On July 14, the Jumma Masjid in Erandol, a town in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, stayed shut for the Friday prayers. “This is the first time in my life that Friday prayers were not held at the mosque,” said Wasim Asghar Khan, a 32-year-old resident of the town.

Three days ago, the Jalgaon district collector Aman Mittal had issued an order restraining the entry of worshippers in the mosque.

The restrictions came almost two months after a local Hindu group, the Pandavwada Sangharsh Samiti, approached the collector, claiming that the mosque resembles a temple, that it had been under the control of “Jain and Hindu communities since time immemorial” and that the “encroachment by Muslims” on the structure must be removed. If their demands were not met, they threatened to start an agitation.

The mosque is widely believed to date back to the reign of Alauddin Khilji, the 13th-century ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The mosque trustees claim that they have documents to prove that the place of worship existed in 1861. “The mosque is a Waqf property managed by a local trust and prayers have been held there without interruption for centuries,” said Karim Salar, an activist and educationist in Jalgaon.

A Wakf is an institution or property dedicated for a religious or charitable purpose by a person who professes Islam.

The mosque is also called the Pandavwada Masjid. Altaf Khan, a member of the trust, explained that the name alludes to a local legend that the Pandavas, the central characters of the Mahabharata, had spent some months in Erandol during their exile. A wada refers to large, two-storied traditional residences built around open courtyards in Maharashtra.

On Tuesday, responding to a petition from the mosque’s trust, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court stayed the collector’s order prohibiting prayers at the mosque for two weeks till August 1. It also ordered the collector to hand over the keys of the mosque to the trust.

A view of the monument. Credit: Special Arrangement.

‘A Jain temple’

On May 18, a group called the Pandavwada Sangharsh Samiti submitted an application to the Jalgaon district collector, claiming that the structure was not a mosque but a temple, and that it was illegally registered as Waqf property.

“We call it a Pandavwada,” claimed Prashad Dandvaty, a member of the Samiti. “It is a Jain temple.” Even archaeological records identify it as a templeHe said the group was forced to approach the district administration after the mosque started organising classes on the Quran in the monument.

The group also claimed that an idol of the Jain deity, Lord Parasnath, had been discovered in the structure during the British period.

Based on the group’s application, the district collector on July 11 barred prayers at the mosque.

On July 13, both members of the Jumma Masjid trust and the Hindu group were given a chance to explain their position on the matter to the district collector.

The trust also approached the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court, challenging the July 11 order and arguing that the district collector had exceeded his brief by barring Muslims from entering the mosque.

A busy street in Erandol town. Credit: Special Arrangement.

The history

According to officials of the Jumma Masjid trust, government records dating to October, 1861, show the existence of the mosque.

Khan said that during the hearing before the collector, the trust submitted several city survey maps which show the monument as Jumma Masjid. “All the maps of the spot from the British period to this day label this monument as a masjid,” he said. “Their claims are baseless.”

In 1927, the British authorities and Muslims agreed to set up a trust to look after the mosque, said Salar, the activist from Jalgaon.

The Maharashtra government in 1977 had declared the structure as an ancient and historical monument with the name of “Pandavwada Masjid” and enlisted it as a protected monument under the Maharashtra Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Acts, 1960, said the trust members.

Khan said that the archeological department has never raised objections on Muslims offering prayers inside the monument.

A 1954 letter by the district collector to the archaeological department in Aurangabad, too, states that the structure has been used as Jumma Masjid by Muslims for many years, according to the trust.

Khan alleged that communal elements in the town have been raking up the issue on and off since the mid-1990s. “They have been trying hard, using different methods, but they have failed every time,” Khan said.

‘An earlier attack’

In 1992-’93, when riots broke out across the country following the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the Jumma Masjid also bore the brunt. According to Muslim residents, some “anti-social elements” attacked the mosque and damaged its front door. The trust officials informed the local authorities, who repaired it.

In 2009, the mosque was registered as Waqf property under the provisions of the Waqf Act 1995.

However, the Pandavwada Sangharsha Samiti, in its application, claimed that the building came under the supervision of the Nashik archaeology department in 1995 – and not a Waqf board. As proof, it cited the fact that the Maharashtra government had set up a police station at the site.

According to Salar, however, a police kiosk was set up outside the monument for its protection after the violence triggered by the Babri Masjid demolition.

Most recently, in 2012, the Erandol municipal council proposed to develop a public garden within the mosque premises. But the trust approached the Waqf tribunal, which passed an injunction, forcing the municipal council to put the plan on hold.

‘Never heard of a puja’

Residents of Erandol, too, appeared to be sceptical about the claims that the mosque was a place of worship for Hindus.

“People come here to visit the monument but I have never seen or heard any non-Muslims doing a puja or any religious act there,” said Dr Suresh Patil, a former municipal councilor and Erandol resident. However, he said that the claims and counter-claims over the mosque had been going on for the last 30 years.

Pratibha Shinde, a civil society activist in Jalgaon, said that incidents targeting Muslims have increased in the district in the last six months. Members of Hindutva groups were responsible for violence during Ram Navami in Jalgaon, she said.

According to Salar, the Jalgaon-based educationist, Muslims are a minority, comprising around 20% of the population of the town. The masjid is located in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood.

The members of the Samiti, Salar alleged, had been emboldened by the fall of the Uddhav Thackeray government and the return of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power. “They have the backing of Hindutva forces like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal and also the support of the ruling party.”