May 29, 2022
Enforce Places of Worship Act Firmly

DURING the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindutva outfits had raised the slogan “Ayodhya sirf ek jhanki hai, Mathura or Kashi baaki hai”. This translated means “Ayodhya is just the beginning, Mathura and Kashi are left”.

After winning the battle to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya at the very spot where the Babri Masjid had stood, in less than two years after the foundation ceremony of the temple at Ayodhya was held, the same forces have begun the struggle for Kashi and Mathura. The targets are the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura, which were built over temples existing there in the 17th century. That this had happened during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is a historical fact.

For the RSS and the Hindutva forces, the priority is to set right the wrongs of history. By their jaundiced view of history, Muslim rule was slavery for Hindus and all the signs of this slavery have to be obliterated. The incipient mobilisation for the “capture” of Kashi and Mathura have begun even though the attempt has begun with legal challenges to the existence of the mosques in both places and to establish the legitimacy of the temples that stood there earlier.

This legal route has resulted in a spate of petitions in Varanasi and Mathura courts on the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex and the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple-Idgah land. Alongside, petitions have been filed about existence of sculptures and idols of deities in Qutab Minar in Delhi, the Bhojshala complex in Madhya Pradesh and even the Taj Mahal in Agra.

It was to put an end to such divisive and regressive disputes that parliament had enacted the Places of Religious Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 during the time of the Narsimha Rao government. Section 3 of the law expressly prohibits conversion of places of worship. It states in Section 4 (1) that the religious character of a place of worship existing on August 15, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day. Further, Section 4 (2) bars the initiation of any fresh proceedings for the change of religious character of places of worship. It stipulates that any pending proceedings in this regard shall stand abated.

The exception given is to the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute which was already in the courts for litigation of the title suit.

In the case of the Gyanvapi mosque, the civil court in Varanasi had on the petition of five women seeking to worship at the ‘Maa Shringari Gauri’ idol within the mosque complex, ordered a videographic survey to be conducted of the mosque premises. This order goes against the Places of Religious Worship Act as it violates the provision that nothing should be done to question or undermine the existing character of the place of worship. The manner in which the survey was conducted was itself questionable. The report that a “Shivling” was found in the watertank within the compound of the mosque was also leaked to the media. The mosque authorities have asserted that the stone structure is a fountain.

When the mosque authorities approached the Supreme Court challenging the orders of the civil court and asking the apex court to disallow the petition as being violative of the Places of Worship Act, the court did not stay the videographic survey nor did it intervene to bar the petition as being violative of the Places of Religious Worship Act. Justice Chandrachud who headed the bench said that “ascertainment of the religious character of a place is not barred…by the Act”

Such an approach goes against the spirit of the judgement of the Supreme Court itself in its verdict on the Ayodhya dispute in 2019. The court in its judgement had stated:

“The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation… The State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is part of the basic features of the Constitution. The Places of Worship Act imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution. The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution… The Places of Worship Act is...a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.”

Given this clear exposition of the validity of the Places of Worship Act, it is disappointing that the Court did not firmly uphold the provisions of the Act and negate the proceedings on the petition at the civil court in Varanasi. Instead, the court directed that all the concerned petitions be heard by a senior judge at the district level, in this case the district judge of Varanasi. The exercise to ascertain the religious character of a place is opening the way for a flood of legal actions and its resultant impact on inter-community relations.

The situation has also got complicated by the connivance of some of the lower echelons of the judiciary in facilitating the legal challenges being mounted to alter the character of the religious places of worship in Kashi and Mathura. In Mathura, the district judge has rejected a decision of the lower court and allowed an appeal by the Srikrishna Janmabhoomi Trust and other bodies seeking ownership of the land on which the mosque was built. The judge has done so by taking recourse to a clause in the Act which states that the Act will not apply to appeals, statues and proceedings which were decided before commencement of the Act. The petition is challenging a compromise decree arrived in 1974 between the two parties representing the temple and mosque managements.

It is being noted by various commentators and political observers that the temple-mosque disputes are being stirred up at a time when the people are facing exorbitant price rise and other economic hardships, as a way to divert the attention of the people from their sufferings. Another political view is that grounds are being laid to raise such polarising issues which will yield dividends for the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

While all this may be true, they miss the more deeper phenomenon – that the BJP-RSS combine is set to implement all aspects of the Hindutva agenda which is to remake India in its own Hindutva image.

The challenge is more fundamental than any electoral or political gambit. The sooner the forces opposed to the BJP realise this, it will be better for the country.


(May 25, 2022)