Hindu women press for access to Indian mosque, in latest dispute

Rakhi Singh, Sita Sahu and Laxmi Devi, three of the five petitioners who filed a plea to pray every day before a goddess idol and relics inside the Gyanvapi Mosque, speak with the media after leaving the mosque in Varanasi, India, May 14, 2022. Picture taken May 14, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer

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MUMBAI/LUCKNOW, India, May 20 (Reuters) – A court case brought by five Hindu women in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political constituency has become the latest battleground in India between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority over access to historically disputed religious sites.

The women, backed by an influential Hindu group linked to Modi’s party, said they were determined to ensure the legal right of Hindus to pray daily to the idol of a goddess and relics which they say lie within inside an important mosque in Varanasi.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in Hinduism, and it is also where the Gyanvapi Mosque is located – a common sight throughout India after the Mughal conquest of the region in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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Disputes between religious communities over these sites have erupted since independence in 1947, but have become more frequent in recent years. Muslims make up about 13% of India’s 1.35 billion people. Read more

Hindu groups have brought several cases to local courts over disputed sites in parts of India in recent weeks. Some Muslims see this as part of an attempt to marginalize them with the tacit blessing of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP denies stoking religious tensions and says it is a party that promotes progress for all Indians.

In Varanasi, an ancient city on the Ganges that is dotted with thousands of temples, one of the Hindu petitioners is Manju Vyas, who runs a beauty salon.

She and four friends approached the court last year to declare the Gyanvapi Mosque “an illegal structure built by Islamic rulers after demolishing parts of a temple in the 1600s”.

A pre-existing legal order allowed hundreds of Hindu women to symbolically worship the goddess Sringar Gauri once a year from the doorstep of the mosque.

But last year, Vyas said some Muslim men insulted them as they stood near the mosque to pray, a charge denied by the mosque’s cleric.

“Everyone, even Muslims in Varanasi, knows that a temple stood in front of the mosque and now, because of our case, the court has … video clips that show Hindu remains scattered around the inside,” said Vyas, 46.

“HISTORICAL REVISIONISM”

The judge who heard the plea this month authorized an investigation into the mosque to verify those claims. Reuters reviewed the report prepared by the investigative team this week.

“Hindu religious idols, relics of Lord Shiva and symbols were found in a water tank and in the basement of the Gyanvapi Mosque,” ​​according to the report.

Muslims attached to the Gyanvapi Mosque said court-appointed investigators mistook a spring in the water tank for a Hindu idol and the patterns were flowers embedded in a Persian design.

The Supreme Court allowed the investigation to be held as evidence and the proceedings to continue.

“We will legally free our goddess from the clutches of Islam,” said Sohan Lal, husband of one of the five petitioners and a prominent member of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the World Hindu Council.

Three decades ago, it was the VHP that succeeded in having a temple built on the site of a disputed 16th-century mosque in the city of Ayodhya after it was demolished by Hindu mobs who said it had was built where Lord Ram of Hinduism was born.

The 1992 incident led to religious riots that killed nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, across India and helped propel the BJP to center stage.

Top BJP leaders and some nationalist historians believe that Muslim rulers during their 200-year rule destroyed important Hindu temples to build mosques or mausoleums as part of an expansionist strategy.

A senior BJP official in New Delhi, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the matter is in court, said the time had come to reclaim Hindu heritage and the challenge was to do so without trigger religious violence.

“The era of historical revisionism has begun,” he said.

Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of a regional Muslim party and federal lawmaker, said the purpose of the Gyanvapi Mosque controversy was to “create a landscape of hatred and animosity in the country”.

“The government is always digging into the past to distract everyone from relevant issues such as rising prices, unemployment and weak infrastructure,” he said.

Some secular Islamic and Hindu scholars want Modi, whose parliamentary constituency is Varanasi, to urge litigants to withdraw lawsuits over ownership of religious sites in Varanasi and elsewhere.

“Modi needs to stand up and say ‘let the past be past’ but that would hurt his loyal Hindu voter base,” said Dhirendra Sharma, a political science professor in Varanasi.

Modi’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Editing by Frances Kerry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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