August 06, 2023

Next Target is Gyanvapi Mosque

THE Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has virtually declared that a new front is being opened up in the temple-mosque issue.  This time, it is the Gyanvapi mosque and the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Adityanath, in an interview, has said that there is sufficient proof in the Gyanvapi complex to establish its “original status” of a temple and it is for the Muslim community to come forward and state that “a historical mistake was committed in the past and they want the solution”.

This assertion by Adityanath comes in the context of the growing lawfare to establish the Hindi antecedents of the Gyanvapi complex.  On August 3, the Allahabad High Court gave the verdict allowing the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conducting a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex as per the direction of the Varanasi district court. The appeal of the mosque committee against the district court was rejected.

Ever since the Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute in 2019, there has been a spate of law suits in local courts in Varanasi which assert the right of Hindus to pray at Hindu deities in the complex or for videograph surveys and carbon dating of the so-called “shivling”, which is a fountain in the pond where Muslims perform ablutions before offering prayers. 

All these judicial processes have been taking place despite the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991. This law enacted by parliament prohibits conversion of  places of worship, as it existed on August 15, 1947, like – temples, mosques and churches – to a place of worship of a different religion.  That means, the law provides for the status quo regarding places of worship after independence. Any court proceedings regarding such conversion would abate after the Act comes into force.  The only exception made was for the Ayodhya dispute and the court proceedings connected to it.  This law passed in parliament by the Narasimha Rao government was to ensure that there is no agitation and communal activities to convert religious places of worship, like the Ram Janmabhoomi temple movement, which led to large-scale violence in the country.

The Supreme Court, while delivering its judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, had upheld the 1991 law as “intrinsically related to the obligations of a secular State”.  It further stated that this law “Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not to use as instruments to oppress the present and future”.  Despite this resounding endorsement of the Places of Worship Act 1991 by the Supreme Court in 2019, it is mystifying why the court did not intervene decisively to put an end to the litigation which arose on the Gyanvapi masjid complex in the Varanasi courts in the subsequent period.

One opportunity for the Supreme Court was in May 2022 when the mosque committee approached the Supreme Court pleading for a stay on the survey of the mosque complex and videography ordered by the civil judge of Varanasi.  The court could have, on the basis of the Places of Worship Act, put an end to the judicial proceedings.  Instead, it directed that the mosque committee’s suit challenging the maintainability of the petition filed by five women be transferred to the Varanasi district judge on the grounds that he is the senior judge. Again in July, the mosque committee had approached the Supreme Court regarding the ASI survey when it could have put an end to all judicial proceedings.

Since then, more suits have been filed in the case, including one seeking the removal of the Gyanvapi mosque, so that a temple can be built at the site. It is note worthy that all this is happening in the parliamentary constituency of Narendra Modi.

This judicial pusillanimity at the highest level has led to steady steps being taken through the lower courts to question the nature of the Gyanvapi mosque and to order measures to “ascertain the truth” through a videograph survey and now an ASI survey. In the process, the district court has upheld the maintainability of the petition by the women plaintiffs to pray at the mosque complex; the videograph survey has revealed a “Shivling” in lieu of the fountain in the pond in the complex and the Allahabad High Court has, in its latest verdict, allowed the ASI survey of the mosque complex. 

A similar judicial process is being undertaken in the Mathura courts with regard to the Idgah-Krishna Janmabhoomi issue. 

The strategy of the Hindutva forces seems to be to use lawfare to advance its interests, as the lower judiciary seems complicit in this venture. After gaining a judicial vantage point, at the opportune time, ground realities can be changed by extra-judicial methods.

It is for the Supreme Court to nip the mischief in the bud and apply the 1991 law which it itself had categorically endorsed in ringing tones in the Ayodhya judgment.

(August 2, 2023)