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No Ganpati celebrations on Idgah land — SC orders status quo in Karnataka govt-Wakf Board tussle

A three-judge bench led by Justice Indira Banerjee pronounced the order after a nearly two-hour–long late evening hearing. The festival can be held elsewhere, the bench said.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday ordered the Karnataka government and the state’s Wakf Board to maintain status quo with regard to the Idgah property in Bengaluru’s Chamarajpet area, where the BJP-led administration had allowed Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations for two days.

A three-judge bench led by Justice Indira Banerjee and comprising justices M.M. Sundresh and Abhay Oka pronounced the order after a nearly two-hour–long late evening hearing. The order renders the Karnataka government’s decision to permit the celebrations on the land as infructuous.

“The festival can be held somewhere else,” observed Banerjee, amid protest by the counsel for the Karnataka government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta. “Let the single bench (of the Karnataka High Court) decide the issues,” the court said, making a note in its order that the HC is scheduled to hear the case on 23 September.

“For 200 years it was not done, you also admit, so why not status quo? For 200 years whatever was not held, let it be,” the bench told the state government counsel.

The special bench headed by Banerjee was constituted after lawyers for the Karnataka Wakf Board requested Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit for an urgent hearing of its appeal. 

The Wakf Board had appealed the Karnataka High Court’s 26 August order asking the state government to consider and pass appropriate orders on applications received by the deputy commissioner to use the land in question for cultural and religious programmes for a limited period from 31 August.

The advocates had asked for the constitution of a special three-judge bench in view of a difference of opinion between the two judges who had heard the appeal earlier in the day.

Also Read: There are 3 claims to Ayodhya — law, memory & faith. It’s not a simple Hindu-Muslim dispute

The dispute

The dispute over the Chamarajpet maidan is a decades-long one involving the Karnataka State Board For Auqaf (also known as the Wakf Board) and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), which is Bengaluru’s municipal body. Although the BBMP gave up its claim over the 2.1 acre plot in June, it declared the Karnataka revenue department, and not the Wakf Board, as the default owner of the land.

The division bench of the HC gave its order on an appeal filed by the Karnataka government against a single judge’s 25 August interim direction that restrained authorities from using the Idgah for purposes other than Republic Day, Independence Day, or as a playground.

The court also allowed Muslims to offer prayers on the grounds twice a year on Ramzan and Bakrid. 

The issue reached the HC after the Wakf Board moved a petition against an 6 August order passed by the BBMP joint commissioner allowing religious and cultural festivals on the disputed land.

The Wakf Board Monday mentioned its appeal before CJI Lalit. On Tuesday, a bench of justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia first took up the matter. After an hour-long hearing in the post-lunch session, the two judges referred it to the CJI in view of their disagreement.

Meanwhile, solicitor general Mehta informed the bench that the state had allowed the Ganesh Chaturthi festival on the disputed land for two days — Wednesday and Thursday.

This made the Wakf Board lawyers rush to the CJI’s court to seek an urgent hearing, even if it was after working hours. The CJI constituted Justice Banerjee’s bench to hear the case at 4.30 pm.

‘Corporation can’t take advantage of playing children’

Opening their arguments on behalf of the Wakf Board, senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Dushyant Dave maintained the land has been an Idgah for 200 years and no other community has been allowed to perform rituals here. They cited a 1964 Supreme Court judgment, in which the court passed an injunction against the BBMP from entering the Idgah. 

When it was pointed out that the land was in use as a playground, Sibal argued: “Playing does not affect the possession of the land. [The] Corporation cannot take advantage of playing children”. 

He further said the land was a Wakf property and nobody has disputed it. In case of dispute, the person who challenges the status of the land has to approach the civil court for a judicial declaration and the same cannot be done through an executive order.

In answer to the court’s question of whether the board was opposing all types of religious festivals or just one, Sibal replied the land’s character cannot be altered.

In its counter, the Karnataka government claimed according to revenue records, the state owned the land. On behalf of the state, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi showed a 15-year-old decision taken by representatives of political parties as well as religious leaders and the Wakf state minister that allowed use of the ground for other religious festivals such as Dussehra and Shivratri. 

One of the religious leaders involved in taking that decision was a petitioner before the court, Mehta claimed. 

When Justice Oka said the top court had ordered an injunction against the corporation, Rohatgi said it was the state that has allowed the celebrations and not the corporation.

In order to maintain a balance of equities, solicitor general Mehta suggested the festivities be held under the supervision of a government-controlled temple so that no permanent structure is set up and the land is vacated after two days.

This led Dave to interject and remark: “The then UP Chief Minister had given a solemn assurance and yet Babri Masjid got demolished”. He then made comments that drew sharp reactions from state counsel. 

Dave said that no “temple in this country would allow the minority community to offer prayers inside the premises”. Rohatgi shot back to say that the state was not letting celebrations take place inside a mosque and insisted the land in question is an open public ground, subject to any public use. 

The judges stopped the advocates from entering into heated arguments and reminded them that they were sitting beyond court hours to hear the matter.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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