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Gyanvapi row and Places of Worship Act were born together. Now each wants to end the other

The outcome in the Gyanvapi dispute will decide the future of not just religious structures, but also the foundational structures of religious freedom that India was built on.

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Ayodhya toh bas jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baqi hai (Ayodhya is just a teaser, Kashi and Mathura are next in line)”. More than 30 years later, this war cry from the 1990s used by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad during the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi movement has now reached ‘Kashi’.

The legal dispute over the Gyanvapi mosque complex, which stands adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, dates back to 1991, the year that the P.V. Narasimha Rao government passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to preserve the “religious character” of a place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947. More than three decades later, the mosque as well as the law are fighting for their survival.

In the past week alone, the Hindu community’s claim over the mosque was heard more than once at a local court in Varanasi as well as the Supreme Court, orders were passed to seal the area in the masjid complex where a ‘shiva linga’ has allegedly discovered, and a report claiming discovery of debris of old temples was submitted in the court. And that is why, the Gyanvapi Mosque row is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: ‘Peace uppermost on our minds’ — why SC transferred Gyanvapi mosque civil suit to senior judge

Fault in our histories

The Gyanvapi mosque is historically believed to have been built by Aurangzeb after destroying the Kashi Vishweshwar temple. One of the sources quoted by experts to prove this claim dates back to 353 years ago, written in 1669 by Saqi Musta’idd Khan, Aurangzeb’s contemporary historian. A passage from Khan’s book, Maasir-I-Alamgiri reads, “Orders respecting Islamic affairs were issued to the governors of all the provinces that the schools and places of worship of the irreligious be subject to demolition and that with the utmost urgency the manner of teaching and the public practices of the sects of these misbelievers be suppressed.”

However, how this history is interpreted is key to how it is accepted and made peace with. For instance, while historians of the Hindu Right use the passage to paint Aurangzeb Alamgir as a religious fanatic who ordered all temples in India to be demolished, secular historians have since attempted to point out how demolitions at the time were largely political — they were often used to punish “disloyal Hindu officers in their service by desecrating temples with which they were associated”.

From 1991 to 2021

Citing this history, several attempts have been made by the Hindu side to reclaim the Gyanvapi mosque area. The original suit in the case was filed in 1991 in the name of the deity ‘Swayambhu Lord Vishweshwar,’ demanding that Hindus be allowed to “renovate and reconstruct their temple”.

While this suit was pending, the Gyanvapi mosque’s management committee, Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, managed to get a stay on the proceedings from the Allahabad High Court in 1998. The committee had said that such a suit is barred by provisions of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

While this stay continued for the next two decades, another attempt for an ASI survey was made through an application filed in December 2019, a month after the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict that gave the disputed site to the Hindus.

Despite the high court’s 1998 stay, Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ashutosh Tiwari allowed the application for an ASI survey of the Gyanvapi complex in April 2021. The Allahabad High Court stepped in again, criticised the order and stayed it on 9 September.

However, the stage had already been set for a fresh battle 22 days before the high court’s intervention. On 18 August, a plea had been filed in another local court in Varanasi, by one Delhi-based and four Varanasi-based women, demanding permission to worship Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and Nandi idols allegedly located inside the mosque.

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

Shiva linga, kalash, trishul

Showing an urgency that is expected of but usually unseen in courts, the Varanasi court, on the day the plea came up, ordered appointment of an advocate commissioner, Ajay Kumar Mishra, to conduct a survey of the place. The next day, on 19 August 2021, it also directed to videograph the inspection.

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 matter reached the Supreme Court last week, on 13 May, on a petition filed by the mosque’s management committee–citing the 1991 law. In response, the chief of Hindu Sena moved the court claiming that the 1991 law does not apply to Gyanvapi mosque because the erstwhile 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 matter, an application was filed before Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar claiming that a Shiva linga was found in the premises of the mosque during the inspection. On Monday, the judge promptly directed the district magistrate of Varanasi to seal the place where the Shiva linga had been allegedly found.

The Supreme Court allowed this order to continue on Tuesday, while directing that this should not “restrain or impede the access of Muslims to the mosque or the use of the Mosque for the purpose of performing Namaz and religious observances”.

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

On Friday, the Supreme Court bench 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 side is maintainable on priority basis. The court said that it was taking this decision with “peace uppermost on their minds”, and to “maintain balance and fraternity between two communities”. 

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

Also read: BJP stoking communal issues with eye on 2024 polls, says Shiv Sena on Gyanvapi mosque row

Quest for the ‘original glory’

The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 prohibits conversion of places of worship—like churches, mosques and temples—to 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 Ayodhya dispute, and any court proceedings concerning it.

But why did a law passed in 1991 set the date of 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”.

When this law was being debated in Parliament, BJP leader Uma Bharti did not want 15 August 1947 as the cut-off date, demanding that a time frame be set up “to restore the original glory of all the religious places since the days of Alwan-Qasim”. The best way of finding a solution to such disputes, according to her, “is to restore the old traditional glory of all the religious places”. In many ways, this quest for “original glory” has made its appearance all over again with the Gyanvapi mosque row.

However, all such proposals were rejected. L.K. Advani and a few other BJP leaders staged a walkout, and the Bill was passed even as BJP members “peeped into the House”.

The battle of Kashi

With the legal battle over Gyanvapi mosque and the Places of Worship Act being used to question the other, the stage is set for the Battle of Kashi.

The 1991 law is naturally quoted as a legal protection against any court proceeding that involves the Gyanvapi mosque now. This is especially relevant in light of the Supreme Court’s observations on the law in its Babri verdict. The five-judge bench had asserted that the 1991 law is “intrinsically related to the obligations of a secular state”, and with this law, “Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future”.

However, the dispute in turn has also threatened the very existence of this law. Several BJP leaders, including MP Harnath Singh Yadav, Madhya Pradesh in-charge P. Muralidhar Rao, Chhattisgarh’s former home minister Brijmohan Agrawal and former Uttar Pradesh minister Sidharth Nath Singh, are pushing for a relook at the provisions of the law.

So both, the Gyanvapi Mosque dispute and the 1991 law are fighting for their survival. The battle might be won in courts or in Parliament, but the outcome would decide the future of not just the tangible religious structures in India, but also the intangible foundational structures of secularism and religious freedom that the country was built on.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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