Gyanvapi mosque case mired in politics

Subhashis Mittra-WIDE ANGLE

The Varanasi district court has opened the doors to a renewed legal process likely to go all the way to the highest court. But at the same time, it must not be forgotten that the crux of the Gyanvapi mosque case lies in politics, rather than in law. 

Varanasi district judge Ajaya Krishna Vishvesha said the court would hear a petition seeking the right to worship Maa Shringar Gowri within the mosque complex on September 22 and dismissed the mosque committee’s objections against the petition, which were on the grounds that it is barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, the Waqf Act, 1995 and the UP Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983. 

He delivered the 26-page order, reading out his decision in 10 minutes in the presence of 32 people including lawyers from both sides, said an advocate who was present in the courtroom to which entry was restricted. Some people gathered outside the court rejoiced, distributing sweets.

Judge Vishvesha said: “The plaintiffs are only demanding right to worship Maa Sringar Gauri and other visible and invisible deities which were being worshipped incessantly till 1993 and after 1993 till now once in a year under the regulatory of State of Uttar Pradesh.

Therefore, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not operate as the bar on the suit of plaintiffs.” The Act, legislated by Parliament in the backdrop of the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, freezes the status of religious places as they existed on August 15, 1947. 

The judge has held that the petitioners only sought the right to worship as a civil right at the disputed property and their appeal did not seek conversion of the mosque to a temple or demand ownership of the complex. 

Vishvesh rejected the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee's petition questioning the maintainability of the case, which has reignited the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi Masjid dispute. The mosque committee's dismissed plea had cited the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 to make its case. The mosque committee has said it will appeal against the district court order.

The Supreme Court, which had in the first place insisted that the district court hear the petition against the plea by the devotees, will soon hear the challenge to the constitutionality of the Places of Worship Act. The Hindu claim to mosques at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura has been part of a political project pursued by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits, in court and on the street. 

Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura emerged as political flashpoints — put on the backburner only during the BJP’s coalition years. Over time, shrine politics — its culmination the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 — has enmeshed with narratives of nationhood and Hindu self-pride that frame Muslims as outsiders. 

The Supreme Court, in its 2019 order clearing the decks for the temple to be built in Ayodhya where the Babri masjid once stood, described the Places of Worship Act as a “legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution”. The Varanasi court order puts a question mark on that and frames the challenge ahead.

In June this year, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat underlined that the Gyanvapi dispute involved issues of faith but questioned the need to “look for a Shivling in every mosque (har masjid me Shivling kyun dekhna)”. Why escalate fights, he said.

A fast-track court will hear from October 6 the maintainability of the suit seeking a ban on the entry of Muslims in the mosque, handing the complex to Hindus and permitting daily worship there. 

Separately, the Allahabad High Court which is hearing another case -- dating back to 1991 -- on the Varanasi temple-mosque dispute has fixed September 28 for its next hearing. The mosque is located next to the iconic temple and the case in the Varanasi court revived claims that the mosque was built on a portion of the Hindu structure demolished on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. 

The Supreme Court had directed the district court to first decide on the maintainability of the case, filed by five Hindu women seeking permission to offer daily prayers before the idols of Shringar Gauri.
The mosque committee had approached the apex court, arguing that their plea was not maintainable as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 mandated that the character of such places should remain as it was at Independence. 

The 1991 law made an exemption only for the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute. The Varanasi district court has now said the 1991 Act does not apply in this case --- where the devotees are seeking permission for daily worship of the idols they say are already installed there. Already, they are allowed to offer prayers there once a year, their lawyers had argued. Lawyers to the Hindu side had said the video clips showed a 'shivling' in the complex, a claim disputed by the mosque committee. It also objected to the video being leaked.
"From the perusal of provisions of the Act, it is clear that no bar has been imposed by the Act regarding a suit claiming right to worship idols installed in the endowment within the premises of the temple, or outside," the order said.
Dismissing the mosque committee's plea, the judge said, "In view of the above discussions and analysis, I have come to the conclusion that the suit of the plaintiffs is not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, the Waqf Act, 1995 and UP Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983. 

Advocate Merajuddin Siddiqui said the mosque committee will challenge the order in Allahabad High Court. The matter could also come up before the Supreme Court on October 20, the date it fixed during a hearing on the matter in July.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board called the Varanasi court order disappointing and painful.
Several BJP leaders, including two Union ministers, have welcomed it, with the party's national secretary Y Satya Kumar terming it a "triumph of the truth." The Vishva Hindu Parishad too hailed it.


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