A mosque in northern India adjacent to a Hindu temple has become the focal point of a religious dispute after reports that a stone shaft believed to be the symbol of a Hindu god lies on the mosque’s premises.
This is the second mosque in northern India to be caught up in contentious claims. A decades-old dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups involving a 16th-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya led to its demolition by a Hindu mob in 1992.
The Gyanvapi mosque, over which the latest dispute has erupted, is next to the grand Hindu Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, the holiest city in India for Hindus and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency.
A team appointed by a local court to survey the mosque has said that a stone shaft found in the complex is the representation of Hindu deity Shiva. Mosque authorities have refuted the claim and say the relic is in fact a fountain.
The video-recorded survey was ordered after five Hindu women petitioned a local court for the right to pray within the mosque complex.
There are fears that the issue could deepen religious fault lines between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims even as it winds its way through courts.
“The issue has the potential to catch people’s sentiments. No one is going to get into the logic or rationale because in matters of faith people are driven by sentiment rather than the legality of it,” said Rasheed Kidwai, author and political analyst.
Right-wing Hindu groups have long claimed that Mughals, who ruled India for about 300 years, starting in the 16th century, built several mosques on the site of prominent temples that they demolished, and they say the Gyanvapi mosque is one of them.
The Supreme Court has allowed Muslims to pray in the mosque, overturning a lower court judgment that had banned large prayer gatherings earlier this week. It has also ordered local authorities to seal off and protect the area where the stone shaft was found.
The current dispute is reminiscent of what happened with Babri mosque in Ayodhya, where Hindu groups are now building a grand temple on the site of the mosque torn down by Hindu mobs. Deadly riots wracked India following its 1992 demolition.