The existence of Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi has been challenged in court by Hindu nationalists, who argue that it was built after tearing down an iconic Hindu temple.
It’s the afternoon call to prayer at the Gyanvapi mosque in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The handful of men there, kneeling, are dwarfed by the massive 17th-century structure, their soft words nearly drowned out by the steady hum of the low ceiling fans.
It’s a moment of peace and reflection, before the men step back out into an ocean of chaos.
They are, after all, in the heavily guarded heart of the temple town of Varanasi, and the heart of a religious dispute that has been brewing for decades.
The existence of Gyanvapi mosque has been challenged in court, over allegations that it was built after tearing down an iconic Hindu temple. The petitioner wants the land to be restored to the Hindus, so a temple can be built in the place of the mosque.
It is a familiar dispute for many Indians — a similarly controversial mosque once existed just 200 kilometers (125 miles) from this one and became the epicenter of a decadeslong standoff between Hindus and Muslims in the country.
The Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya was torn down by Hindu mobs in December 1991, catapulting the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), currently ruling India, into national prominence. Almost three decades later, the Supreme Court of India awarded the disputed land to the Hindu side.
SM Yaseen, a member of the Varanasi mosque’s board, is undaunted by this verdict. Yaseen runs a woodwork shop but keeps copies of the Indian constitution and earlier Supreme Court judgments at hand to firmly make his point. ‘This is not Ayodhya,’ he says emphatically.
He explains that the Muslim side is better organized, better prepared to litigate, and more sizeable and affluent in Varanasi, in comparison to the Muslims who lived alongside the Babri mosque.
‘We accepted the Ayodhya verdict with heavy hearts, hoping there won’t be fresh trouble in the future,’ says Yaseen.
‘But if they are insistent on filing cases, we’ll fight them. I just hope this does not leave the courts and spill out onto the streets.’ The threat of religious violence hangs heavy in the memories of most Indians of Yaseen’s generation.
Over 2,000 deaths were recorded in the riots that broke out across the country after the Babri mosque’s demolition.
And frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims have disturbed communal harmony and contributed to mistrust and prejudice between the two biggest religious communities in the country.—Agencies