Fear and triumph as the dispute rages over the Holy City Mosque in India

As Hindus began praying at a mosque in one of India’s holiest cities, the building’s elderly caretaker, Syed Muhammad Yasin, wondered how long he would be allowed to pray there.

Varanasi, where Hindus travel to cremate their dead on the banks of the Ganges, is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing battle to claim centuries-old Islamic relics for the country’s majority faith.

Activists have found an ideological patron in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who last month inaugurated a major new temple on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindu fanatics decades ago.

“We are witnessing oppression and cruelty,” Yassin, 78, told AFP.

“This is not just a matter of one mosque. Their slogan says: ‘Not even a single grave or mosque will be saved.’”

Yasin is the joint secretary of Gyanvapi Mosque, one of the largest Muslim congregations in the heart of Varanasi.

Hindus in the city have long confirmed that this structure was built over a shrine to the Hindu god Shiva during the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India for centuries.

Muslim worshipers have been attending the mosque under police guard for years in an attempt to prevent the conflict from escalating.

But this week saw a major escalation as a local court ordered the basement of the mosque to be opened to Hindu worshipers within seven days of its ruling.

A Hindu prayer ceremony was held there the next morning, and India’s Supreme Court refused to hear Muslim petitioners’ request to set aside the order.

Yasin said the ruling and the subsequent rush of worshipers to the site – unhindered by the authorities – showed official support for the Hindu claim, leaving him deeply saddened.

“They come through the courts, through the system,” he said.

“Whatever pain I feel as a Muslim, I felt it. I was disturbed all night.”

Tensions outside the mosque were palpable on Friday, with a beefed-up police presence and about 2,500 Muslims – nearly double the usual congregation – arriving for afternoon prayers.

Dozens of Hindu believers gathered in the street outside the police barricades, chanting devotional slogans to Shiva, the god of creation and destruction.

– ‘Shackles of slavery’ –

Calls for India to more closely align the country’s formally secular political system with its majority faith have grown rapidly since Modi won office in 2014.

His government’s advocacy for Hindu issues reached a new peak last month when Modi presided over the opening ceremony of a new temple in Ayodhya, a once sleepy town not far from Varanasi.

The opening of the massive complex, with an estimated cost of $240 million, was a major event that saw public celebrations and weeks of stunning news coverage.

Modi hailed the ceremony as a defining moment in freeing India from the “shackles of slavery.”

But many in India’s Muslim minority, which numbers more than 210 million people, saw this event as another sign of their increasing marginalization.

The temple was opened on the site of what was once the 500-year-old Babri Mosque, which was demolished in 1992 by a mob of Hindu fanatics in a campaign led by senior leaders in Modi’s ruling party.

The communal riots that followed were the worst since India’s independence and resulted in the deaths of 2,000 people across the country, most of them Muslims.

– ‘A step forward’ –

As in Varanasi, Hindu activists have claimed that the Babri Mosque was built over a former shrine to a Hindu deity during the Mughal Empire, which they see as an era when their faith was persecuted.

Sohanlal Arya, a long-time advocate for Hindu causes, said the court’s decision to open the Varanasi place of worship to Hindus was a “step forward” in the campaign to right historical wrongs.

“This is a source of pride for us,” the 72-year-old told AFP.

He added, “They destroyed our holy place and built a mosque. Our evidence is accurate. That is why we have full confidence in the courts.”

He added that the struggle to “reclaim” the site has been ongoing since the construction of the Gianvapi Mosque more than three centuries ago, and said that the patience of his followers was running out.

“We are devotees of Lord Shiva, the most powerful of the gods,” he said.

“How long will it take? One generation, two generations, three generations?” he added. “we are waiting.”


(Tags for translation)Narendra Modi

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