A court in the city of Varanasi in northern India has rejected a Muslim organization’s plea challenging the request of some Hindu worshipers to hold daily prayers in a 17th-century mosque.
A group of Hindu women had moved the court earlier this year, asking for her permission to pray at a shrine inside the Gyanvapi Mosque.
The mosque believed to have been built during Mughal rule is adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Rejecting the plea filed by the Anjuman Intezamia Committee, the Muslim body that challenged the women’s petition, the court said the women’s petition was “maintainable”.
“The plaintiffs seek only the right of worship… The plaintiffs’ lawsuits are limited and confined to the right of worship as a civil and fundamental right as well as customary and religious law,” the court said.
The next hearing in this case will take place on September 22.
The Muslim body had argued that the Places of Worship Act 1991 maintained the status of all religious structures as they existed at India‘s independence from British rule on 15 August 1947, thereby protecting the status quo of religious structures.
Hindu groups claim the mosque was built in 1669 on the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb after the demolition of a Hindu temple on the site. The petitioners say the complex still houses Hindu idols and motifs, a claim that has been disputed by mosque authorities.
Syed Muhammad Yaseen, a representative of the mosque’s management committee, said Muslims have been praying in the mosque for centuries. He said the committee would challenge the Varanasi court order in a higher court in the city of Allahabad, renamed Prayagraj in 2019.
“We are following the legal process and now we are thinking of moving to the High Court in Allahabad. We will continue the legal battle,” he told Al Jazeera.
Reports earlier this year claimed that a court-mandated investigation into the Gyanvapi Mosque – leaked to the media – discovered a “shivalinga”, a phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva, inside the mosque.
Muslims had previously been banned from performing ablutions in the water tank where the alleged relic was found. The mosque committee said the alleged stone well found in the reservoir was the base of a fountain.
The legal battle is the latest example of a growing phenomenon in which right-wing Hindu groups are petitioning the courts for Muslim religious structures that they claim belong to Hindus.
The fear now is that the Gyanvapi Mosque is following the path of another Mughal-era mosque, the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, which Hindu groups believe was built on the birthplace of their deity Ram.
The demolition of the Babri Mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992 sparked religious riots in which more than 2,000 people died, mostly Muslims.
Critics say such cases raise fears over the status of places of worship for Indian Muslims, a minority community of 200 million who have been attacked in recent years by Hindu nationalists seeking to make India officially secular. into an ethnic Hindu nation.
Varanasi is also the parliamentary seat of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A recent “draft constitution” released by right-wing Hindu groups last month proposed Varanasi as the capital of the “Hindu nation”.
Khalid Rasheed, the president of the Islamic Center of India, an organization that works for the rights of Indian Muslims, told Al Jazeera that the court in Varanasi hearing the petition filed by five Hindu women raises many questions.
“The big issue is that in the final judgment in the Ayodhya case, the Supreme Court made it very clear that the Places of Worship Act 1991 will stand. between the mosque and the temple will be lifted,” he said.
“But today the court granted the motion and dismissed the grounds of the law, saying it would not apply in this case. This is a worrying development.
“We saw what the situation was during the Babri mosque affair. We believe that no such issue should be raised and whatever the status of any place of worship, it should be maintained.
Mosque-temple conflict in Badaun
Meanwhile, another court in Uttar Pradesh said it would hear a petition from right-wing Hindu organizations claiming that an existing Jama Masjid Shamsi in the town of Badaun was built after the demolition of a hindu temple.
Akhil Bharat Hindu MahaSabha, a far-right Hindu group, along with local residents filed the petition last month, claiming the mosque was built after razing the temple of Lord Neelkanth Mahadev.
The Badaun court set September 15 for the hearing and issued notices to the mosque leadership, the Sunni Waqf council of Uttar Pradesh, the state government and the union government.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Jama Masjid’s lawyer Asrar Ahmad Siddiqui said, “There is no evidence available that it was a temple and the mosque was built after the ‘to have destroyed’.
Siddiqui also claimed that the mosque was built by Sultan Iltutmish, the ruler of Delhi, in 1222.
Mehmood Pracha, a New Delhi-based lawyer, told Al Jazeera such court orders have the potential to create “more harm rather than advancing the cause of justice and fairness”.
“The law on places of worship had to be enacted because of the Babri mosque affair, where in broad daylight a mosque was destroyed. The law was intended to prevent such occurrences in the future and to ensure the status quo of places of worship,” he said.
Rifat Fareed contributed to this report