New Delhi: Thursday’s order by a Varanasi civil court, directing the Archaeological Survey of India to “get a comprehensive archaeological physical survey” done on the Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque complex, has grabbed the headlines.
Petitioners representing the Kashi Vishwanath Temple are seeking that the mosque, built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, be declared to be standing on land belonging to Hindus. But the mosque’s management committee, Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, has opposed the petition. The suit has been listed for further orders on 31 May.
Stating that “the matter in dispute pertains to have connection with our deep history”, the civil court of judge Ashutosh Tiwari asked the ASI to find out “whether the religious structure standing at present at the disputed site is a superimposition, alteration or addition or there is a structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any religious structure”.
The court also ordered the formation of a five-member committee, two of whose members should preferably be Muslims, to identify if any temple belonging to the Hindu community ever existed before the mosque was built at the site.
The court passed the order less than 18 months after the Supreme Court ruled in the Hindu parties’ favour in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute case in Ayodhya, and ordered that the Ram Mandir will be built at the disputed 2.77 acre site and that Muslims would be given five acres land for a mosque elsewhere.
However, the apex court had also underlined that this was the lone exception allowed to the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which states that any place of worship shall be maintained as it existed on 15 August 1947, and no encroachment of any such places prior to this date can be challenged in courts. Ayodhya was treated as an exception to this law because the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute had been in the courts since the 19th century.
ThePrint traces the significance of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple to Hindus, the dispute over the Gyanvapi Mosque, and the legal history of the case.
Why Vishwanath temple is important to Hindus
The Kashi Vishwanath temple, not far from the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, is considered the most significant shrine of Lord Shiva, and the most prominent of the 12 ‘Jyotirlingas’ mentioned in the Puranas.
The temple is believed to have been demolished and rebuilt multiple times during its centuries-old history, and several historians believe that Aurangzeb demolished one of these iterations and built the mosque (Gyanvapi) on the site in 1669.
Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of south Asian history at Rutgers University and a noted historian, wrote in her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth: “My understanding is that the Gyanvapi masjid was indeed built during Aurangzeb’s reign. The masjid incorporates the old Vishwanath temple structure — destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders — as its qibla (direction towards the Kaaba in Mecca) wall. While the mosque dates back to Aurangzeb’s period, we do not know who built it.”
— Dr. Audrey Truschke (@AudreyTruschke) July 9, 2017
About a century later, Ahilyabai Holkar, the queen of Indore, built a new Kashi Vishwanath temple near the Gyanvapi Mosque. The modern-day temple and mosque are adjacent to each other but have entry/exit points in different directions.
Less than a month ago, the Supreme Court sought the Centre’s response on a PIL challenging the constitutional validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
The law was brought in by the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government at the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1991. However, judge Tiwari’s Thursday order doesn’t apply the Act to the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi dispute in Varanasi.
This is hardly the first time this dispute has come into the spotlight — the Varanasi dispute as well as the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah dispute in Mathura both featured as prominent secondary demands of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, most famously reflected in the slogan “Ayodhya to bas jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai (Ayodhya is just a preview, Kashi-Mathura remain to be done).
However, as mentioned above, the Supreme Court had said clearly in its November 2019 Ayodhya judgment that the 1991 Act is a legislative intervention which preserves “non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values”.
Hindus’ contention and legal wrangles
The first petition on the title dispute was filed in the Varanasi civil court in 1991 by three persons — Pandit Somnath Vyas, a descendant of the priests of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sanskrit professor Dr Ramrang Sharma and social worker Harihar Pandey. Advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi was their counsel.
The petitioners contended that the original temple was built by King Vikramaditya about 2050 years ago and was destroyed by Aurangzeb in 1664. The remains of the temple, they said, were used to build the Gyanvapi Mosque on a portion of the same land.
The plea urged that the “temple land” be handed over to the Hindu community, and that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act doesn’t apply to it since the mosque was built on the remnants of the temple, parts of which still exist.
In 1998, the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid moved the Allahabad High Court, contending that the dispute cannot be adjudicated as it is barred by the Places of Worship Act. The high court stayed the proceedings in the lower court, and the matter stayed pending for 22 years.
Then, in 2019, the original advocate for the petitioners, Rastogi, filed another plea requesting an ASI survey of the Gyanvapi compound. In January 2020, the defendant filed its objection.
Judge Tiwari, in his order, noted that the plaintiff had said that the “temple existed since time immemorial” and was reconstructed 2050 years back by King Vikramaditya. It was again reconstructed during Emperor Akbar’s reign and that Emperor Aurangzeb issued a farman on 18 April 1669, which led to the demolition of the temple of “Swayambhu Lord Vishweshwar and constructed a mosque with the help of the ruins of said temple”.
According to the petitioners, the Shivling of the temple is “self-existing (swayambhu) and naturally arisen from deep inside the earth”, and hence, even after demolition, the “Swayambhu Shivling of Lord Vishweshwar continues to exist along with the argha (where the Shivling rests) at the very same place where it was prior to demolition of the temple”.
The petitioners added that though they and all Hindus “continue to worship and offer prayers to Lord Vishweshwar by circumambulation”, they are “deprived of their right to offer jal (water) to the Shivling.”
However, the UP Sunni Waqf Board has stated that the “status of Gyanvapi masjid is, as such, beyond question”, adding that “this practice of mosques being ‘investigated’ by the ASI has to be stopped”.
Zufar Ahmad Faruqi, chairman of the Waqf Board, said in a statement: “The order of the civil judge, Varanasi, ordering a survey by the Archaeological Survey of India will be challenged before the Hon’ble High Court. Our understanding is clear that this case is barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.”
A plea challenging the maintainability of the civil suit filed in the dispute is pending before the Allahabad High Court.
Kashi Vishwanath corridor
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Lok Sabha MP for Varanasi, had officially launched the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project in March 2019 to build a pathway from the temple premises to the banks of the Ganga, and to increase the visibility of the temple from the ghats.
However, by that time, the project, which had been in the pipeline for years but whose implementation was begun only in 2017 by the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government, had already faced heat on the Gyanvapi issue.
In 2018, a contractor on the project demolished a platform at gate no. 4 of the Gyanvapi Mosque, following which, Muslim residents staged a protest, alleging that it was part of a larger plan to turn the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi issue into the second coming of Ayodhya.
The platform, property of the Sunni Waqf Board, was restored overnight by officials, fearing a communal flare-up.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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