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What Varanasi court’s ruling means for Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi dispute & what happens next

Having ruled that Hindu petitioners' right to pray suit is maintainable, the district court will now formulate the issues it wants to decide on & hear arguments on them.

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New Delhi:  The deck has been cleared for the district court in Varanasi to hear and conclude a civil suit that seeks the Hindus’ right to pray inside the disputed Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque complex in Varanasi.  

On Monday, the court dismissed an application filed by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, the mosque committee managing the disputed mosque, challenging the maintainability of the civil suit.

Filed by a Delhi-based and four Varanasi-based women in August last year, the original suit demands permission to worship the idols of Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and Nandi within the contentious Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque complex in Varanasi.

District judge A.K. Vishvesha ruled that the suit is not barred by 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 its order, the court ruled that the argument “does not hold much water” because the plaintiffs want only the right to worship at the disputed property and are not claiming any ownership over the mosque. 

However, petitions challenging the 1991 law are currently pending before the Supreme Court. 

ThePrint explains what the Varanasi court’s ruling means for the future of the case and whether the petitions in the Supreme Court will have any impact on hearings by the  district court. 

Also Read: Aibak, Akbar, Aurangzeb—the Gyanvapi divide & why a controversial mosque has a Sanskrit name

What will happen in the district court

The district court was hearing an application filed under Order 7 Rule 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which lists down 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 them. The rule says that a plea will be rejected if the relief claimed is barred by law. 

The purpose behind this provision is to weed out frivolous litigation to save judicial time and resources. In this case, among other things, the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid had claimed that the suit is barred by the Places of Worship Act, 1991. 

Since the district court has ruled that the suit is maintainable, it will now decide on the plea filed by the plaintiffs — that is, whether they have a right to pray inside the mosque. In fact, the court has already posted the suit on 22 September for filing of written statement and framing of issues. 

This means that the court will now formulate the issues that it wants to decide on and will hear arguments on them. 

What about the Places of Worship Act

One of the most significant arguments from the mosque committee’s side is that the suit is barred under the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

The law was passed during the first year of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in September 1991 —  a year before the Babri Masjid was demolished — and has been controversial since then. 

In simple terms, the law prohibits the conversion of a place of worship such as churches, mosques, and temples to a place of worship of another religion. It also says that any court proceeding regarding any such conversion would cease after the Act comes into force. 

The exception under the law was the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, which was already a subject of civil suits before it was enacted

The Constitutional validity of the law was challenged by several petitions — including those filed by Ashwini Upadhyay, a lawyer and a spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and BJP Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy

Along with these, several independent applications have been filed by organisations like Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind demanding to be heard. 

The Supreme Court has listed the petitions for 11 October and has directed the Centre to file a response in two weeks. However, the top court hasn’t issued any stay on the trials and suits filed under the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Therefore, all matters, including that pertaining to Gyanvapi, would continue to be heard in the courts across the country.

How the case reached the district court

Backed by an organisation called the Vishwa Vaidik Sanatan Sangh, the five womenLakshmi Devi, Sita Sahu, Rekha Pathak, Manju Vyas, and Rakhi Singh — filed the plea on 18 August last year. 

On the day the plea came up for hearing, the Varanasi court ordered the appointment of an advocate commissioner, Ajay Kumar Mishra, to conduct a survey of the place. A day later, the court ordered videography of the survey.

A challenge to the proceedings was rejected by the Allahabad High Court on 21 April, in a 14-page judgment that made no mention of the 1991 law. The survey of the mosque began on 6 May. 

The issue reached the Supreme Court on 13 May when Anjuman Intezamia Masjid filed the petition against the survey citing the 1991 law. In response, the Hindu Sena moved the court claiming that the 1991 law doesn’t apply to Gyanvapi mosque because the Kashi Vishwanath temple and Shringar Gauri temple within the mosque complex fall under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. 

The 1991 law exempts monuments covered by the 1958 law.

Before the Supreme Court could hear the case, an application was filed before Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar claiming that a Shiva Linga was found on the premises of the mosque during the inspection. On 16 May, the judge promptly directed the Varanasi district magistrate to seal the place where the Shiva Linga had been reportedly found.

Within days, two reports on the videography survey were submitted to the Varanasi court, claiming that ruins of old temples were found at the walls outside the barricading, and Hindu motifs such as bells, kalash (pitcher), flowers, and trishul (trident) were visible on pillars in the tehkhana (basement).

On 20 May, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the survey, but transferred the case to a district judge saying that “a slightly more seasoned and mature hand [should] hear this”. 

It asked the district judge to decide whether the suit by the Hindu parties is maintainable on a priority basis. The court also said it was taking this decision with “peace uppermost on their minds”, and to “maintain balance and fraternity between two communities”. 

Importantly, the apex court had remarked that the 1991 law only bars conversion of religious places of worship but does not bar the “ascertainment of religious character” of these places.

Meanwhile, the appeals challenging the Allahabad High Court order, which upheld the Varanasi court’s order to appoint an advocate as a court commissioner to inspect the mosque complex, came up in July in the Supreme Court. The apex court, however, said that it will await the district judge’s decision on the maintainability application, and posted the matter for 20 October. 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Somnath and Gyanvapi temples were rebuilt – long ago by Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar


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