New Delhi: The controversy surrounding the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi is a “spontaneous reaction” and has stemmed from the “sentiments of the people”, claim BJP leaders who say that the party is “monitoring the situation closely” and working on its political strategy.
However, while the BJP is still figuring out its stance, individual leaders are going public with their opinions on the matter.
On Monday, soon after it was claimed that a ‘Shivling’ (a symbol of Hindu deity Shiva) had been found on the Gyanvapi mosque premises, Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Keshav Prasad Maurya took to Twitter to say, “No matter how much you hide the ‘truth’, one day it will come to the fore because ‘truth is Shiva’…Baba ki jai, Har Har Mahadev.”
— Keshav Prasad Maurya (@kpmaurya1) May 16, 2022
From BJP MP Harnath Singh Yadav to the party’s Madhya Pradesh in-charge P. Muralidhar Rao, from Chhattisgarh’s former home minister Brijmohan Agrawal to former UP minister Sidharth Nath Singh — all are pushing for a relook at the provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, the main bone of contention in the Gyanvapi controversy, and a campaign to “reclaim” the temples in Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura.
#Shivling found in #Gyanvapi premises is like a scorching mid day Sun in a peak summer. Now, in my opinion continuation of "Places of Worship Act, 1991" is highly difficult…It will have to be repealed in near future. Stopping this from happening highly impossible!
— P Muralidhar Rao (@PMuralidharRao) May 16, 2022
Why Congress Party brought 1991 worship act? Wasn’t it to please a section of minorities at peak of Babri dispute and why accept cut off date of 1947 determined by a colonial power ? Time for Congress to answer
— Sidharth Nath Singh (@SidharthNSingh) May 16, 2022
The Places of Worship Act provides for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947.
The Supreme Court had, in its 2019 verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid matter, observed that the law is “a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution”.
“The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation. Its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level. Those norms implement the fundamental duties under Article 51A and are hence, positive mandates to every citizen as well,” read the Ayodhya judgment.
“The State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution.”
Even so, speaking to ThePrint, leaders from the BJP and its ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) said that the Gyanvapi issue has opened a window for a discussion on the Act’s validity.
Senior BJP leaders, however, claimed that neither the party nor the RSS had been actively involved in the legal matters related to the Gyanvapi issue, insisting that it is the public that has taken them up.
“Those who have raised the issue might have affiliation with the RSS or BJP, but that’s different,” a source in the party told ThePrint.
Two petitions challenging the Places of Worship Act are currently pending in the Supreme Court. One was filed by BJP spokesperson and lawyer Ashwini Kumar, while the other was filed by a Lucknow-based body of priests called the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh.
Although the government has yet not framed its reply on the matter, as sought by the apex court, senior BJP leaders say that any “fresh development will make public opinion change” on a relook at the Act.
‘Shivling discovery a turning point’
BJP MP Harnath Yadav, who had sought the scrapping of the Act while raising the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah Mosque dispute in Parliament last December, told ThePrint: “It (the Act) is against the fundamentals of the Constitution as it prohibits judicial review. It is a well-established fact that it (Gyanvapi mosque) was a temple and puja was happening there for a long time.
“This law discriminates against Lord Ram and Krishna whereas both are avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. This law discriminates against Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.”
A BJP leader, on condition of anonymity, said that, just like the Ayodhya matter was settled in the Supreme Court, “we will wait for the court to take a decision on this [Gyanvapi] issue”.
“However, we have to see it in a larger perspective if public sentiments grow to change the Act. The party will have to choose its side,” he added.
Another BJP leader who did not wish to be named said the party should take a cautious approach.
“Though it is not clear what the Supreme Court will say about recent findings, it can open a Pandora’s Box. It is in the party’s best interests that the court settle this issue like Ayodhya,” the leader said. “There’s no denying that the party will benefit from it, but the government has to see the larger picture of the entire country. Party has to see how things move in court and how public opinion is moulded for Kashi and Mathura.”
Yet another party leader who spoke anonymously said a lot will also depend on how the Muslim community reacts to whatever the Supreme Court decides.
“It is a dynamic situation and a lot depends on the court. But at the same time, it has become clear that the 1991 Act is not sacrosanct and can always be changed. A lot will also depend on how the Muslim community reacts to it. They can’t pitch for secularism and Aurangzeb together,” he told ThePrint.
A party colleague called the alleged discovery of the ‘Shivling’ on the mosque premises a “turning point which has changed the course of the matter, and will also pave the way for a wider discussion on doing away with the Places of Worship Act”.
“Once it is proven that the monument called by the petitioner is a ‘Shivling’, it will be very difficult to restrict public opinion on restoration of puja and modification of the Act,” he added.
‘Act was passed in haste’
Earlier this week, Congress leader P. Chidambaram said the Places of Worship Act “was passed after deep consideration in Narasimha Rao’s government”.
Countering this argument, a senior BJP leader said, “When the Narasimha Rao government was enacting the law, it was passed in haste without sending it to the standing committee. The BJP had opposed its provisions even when then home minister Shankarrao Chavan brought it up in the House in August 1991. The BJP leadership, under L.K. Advani, had called it another example of appeasement.”
Other BJP leaders claimed that since the mosque was a “historical monument”, it does not come under the ambit of the Places of Worship Act.
“Though the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) has not notified it as an ancient monument under its purview, it can declare it as an ancient monument any time under these changed circumstances,” a party leader said.
Shift in Sangh strategy
In 2019, soon after the Ayodhya judgment, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that they would not be involved in any political movements or agitations thereafter. He was answering a question on other sites where the existence of mosques has been questioned by Hindutva outfits.
His statement was significant in the backdrop of slogans that were raised by Hindutva outfits after the 1992 Babri mosque demolition — “Ayodhya-Babri sirf jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura ab baaqi hai (Ayodhya-Babri is just a trailer, Kashi, Mathura still to come)”.
However, the “public’s response” to the Gyanvapi issue seems to be causing a shift in the Sangh Parivar’s strategy.
A senior RSS leader told ThePrint that even in the case of the Ram temple that is being built in Ayodhya, “there was a time when it was not acceptable to a section of the people and politicians. But after years of struggle, we have the mandir in front of us”.
“People have known about the Gyanvapi mosque housing the ‘Shivling’ for years but not much could be done about it. Gyanvapi mosque today stands at the same juncture where Ram Mandir in Ayodhya (once) stood. It will take some time, but it will be accepted that there was a mandir here,” he claimed.
At an awards function in Delhi Wednesday, RSS’ publicity in-charge Sunil Ambekar said, “Gyanvapi issue is going on. The facts are coming out. I believe we should let them come out. In any case, truth always finds a way out. How long can you hide it? I believe it is the time we put historical facts in the right perspective before society.”
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) had, at the time of Ayodhya verdict, also claimed that it was fully focussed on the construction of Ram temple. However, under the “changed circumstances”, its stance, too, has changed.
“The findings proved that there was a Shivling in the mosque even before 1947. We had said that we would wait for the verdict of the court till construction of Ram Temple. Now, under changed circumstances, we will place this matter before the saint community at the Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal (its highest body of priests, which takes decisions on religious matters) scheduled in Haridwar on 11-12 June,” VHP working president Alok Kumar told ThePrint.
Some VHP leaders have said the Gyanvapi mosque does not come under the Places of Worship Act “as it was a temple where puja was performed continuously before 1947”.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)