India’s Supreme Court has overturned a lower court’s order banning mass prayers at a 17th-century mosque in northern India after a survey team said it found relics of the Hindu god Shiva and other Hindu symbols there.
In an interim order on Tuesday, the top court said Muslim prayers at the Gyanvapi Mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi should not be disturbed, while the area where Hindu religious relics were said to be found should be protected.
The top court will next hear the matter on Thursday.
The Supreme Court order came a day after a Varanasi court ruled that a portion of Gyanvapi Mosque, said to be built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669, be sealed after lawyers representing Hindu plaintiffs claimed a Shivling, a relic of Hindu the god Shiva, was found in the mosque’s ablution water tank.
The Varanasi court had ordered a video survey of the complex last month after five Hindu women sought permission to perform religious rituals in a part of the mosque, claiming a Hindu temple once stood on the site.
Many Hindus hold the view that the Mughals demolished many Hindu temples to construct mosques.The controversy is reminiscent of the dispute over the Babri Mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town, 220km (140 miles) away from Varanasi, that was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu mob,
Hindu groups believed the 16th-century mosque was built by Mughal emperor Babar at the site where Hindu god Ram was born. The mosque’s demolition led to religious riots that killed nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, across India.
In a controversial order in 2019, the Supreme Court allowed Hindus to build a temple at the site while the Sunni Central Waqf Board was given an alternate site 25km (15 miles) away to build a mosque.
The Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Management Committee, a Muslim body managing several mosques including Gyanvapi, has challenged the Varanasi court’s order, stressing that the alleged relic found during the survey is part of a fountain in the ablution water tank.
The committee said the survey was a violation of the 1991 Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, which says “the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day” – the day of India’s independence from the British rule.
A representative of the mosque committee told Al Jazeera the claim of Hindu relics in Gyanvapi is an “attempt to disturb communal peace and harmony”.
“An issue is deliberately being created by many right-wing organisations,” said Syed Mohammad Yaseen. “We hope the Supreme Court gives us justice.”