Is it a temple or a mosque? Hindus go to court in India

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  • Aletta Andre

    India Reporter

  • Aletta Andre

    India Reporter

In more than a dozen places in India, Hindus are trying to put pressure on the courts that often old mosques give way to Hindu temples. This new wave of Hindu religious fervor is straining relations between Hindus and India’s large Muslim minority.

For example, tensions are rising in the Hindu city of Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world. In the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, there seems to be no doubt: there are minarets and a dome, and Muslims go to pray five times a day.

However, 40-year-old Sita Sahu is relentless: “It is not a mosque and has never been a mosque.”

It is clear that the building was a temple at least once. One of the white mosque walls from the 17th century looks exactly like the wall of an old brown temple from the outside. Historians also agree that the 17th century Muslim Emperor Aurangzeb demolished a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and built the present mosque on the temple foundations.

break things open

But does this mean that the building has always remained a temple under the dome of the mosque? According to Sahu, yes. She and four other women are claiming in court the right to worship Hindu deities at the mosque. Primarily in that outer wall, according to Sita, an image of the goddess Shringar Gauri was carved. But also inside the mosque, the women want to check out which deities still exist, by opening the walls.

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Sita Saho

Tensions around the mosque have risen since the lawsuit. A barrier has been erected up to the dome, you cannot approach without a valid ID and all gates and access roads are heavily guarded.

The mosque’s management attorney, Abhay Nath Yadav, said the court should have rejected Sahu’s petition. summons the Law of places of worship, or the Houses of Prayer Act 1991. It states that the religious character of the house of worship must remain as it was on August 15, 1947, the day India became independent, and that this should not be legally challenged. And in 1942, a judge already ruled that the Gianfapi Mosque and the land on which it is located belong to the Muslim community.

religious riots

The law was passed at that time specifically to prevent this kind of conflict, as it could easily lead to religious riots in India. A year after the law came into effect, a serious religious riot broke out after a mob of angry Hindus demolished the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya. An estimated 2,000 Muslims were killed in the riots that followed.

The construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the destroyed Babri Mosque was one of the agenda items for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed it. This was possible because this case predates 1991 and is therefore mentioned as an exception in the Houses of Worship law. In 2020, Modi laid the foundation stone himself.

The 1991 law is a thorn in the side of fanatical Hindus, who wish to demolish any mosque that might have been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple of the past. “It legitimizes the illegal actions of the barbarian invaders,” said a lawyer challenging the law in the Supreme Court.

Our constitution states that everyone, of any religion, has the right to religious freedom. One religion is not superior to the other.

Yadav, Varanasi Mosque Management Advocate

Meanwhile, Hindus in more and more places are trying to challenge the existence of specific Islamic mosques or monuments. Even the world-famous Taj Mahal in Agra and the Qutub Minar, a 12th-century complex in Delhi, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, can’t be escaped.

Yadav, a lawyer for the mosque administration in Varanasi, believes that the secular character of India is affected in this way. “Our constitution states that everyone, of every religion, has the right to religious freedom. One religion is not superior to another. Sahu and others might argue that this place is important to Hindus, but the mosque is just as important to Muslims.”

Although Yadav has dozens of ready-made arguments to protect the mosque, Sahu expects the mosque’s management to eventually give up. “The Muslims here know very well that it is in fact a temple. And they will find that they should give us the place for our rituals.”

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