Right-wing Hindu groups have been demanding the 17th-century mosque, which is adjacent to a famous temple in the city of Varanasi, for decades.
Hindu worshipers began praying inside a 17th-century mosque in the Indian city of Varanasi, hours after a court ordered them to greenlight the disputed site.
The Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi is one of several Muslim places of worship that right-wing Hindu groups, with the support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, have sought to reclaim for decades.
Varanasi is Modi's parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which is also ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
A local court ruled on Wednesday that Hindu worshipers can pray in the building's basement and ordered authorities to “make appropriate arrangements” for worshipers within a week.
Indian media reports said that family members of the Hindu priests began praying in the basement of the mosque in the early hours of Thursday morning.
#He watches a priest performs prayers at 'Vyas Ji ka Tehkhana' inside Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, following a district court order.
Visuals confirmed by Vishnu Shankar Jain, counsel for the Hindu side in the Gyanvapi case pic.twitter.com/mUB6TMGpET
-Annie (@Annie) February 1, 2024
Akhlaq Ahmed, the lawyer representing the Muslim petitioners, said the court order would be appealed.
The Gyanvapi Mosque was built during the Mughal Empire in a city where Hindus from all over the country would cremate their relatives on the banks of the Ganges. Hindu worshipers claim that the mosque replaced a temple for the Hindu god Shiva.
Last month, the Archaeological Survey of India said a survey of the site appeared to support the belief that it was originally home to a temple.
Emboldened right-wing Hindu groups have claimed sovereignty over several Muslim worship sites they say were built over ancient temples during Mughal rule.
Demolishing a centuries-old mosque in the Indian capital
Meanwhile, bulldozers demolished a centuries-old mosque in the Indian capital, a member of the building's management committee said.
The Akhunji Mosque in New Delhi, which its caretakers say is about 600 years old, was home to 22 students enrolled in an Islamic boarding school.
It was demolished on Tuesday in a forest in Mehrauli, an affluent neighborhood dotted with centuries-old relics of settlements that predated modern Delhi.
In Mehrauli, Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority on Tuesday carried out an arbitrary demolition of a 600-year-old mosque.
Imam Zakir Hussain stated that the Akhunji Mosque, which housed the Bahr Ulum Madrasa and the graves of revered figures, has been completely destroyed. pic.twitter.com/tjEWOWUfQN
— Maktoob (@MaktoobMedia) January 31, 2024
Muhammad Dhafar, a member of the mosque’s management committee, told Agence France-Presse that he had not received any advance notice before the demolition was carried out “in the dark of the night.”
He added that several graves in the mosque complex were also desecrated and no one was allowed to remove copies of the Quran or other materials from inside the mosque before it was demolished.
“Many of our revered figures and my ancestors were buried there. There is no trace of the graves now,” Zafar told AFP. “The ruins of the mosque and graves have been removed and dumped elsewhere.”
Officials said the demolition was part of a drive to remove “illegal” structures from the forest reserve.
Calls for India to enshrine Hindu supremacy have escalated rapidly since Modi took office in 2014, making the approximately 200 million Muslim minority – the third largest Muslim population in the world – increasingly anxious about its future.
Last week, Modi presided over a grand opening ceremony in the nearby city of Ayodhya for a Hindu temple built on the former grounds of another Mughal-era mosque.
Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Mosque in 1992 in a campaign led by members of Modi's party, sparking sectarian riots that killed 2,000 people across the country, most of them Muslims.
The decades-long legal battle over the future of the Babri site ended in 2019 when India's Supreme Court allowed the construction of a temple to the god Ram, who was born in the city, according to the Hindu scripture.
Modi's dedication of the Ram temple was the fulfillment of a pledge made by the BJP over 35 years, and has been portrayed by the party and its affiliates as a Hindu awakening. It also came months before national elections scheduled to be held by next May, which are expected to boost Modi's chances of winning a third term.
Critics accuse Modi of pushing a pro-Hindu agenda and promoting discrimination against Muslims, but he says his government is not doing so.
Last week, a senior leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far-right ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, questioned whether the Gyanvapi Mosque and three others, including the one that was destroyed in Ayodhya, were mosques at all.
“Whether we should consider them as mosques or not, the people of the country and the world should think about it. Do they stand with truth or do they stand with falsehood?” Indresh Kumar told Reuters news agency in an interview.
“Accept the truth. Hold dialogues and let the judiciary decide.”
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