Indian court rules on Gyanvapi mosque controversy


On August 3, 2023, an Indian court ruled that officials could conduct a scientific survey to ascertain whether a 17th-century mosque in Varanasi, known as the Gyanvapi mosque, was built over a Hindu temple. This religious structure, located in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi and representing an area Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents in India’s parliament, has been at the center of a dispute over land ownership. Some Hindus believe that the mosque was constructed atop demolished Hindu temples, leading to a heated issue between India’s Hindu majority, comprising 80% of the population, and the Muslim minority, which accounts for nearly 14% of the country’s 1.4 billion people.

The court permitted the state-run Archaeological Survey of India to conduct the survey without causing damage to the mosque. The decision was welcomed by Hindu petitioners, represented by Vishnu Shankar Jain, who argued that a scientific survey was essential in the interest of justice.

However, Muslim petitioners objected to the survey, fearing potential damage to the structure.

Khalid Rasheed, a Muslim petitioner, expressed hope that justice would prevail, highlighting the mosque’s historical significance of 600 years and its importance as a place of Muslim worship for a considerable period.

The Archaeological Survey of India had initiated the survey the previous month, but its progress was temporarily halted by the Supreme Court to allow time for an appeal. The recent ruling by the High Court has now allowed the survey to proceed.

Before this court ruling, five Hindu women had sought permission to perform Hindu rituals in a specific part of the mosque, citing the belief that a Hindu temple once stood on the site. A particular controversy arose regarding a structure claimed by the Hindu petitioners to be a “shivling,” symbolizing Hindu Lord Shiva, while Muslims contended that it was part of a fountain used for ablutions by Muslim devotees before prayers.

The Gyanvapi mosque is managed by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, representing the Muslim community, which argues that the survey violates a 1991 Indian law safeguarding places of worship. The law stipulates that the nature of all places of worship, except the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, must be maintained as it was on August 15, 1947, and prohibits any conversion of such sites.

The Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, built in the 16th century, was destroyed by Hindu hardliners in December 1992, triggering severe Hindu-Muslim violence resulting in approximately 2,000 deaths. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of constructing a Hindu temple on the disputed religious ground and directed that alternative land be provided to Muslims for the construction of a mosque. The contentious Ayodhya issue had been a longstanding demand of Hindu nationalists for more than a century, and the construction of the temple is now underway.


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