New Delhi: A district court in Varanasi Monday ruled that a suit filed by five women demanding the right to pray inside the Gyanvapi Mosque compound was “maintainable”, allowing the court to hear the case and decide it.
The order was delivered by district judge Ajay Krishna Vishvesha on an application challenging the maintainability of the suit. Filed in August last year, the petition demands permission to worship idols of the deities Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and Nandi that are allegedly located inside the mosque, within an “old temple complex”.
The application challenging the maintainability of the suit was filed under Order 7 Rule 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which lists the conditions under which a plaint or a plea can be rejected by the court. Simply put, it helps to determine if the proceedings in a case can continue at all and whether the court can hear it. The rule says that a plea shall be rejected if the relief claimed is barred by law.
The plaintiffs in the case had asserted that they have a right to worship there and that the defendants, including the mosque management committee, should be restrained from interfering with the worship, aarti and bhog. Among other things, the mosque had argued that the current suit is barred under the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 — a law that forbids alteration of the religious character of a place of worship from what it was on 15 August 1947.
In May this year, the Supreme Court had transferred the dispute from a civil judge, senior division, Varanasi, to the court of the district judge of Varanasi. In its order, the court had directed the district judge to decide, on a priority basis, the maintainability application filed by the mosque management committee.
In his 26-page-long order, the district judge has now ruled that the suit filed by the women isn’t barred by the 1991 Act. He explained, “In my view, this argument of defendant no.4 does not hold much water because the plaintiffs are claiming only the right to worship at the disputed property. They want to worship Maa Shringar Gauri and other visible and invisible deities with the contention that they worshipped there till the year 1993 and the plaintiffs are not claiming ownership over the disputed property. They have also not filed the suit for declaration that the disputed property is a temple.”
The court opined that the “right to worship is a civil right and any interference in it will raise a dispute of civil nature”, which can be decided by a civil court. The case will next come up on 22 September.
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‘Not barred by Waqf law’
The main argument of the plaintiffs was that they’ve neither sought any declaration over the ownership of the property nor demanded its conversion to a temple from a mosque. They asserted that they are only demanding the right to worship the deities.
They also claimed that they had been performing this worship until 1993, which was when the UP government directed the district administration to restrict the entry of devotees of Lord Shiva to the old temple. They were allowed to worship within the old temple only on the fourth day of Chaitra in Vasantik Navratri.
The mosque had claimed that the Gyanvapi Mosque is a Waqf property under the Waqf Act, 1995 and that the plaintiffs have no right to worship there. This law bars any civil court from deciding any dispute relating to a Waqf property, and empowers tribunals to decide such disputes. The mosque argued that since this was a Waqf property, only the Waqf Tribunal Lucknow had the right to decide the suit under the law.
However, the court asserted that the suit was not barred by the Waqf Act because the “plaintiffs are non-Muslims and strangers to the alleged Waqf created at the disputed property”. It further said that the relief that they have claimed, to worship at the property, is not covered under the law as one of the disputes that can be heard by the tribunal.
The mosque committee had also taken recourse to the Uttar Pradesh Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983, which provides for “proper and better administration of Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi and its endowments”. In a 1997 judgment, the Supreme Court had asserted that this 1983 Act “protects the right to perform worship, rituals or ceremonies in accordance with established custom and practices”.
However, the mosque committee pointed out that the law defines the “temple” covered by it and only mentions the property endowed to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, without any mention of the mosque. Therefore, it had asserted that no such right to worship existed within the mosque premises.
In its Monday order, the district court has rejected the mosque committee’s argument, asserting 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”.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)
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