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The Indian judiciary is bending to the will of Hindutva forces

February 3, 2024 at 1:32 pm

A police personnel stands guard near the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi on February 01, 2024. [NIHARIKA KULKARNI/AFP via Getty Images]

Muslims, the largest minority community in India, are worried as they feel cheated again by the country’s judiciary, which allowed the Hindus to conquer part of a historical mosque.

On 31 January, a district court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh granted the Hindus the right to worship deities in an area inside the 17th-century Gyanvapi Mosque complex. Judge Ajay Krishna Vishwesha also asked the district magistrate to take over the basement and ensure puja (worship) starts in the next seven days. However, the Hindus, with the help of the district authorities, broke the grills and installed idols inside the basement of the mosque at midnight and started pujas.

The Allahabad High Court declined to adhere to the district court order allowing Hindu prayers in the Gyanvapi Mosque. On Friday, Muslims peacefully protested against the injustice and shut down shops and business establishments in the city. Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, general secretary of the mosque management committee, confirmed that the Friday prayer was peacefully held at the Gyanvapi Mosque and attendance was higher than usual.

Police stopped people from entering the mosque complex only after it reached peak capacity and beyond. When there was no more space to accommodate more worshippers, around 1,500 people had to participate in prayers in the nearby mosques. The Muslim leaders expressed concern that the Babri Mosque saga could be repeated the way things unfolded at Gyanvapi Mosque.

Probably the largest press conference by any Muslim organisation in recent years, leaders of six prominent Muslim bodies expressed “disappointment with various lower level courts for failing to uphold The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991” and accused the executive of testing the patience of Muslim youth.

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The 1991 act states that the religious character of places of worship should be maintained as they existed on 15 August, 1947, the day India became independent from the British Empire. The law kept the Babri Mosque out of its ambit as it was already a subject of litigation. Malik Mohtasim Khan, vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, stated that the community “is feeling suffocated” by the judiciary’s inability to uphold the Worship Act of 1991 and “the speed of the administration and bureaucracy” in fulfilling the court’s directive.

“There was no temple where the masjid stands today. Islam does not permit the destruction of another place of worship to build a mosque,” said Khalid Saifullah Rehmani, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “What we are seeing today is an attempt to destroy Hindu-Muslim relations in the name of the temple mosque. For centuries, Hindu temples have stood here. They were not disturbed by Muslim rulers,” Rehmani explained.

The new development comes when the authorities in the capital, Delhi, demolished a 13th-century mosque, sparking a ripple of unease within the Muslim community. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), responsible for developing commercial land in the national capital, argued that the Akhunji Mosque was an illegal structure that stood on the reserved forest land.

At least four mosques across New Delhi, including the Shahi Masjid in Dhaula Kuan, are at risk of being demolished by various authorities such as the DDA and New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) on the grounds of being unauthorised, ThePrint reported.

Pro-Hindu verdict

The court order favouring Hindus came six days after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report of the Gyanvapi Mosque complex was made public. The ASI, tasked by the Varanasi District Court to ascertain whether the mosque was “constructed over a pre-existing structure of a Hindu temple” and concluded that a temple: “Appears to have been destroyed in the 17th century, during the reign of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.”

The ruling, which also came just one week after the inauguration of the Ram Temple, built on the land where 15th century Babri Mosque stood, not only disregards the religious significance of the mosque to the Muslim community but also sets a troubling precedent for the prioritisation of one religious group over another.

On 31 May, a court dismissed a revision plea moved by the Anjuman Intezamia Committee, which manages the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, challenging the maintainability of the Hindu side’s claim to worship inside the mosque. The committee had moved the High Court in October 2022 to challenge the lower court’s order after it turned down the mosque’s objections on the maintainability of the suit filed by five Hindu women. It is essential for the Indian judiciary to uphold the secular principles enshrined in the constitution and ensure equal protection and respect for all religious communities.

The claim on the sixteenth-century Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and Shahi Eidgah Mosque in Mathura in the northern Uttar Pradesh state are the new targets of Sangh Parivar, an umbrella group of right-wing Hindu extremists led by the militant Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), to create tensions that could erupt into large-scale communal violence. Recently, the Supreme Court extended its earlier order until April, which put in abeyance an advocate-commissioner’s survey of the Shahi Eidgah Mosque.

Potential consequences

Allowing Hindus to conquer another mosque could have severe consequences. The ruling favouring the Hindus will have a destabilising effect and will pave the way for more such cases to come to the courts. It may lead to heightened interreligious tensions, communal violence and attacks on religious minorities. The decision has the potential to foster a culture of vigilantism, giving rise to mobs harassing and attacking Muslim community members.

Anti-Muslim court verdicts in India have been a cause of concern for many years. India’s Muslim community has faced decades of discrimination, worsened under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. According to a report by Reuters, anti-Muslim hate speech incidents in India averaged more than one a day in the first half of 2023 and were seen most in states with upcoming elections. Despite the active role the Indian judiciary has played in the struggle to end communal violence and related crimes, several recent court decisions evince communal thinking on the judiciary and suggest one way in which the judiciary can trigger communal animosity.

India’s right-wing BJP government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought in many anti-Muslim laws, which have legally moved India away from the secular and pluralist moorings of its constitution.

Pedestrians watch as a screen broadcasts footage of an inauguration ceremony for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a public venue in New Delhi, India, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. [Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Pedestrians watch as a screen broadcasts footage of an inauguration ceremony for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a public venue in New Delhi, India, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. [Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Another Babri

What is happening at the Gyanvapi Mosque is no surprise when one examines the chronology of events that led to the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the subsequent loss of custodianship of the Waqf land to Muslims.

Babri Mosque was closed in 1949 after Hindu extremists placed idols inside the prayer hall. Forty-three years after locking its doors, the mosque was demolished in broad daylight, a makeshift temple was erected and, finally, the Muslim side lost the title suit in the Supreme Court. Not a single person was convicted in the criminal case related to the demolition of Babri Mosque.

The Gyanvapi Mosque stands next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The Hindutva outfits have unleashed propaganda that the mosque was built on the ruins of the temple after it was partially destroyed in 1669 on the orders of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor.

The Gyanvapi Mosque is one of the three historical mosques the Hindutva militants wanted to “liberate” along with Ayodhya’s Babri Mosque and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura, all in the Uttar Pradesh state ruled by Modi’s BJP, which is part of Sangh Parivar.

It was the order of a district court in Uttar Pradesh in 1986 that triggered a chain reaction leading to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindutva zealots five years later. The Babri Mosque was demolished on 6 December, 1992, after Hindu extremists claimed that their deity Ram was born at the site where Mughal Emperor Zahiruddeen Babur built a mosque. Before and after the demolition, India witnessed communal violence that left over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

Twenty-seven years later, in a one-sided verdict, India’s Supreme Court ordered the construction of the Ram Temple in place of the demolished mosque.

Conspiracies continue

The claim on Gyanvapi Mosque first reached the courts in 1991, when a petition sought the removal of the mosque from the site where the temple stands and transferring possession of the land to the Hindu community.

In 1998, the mosque committee demanded the dismissal of the petition before a court citing provisions of The Places of Worship Act passed by the Indian parliament. However, in its 31 May ruling, the High Court held that the suit filed for worship of visible and invisible Hindu deities within the Gyanvapi Complex is not barred by The Places of Worship Act!

In August 2021, five women petitioned in the local court that they should be allowed to perform daily rituals inside the Gyanvapi Mosque complex, claiming the “existence of an image of the deity” on the western wall of the mosque. The lawyers representing the petitioners claimed that a Shivling (symbol of the deity Shiva) was found during the videography survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque, which was disputed by the mosque authorities, who said the object was part of a stone fountain in the ablution tank of the mosque.

In March 2019, days before Modi visited Varanasi to lay the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, a few Hindu activists were caught while attempting to bury a small statue of Nandi — a bull form that ancient Hindu scripture proclaims guards the entry to the Hindu deity Shiva’s abode — near the Gyanvapi Mosque. The actions were reminiscent of the beginning of the Babri Mosque dispute in 1949 when an idol of the deity Ram was placed inside the mosque at midnight. The court’s siding in favour of the Hindu extremists made the road easier for them to confiscate more mosques.

Read: Muslim group denounces opening of Hindu temple on site of demolished historic Babri Mosque in India

Muslim-era monuments

Most present-day monuments in India are the contributions of Muslim rulers, especially the Mughals. The Taj Mahal, Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Humayun’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb and Shalimar Bagh are some of the heritage sites where thousands of tourists visit to capture the grandiosity and splendour of these creations.

Besides the Mughals, other Muslim rulers also built historical monuments and mosques during their tenure. Among them are Qutub Minar, a soaring 73-metre-high tower constructed in 1193 by Qutubuddin Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, and the Charminar, the first building in Hyderabad in south India, constructed by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, a king of Qutub Shahi dynasty. Charminar is famous for its intricate architecture, making it one of India’s most recognised structures. The 400-year-old mosque on the top floor of Charminar is the main tourist attraction.

Hindu extremists have long claimed that the Taj Mahal, known as one of the Seven Wonders of Modernity, was built on top of a Hindu temple. The white marble mausoleum in Agra, about 200 kilometres from India’s capital, New Delhi, was constructed in the 17th century by Mughal King Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Diya Kumari, a BJP parliamentarian and member of Jaipur’s erstwhile royal family, had claimed that the land on which the Taj Mahal stands belonged to her ancestors. Her party has filed a petition in the High Court demanding an inquiry into the history of the Taj Mahal and the re-opening of its 22 rooms for revealing the “truth”.

However, the Taj Mahal documents reveal that the royal family had received generous compensation for the land they handed over, and they played a key role in supplying the marble with which the Taj Mahal was built. Hindu extremists also claim that a temple existed on the site before Delhi’s iconic Qutub Minar was built. A court recently issued an order that Hindu idols should not be removed from the Qutub Minar complex till further order.

As the controversy over the monuments heats up, Hindutva forces have made reckless claims about the origin of these structures. One of them is the remarks of former regional director of the ASI, Dharamveer Sharma, that Raja Vikramaditya and not Qutbuddin Aibak built the Qutb Minar to study the direction of the sun.

Attempts to break into Hyderabad’s Charminar, a monument and mosque, have been in the news recently. The Bhagyalakshmi temple was built and later encroached on the Charminar property. The ASI, which manages the Charminar, has declared the temple an unauthorised structure, and the Hyderabad High Court has stopped further expansion.

While the temple’s origin is disputed, the structure that houses the idol was erected in the 1990s. Frequent visits by the BJP-RSS leaders to this temple, whose ritual hall uses the Charminar wall as a common back wall, have evoked tension in the city.

Muted response

Most Muslim-majority nations have not publicly opposed India’s anti-Muslim decisions, seen as a tacit approval of the Hindutva regime’s actions.

This is evident from the warm relations between India and several Gulf countries, as demonstrated by the frequent high-level visits and the conferral of the highest civilian awards on Modi.

Despite India being home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, the Muslim world’s response to the treatment of Muslims in India has been relatively muted.

India, with a Muslim population of about 200 million, has the third-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.