The Varanasi district court’s acceptance of a suit filed by five Hindu women seeking permission to pray at Gyanvapi Masjid complex has reopened what the Supreme Court’s 2019 Ayodhya verdict was supposed to have closed forever—a debate on the religious character of places of worship. This comes at a time when the Supreme Court is also seized with pleas challenging the validity of the Places of Worship Act 1991.
The silence of opposition parties over the Varanasi court’s ruling captures their dilemma even as jubilation in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp says it all. While the BJP hasn’t taken an official stand on it, individual leaders didn’t hide their glee. Uttar Pradesh’s deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya said in a tweet, “Karwat leti Mathura, Kashi!” Maurya later said he was not speaking on behalf of the party.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the plea on Places of Worship Act, followed by the Varanasi and Mathura courts’ decisions are likely to keep the temple-mosque debate alive in political and electoral discourses beyond the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
And that is why the Gyanvapi Masjid case is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Moving away from SC path
In its November 2019 judgment in the Ayodhya case, the Supreme Court, talking about the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991, had said, “The law speaks to our history and to the future of the nation.”
The court made it both a legal and a constitutional duty of the current and future governments to protect other places of worship in India, so that an Ayodhya-like dispute does not arise again. The verdict tried to make the law watertight, and seal shut similar disputes that have been festering like old wounds.
But other courts have since managed to tilt the scales away from the Supreme Court judgment. On Monday, a district court in Varanasi held that the 1991 law is not applicable to the Gyanvapi suit, because the plaintiffs just wanted the right to worship inside the mosque premises, and weren’t staking claim to its ownership. This has opened fissures in the 1991 law that could allow more such claimants to knock on the court’s doors.
The order also seems to be providing credence to the BJP’s push for a relook at the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991. Earlier, BJP MP Harnath Singh Yadav, party’s Madhya Pradesh in-charge P. Muralidhar Rao, Chhattisgarh’s former home minister Brijmohan Agrawal and former UP minister Sidharth Nath Singh — all had pushed for a relook at the 1991 Act, the main bone of contention in the Gyanvapi controversy, and a campaign to “reclaim” the temples in Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura.
‘Healing past wounds’
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was passed during the first year of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in September 1991, a year before the Babri Masjid was demolished by a mob of kar sevaks. The law prohibits conversion of places of worship—like churches, mosques and temples—into a place of worship of a different religion. It also says that any court proceeding regarding any such conversion would cease after the Act comes into force. The law exempted the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, and any court proceedings concerning it.
But why did a law passed in 1991 set India’s independence as the cut-off date to maintain the status quo of religious sites? Because independence, in the words of the Supreme Court in its Babri judgment, “was a watershed moment to heal the wounds of the past”.
The verdict made an attempt to strengthen the mandate of the 1991 Act. The court had underscored the objective of this Act. “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands,” it said. “The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component. The Places of Worship Act is thus a legislative intervention, which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values,” it added.
Soon after the Ayodhya judgment was passed in 2019, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that they would not be involved in any political movements or agitations after this. He was responding to a question on other sites where the existence of mosques has been questioned by Hindutva outfits.
All that looks set to change now. First, the Mathura district court allowed civil suits challenging the title of the Shahi Eidgah in May. In doing so, it ruled that the 1991 Act is not applicable to this suit because of Section 4(3)(b) of the Act. This provision carves out an exception, saying that the prohibition under the law won’t apply to any case with respect to any matter on religious character of a place that was decided or settled before the law came into force. In this case, the validity of a 1968 compromise agreement between the Shahi Eidgah and the Srikrishna Janmabhoomi temple and another order passed by a civil suit in 1974 have been questioned.
Then, the Varanasi district court on Monday ruled that the plea seeking the right to worship inside the Gyanvapi Masjid is maintainable. The court rejected the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee’s challenge to the suit.
These orders have now opened fissures, and also provided a legal argument to those hoping to rake up other such disputes across the country. Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is part of the Sangh parivar, has been spearheading the campaign to reclaim the mosque next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the construction of a temple in Mathura’s Eidgah. It has, therefore, not only welcomed the district court’s verdict but is now pushing for a relook of the 1991 Act too.
“The first hurdle has been crossed and now the court will hear the matter on its own merits,” VHP’s international working president Alok Kumar told reporters.
Futures hang in balance
While the future of the two mosques are uncertain, the future of the 1991 Act itself also hangs in the balance because petitions challenging its constitutional validity are currently pending in the Supreme Court. This includes a petition filed by former BJP spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay and a Lucknow-based body of priests called the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh. The court has listed the petitions for 11 October, and has directed the Centre to file a response in two weeks. However, the court has not issued any stay on the trials and suits filed under the Places of Worship Act.
Demands for a relook at the law aren’t new. But sources in the BJP say the idea is not to speak on the matter currently and allow the legal process to continue—the way it happened in the Ayodhya dispute case. However, the fact that even the opposition has maintained a stoic silence has only encouraged individual BJP leaders to become vocal about it.
VHP’s Alok Kumar had earlier told ThePrint that provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991 are “not cast in stone” and Parliament shouldn’t be prevented from reviewing it.
Many in the BJP also say that the Gyanvapi case has the potential to emerge as a “strong issue” ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, just the way Ayodhya case did.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)