By Abdul Bari Masoud
There is little doubt that the case of historic 400-year old Gyanvapi Masjid (Varanasi) is a complete re-run of the Babri Masjid episode as the plot, script, narrative, characters, and director are the same. While another place of worship, the Shahi Eidgah of Mathura is targeted and a suit has been filed to remove the same as all eyes are on the courts of law.
On May 13, a petition was filed in a court in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, seeking a videographic survey of the Shahi Eidgah Masjid, drawing comparisons to the ongoing Gyanvapi Masjid controversy, which is also centred on a video survey.
The Krishna Janmabhoomi, the Hindu deity Krishna’s birthplace, is located opposite to the Shahi Eidgah Masjid in Mathura.
Earlier, on May 12, the Allahabad High Court denied a petition demanding a “fact-finding inquiry” into the Taj Mahal’s history and the “opening of 22 apartments” on the monument’s grounds, saying the petitioner failed to specify which of his legal or constitutional rights were being violated.
The petitioner’s lawyer, Rajneesh Singh, the media in-charge of the BJP’s Ayodhya branch, was chastised by the Lucknow bench for submitting the PIL in a ‘casual’ way.
In the plot of Gyanvapi Masjid, Hindutva extremists used the help of five women to file a petition to pray to known and unknown deities within the Masjid, claiming that the Masjid, which was allegedly built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple in 1669, still contained vital Hindu relics.
Acting with much alacrity, the Varanasi Civil Judge Ravi Kumar Diwakar issued guidelines for a video survey investigating the petitioners’ claims, and ordered that the survey begin immediately, in direct violation of the Places of Worship Act 1991, which states that active places of worship take precedence over historical ones.
The plot appears to have been methodically orchestrated, as the surveyors’ submission was made public before the Court commissioner ever made it, presumably in an attempt to frustrate the Supreme Court’s decision. In the courtyard of the Gyanvapi Masjid’s wazu khana, the quick inspection had amazingly unearthed a ‘Shivling’. Wazu khana is a body of water where Muslims do ablution (purification before offering the namaz). While ruling in violation of the Places of Worship Act, the civil judge made assertions about his safety – and his family’s concerns about his safety.
Anyone familiar with the Babri Masjid and Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, which resulted in the demolition of the iconic mosque, communal violence, and a trail of bloodshed, will see that any attempt to change the character of places of worship has the goal of exploiting religion for political purposes, taking revenge of 1000-year Muslim rule and marginalising the second largest religious community of the country.
Gyanvapi Masjid case was brought to court three years ago. The Allahabad High Court issued the stay order but it was disregarded.
Before properly examining the reality of the claims of finding a ‘Shivling’ from the Masjid pond, the local court appears to have taken the survey’s statements at face value and imposed admission and ablution restrictions on Muslim worshippers.
The court ordered the District Magistrate (DM) to seal the location where a ‘Shivling’ was supposedly discovered and ban admission to the area shortly after the survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi completed on May 16. A petitioner claimed that ‘conclusive evidence’ had been discovered in the case, prompting the Varanasi court judgment. However, the DM maintained that no information on the survey had been released.
The local court rushed to compel the authorities to seal a portion of the mosque, essentially legalising the Hindutva zealots goal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and their violent allies.
During the hearing in the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which oversees the Gyanvapi Masjid, rejected the claim since the piece is not a ‘Shivling’, but rather a part of the fountain.
Senior counsel for Intezamia Committee Huzefa Ahamadi argued that the trial court’s directives were “patently without jurisdiction.” “You cannot mess with any house of worship that has been existing and where worship has been held as on August 15, 1947,” he continued, citing the Places of Worship Act of 1991.
The Anjuman argued that the lawsuit is illegal. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court announced that an interim order issued on May 17 to protect the area where a ‘Shivling’ was allegedly discovered would be maintained, and Muslims would be permitted to offer namaaz in the mosque. The court directed the District Magistrate to make proper arrangements for Muslims to serve wazu khana before namaaz at the mosque, if they have not previously been made.
Ex parte orders issued by the civil judge, according to Ahamadi, ranged from forming an advocate commission to undertake a videographic reconnaissance of the mosque grounds to shutting the premises when a ‘Shivling’ was allegedly discovered. These directives, according to the senior lawyer, will “fester” unless they are overturned.
They might even turn the 1991 Places of Worship Act, which safeguards the identity of religious places of worship, into a “dead letter.” “There is a large police presence, and iron gates have been put up,” Ahmadi said. The decrees did not merely form a Commission; they also changed the status quo that had been in place for 500 years.” According to him, the 1991 Act barred the conversion of religious places of worship and said that religious places of worship must retain their character as of August 15, 1947.
The Act came into existence precisely to ensure that such controversies over religious places are avoided and that efforts to change their existing character not be permitted.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on May 20 reassigned the Gyanvapi Masjid case from a civil judge to a Varanasi district judge, citing the sociological complexity of the case as requiring a “more senior and experienced judicial officer” at the head. A Special Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud ordered the district judge to hear an appeal filed by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid against the suit filed last year by five Hindu women seeking unrestricted worship of Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and other “visible and invisible deities” within the mosque premises.
However, Justice Chandrachud said that simply “determining the religious nature of a location is not prohibited by the Act.” The advocate commissioner’s survey, according to Justice Chandrachud, was only a procedural step in evaluating the religious character of the location.
The Varanasi Court’s and the Supreme Court’s orders are being termed as unusual as they went completely against the interests of justice in such a crucial and sensitive matter.
MUSLIM GROUPS REACT
Taking a harsh lesson from the Babri Masjid matter, leading Muslim organisations, including the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), have criticised the court’s decision to close the historic Gyanvapi Mosque’s wazu khana (ablution tank) after the contentious survey team labelled the wazu khana’s foundation has a “Shivling.”
They said Muslims will not tolerate the desecration of mosques, sectarian forces are hell-bent on lawlessness, and oppressed people are being let down by the courts.
The AIMPLB conducted an emergency meeting on May 17 in the wake of the ongoing controversy surrounding the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi. According to a source, the Board’s legal team would provide all essential help to the Muslim side because the case is being heard by the court.
In the meeting, the executive members noticed that while hate-mongering forces were spreading false propaganda and attacking Muslims’ holy sites with full force, the federal government and state governments, which have a constitutional responsibility to enforce the Constitution and law, as well as political parties that claim to be secular and just, were all silent on the issue and were not forthcoming against this false propaganda as they should have been.
“The Board hopes that secular parties would clarify their position and stand up for the Constitution and the country’s secular character, raising a clear and loud voice in the process. The Board believes that the courts are also failing minorities and underprivileged people. As a result, sectarian forces pursuing a path of lawlessness are emboldened.”
According to Maulana Mahmood Madani, President Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, some nefarious elements and biased media are attempting to sow discord between the two communities by inflaming religious feelings. He said Jamiat pleads with all Indians, particularly Indian Muslims to refrain from taking to the streets over the subject of the Gyanvapi Masjid and to shun all forms of public protest.
Ulama, scholars, presenters, and TV debaters are asked to avoid participation in TV debates and discussions on the issue as aggressive public debates and social media remarks are not in the community’s interests, he said.
Popular Front of India Chairman O M A Salam has termed the Varanasi court order imposing new restrictions for Muslim worshippers inside Gyanvapi Masjid ‘a one-sided one’. He has also said that the order was against the interest of justice.
SECULAR PARTIES MUM
Except for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), all other political parties, including the main opposition Congress, have remained silent on the matter, allowing the Hindutva narrative to flourish.
Speaking with Radiance, CPI (M) general secretary Sitram Yechury said it is a matter of serious concern over the fact that the District Court, Varanasi took an ill-considered decision to allow videography under its supervision within the premises of the Gyanvapi Mosque that has resulted in a situation which can be utilised by communal forces.
The Supreme Court has now intervened in the matter and the CPI(M) demands that the utmost caution be exercised and that no violation, in letter and spirit, of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 takes place, he added.
Despite this, Congress responded with a modest answer, stating that it supports the Places of Worship Act. When being asked by this correspondent, former law and justice minister Salman Khurshid remarked at a press conference in Udaipur that these are Hindutva elements’ diversionary tactics to divert public attention from the BJP-led government’s catastrophic failures on all fronts.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Ravindar Kumar told Radiance that a case being heard in both the local and the highest court of the land at the same time is unprecedented. Lamenting both the orders of the courts, he said the petition should never has been heard in the first place because it was clearly in breach of the 1991 Places of Worship Act. As the case progresses, Hindutva forces will be encouraged to claim more minority places of worship. He feared that the current regime may abrogate the Places of Worship Act. He added that Justice PS Narasimha should have recused himself from the case as the whole world knows that he was one of attorneys for the Ram Janmabhoomi Niyas in the Ayodhya case.
In its editorial, leading English newspaper The Hindu stated that anyone familiar with the history of the Ayodhya dispute, which led to the Babri Masjid’s demolition, riots and bombings, will understand that all such attempts to change the character of places of worship have a motive of using religion for political ends and marginalising minorities. “It is up to the courts to act early and act decisively to uphold the spirit of the Places of Worship Act and preserve communal peace,” it said.