must be resolved amicably. “Where does this end? Don’t they realise how such conflicts will weaken the country?” he told reporters.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a champion of Hindu causes who is likely to win a third term in an election due by May, last month led the consecration of a temple to the deity Ram on the site of another mosque razed by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Many Hindus believe Lord Ram was born there and the mosque in Ayodhya city, also in Uttar Pradesh, was built over a temple demolished by Muslim invaders. Muslim groups deny that.

Another dispute over another mosque in the state, in the Hindu holy city of Mathura, is also in court.

Muslim advocates say their minority rights and places of worship, plus India’s secular society, are under threat. They dispute historical versions of destructions of Hindu temples. About 14pc of the population are Muslim.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024

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