By Abdul Bari Masoud

Finally, India seems to have decided to take a catastrophic turn. With almost all the institutions crumbling one by one, the weak and marginalised, mainly the Muslim minority, have lost hope in the system. Even the last refuge of hope, the judiciary, has continued to let them down. The Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Masjid imbroglio is the latest in the series of cases where Muslims say that justice has not been delivered. The Gyanvapi issue has massively disappointed legal experts: partly due to the lower court’s violating the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 and chiefly due to a surprising ruling of the Supreme Court when it allowed the district court to hear the case.

The Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Committee, which represents the Gyanvapi Masjid’s management, opened its arguments in Varanasi’s District and Sessions Court on May 26. It is contesting the Hindu plaintiffs’ suit’s maintainability under Order 7 Rule 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

Senior Advocates Abhay Nath Yadav and Mumtaz Ahmad, representing the Muslim party, claimed that the suit was precluded by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, and that it could not be maintained. They argued before Judge A.K. Vishvesha that rumours concerning the presence of a ‘Shivling’ inside the premises were being propagated without proof. This was provoking a “public uproar.”

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Advocate Ranjana Agnihotri, said the Muslims’ side read aloud portions of their claim on May 26 to begin their submissions. She stated that the defendants would continue their arguments on May 30. After the defendants’ submissions have been completed, the plaintiffs will begin theirs.

Five Hindu women have filed a complaint in the Varanasi district court, asking for the right to pray at a Hindu temple behind the mosque’s western wall throughout the year.

After the issue surrounding the alleged survey findings was leaked into the public domain, the Supreme Court shifted the case from a civil court to a district court. The Hindus claimed the discovery of a ‘Shivling’ based on the leaked findings. The Muslims, on the other hand, rejected this, claiming the structure was part of the mosque’s wuzu khana.

Meanwhile, a new petition was admitted on May 26 by a civil court in Mathura that was hearing the Shahi Idgah mosque case, adding to the growing number of petitions disputing the character of Muslim places of worship.

On the district court’s orders, the case was returned to the civil court earlier this month. Advocate Ranjana Agnihotri filed a lawsuit seeking ownership of the property on which the mosque was erected, saying that Lord Krishna was born there and that there were traces of a temple there previously. The civil court scheduled a new hearing in July after the District Court rejected the civil court’s dismissal of Ms. Agnihotri’s suit last week. Tanveer Ahmed, the secretary of the Shahi Idgah Masjid management committee and its lawyer, said that the same dispute had resulted in many lawsuits.

Tanveer Ahmed went on to say that the mosque committee was now fighting six legal lawsuits alleging ownership of the property on which it was erected, and that the dismissal of  Agnihotri’s petition  in 2020 had opened a floodgate, with suits stacking up one after another. This comes after a civil judge in Varanasi heard a claim seeking to provide Hindu plaintiffs the right to daily prayer at Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Masjid, and ordered a court commissioner to conduct a video survey within the mosque. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, which appointed a district judge to hear it.

A petition challenging the dismissal of a civil suit seeking to “restore” 27 Hindu and Jain temples within the Qutub Minar complex was submitted in a Delhi district court, which reserved its decision on it.

New petitions are being entertained despite an existing statute designed to prevent such attempts to modify the nature of places of worship in the guise of correcting perceived historical wrongs. The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, passed during the Babri Masjid case, attempted to freeze the status of places of worship as of August 15, 1947, so that current litigation and actions would cease and new claims would be dismissed.

The Muslim side from the day one has been invoking Places of Worship Act 1991, which stipulates that conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, or any attempt to do so, is a criminal offence.  But there was little response. Even the Supreme Court seemingly didn’t take note of the Act.

Speaking with Radiance, Syed Mohammad Yaseen, Joint Secretary the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Committee, Varanasi, warned that with the invention of ‘Shivling’, the situation in this city has become communally tense. He accused the news networks of inciting unrest by broadcasting misleading and inflammatory propaganda.

The chaotic communal situation has prompted the global media as well as social scientists to flag a range of concerns from ‘impending genocide to civil war’.

He refuted that Mughal ruler Aurangzeb erected Gyanvapi after demolishing a Hindu temple, saying the mosque was built by Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur in 1440 and named after the neighbourhood Gyanvapi.

Listing out the cases, Yaseen said right now the Masjid committee is now dealing with 11 cases against Gyanvapi mosque. He recalled a 1937 local court decree pronouncing the Mosque to be the property of Sunni Muslim Waqf from top to bottom.   

As we have already indicated on the pages of Radiance, fascistic Hindutva groups are fomenting such conflicts in order to achieve their political goals. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has rightly pointed out in his article:

“The Hindu fanatics who attacked the Babri Masjid had little faith in the institutions of Indian democracy. The zealots who have gone to court over Gyanvapi are in the same tradition. They are Hindutva chauvinists who root their Hinduism not in any of its soaring philosophical or spiritual underpinnings – and, unlike their Islamic counterparts, not in the theology of their faith – but rather in its role as a source of identity. They seek revenge in the name of Hinduism-as-badge, rather than of Hinduism-as-doctrine.”

There was a sense among a large section of people that after settling the contentious issues like those of Babri Masjid, triple talaq and abolition of Article 370, the country would usher into a society where centuries-old cherished plurality and communal amity will grow, but myriad issues like campaign for converting mosques into temples and round the clock anti-Muslim slurs – not by fringe but by the minister and ruling party leaders – have only worsen the situation. Beyond the legal niceties, the court-ordered survey of Gyanvapi Masjid complex was aimed at stoking up another emotive issue to polarise society along communal lines.

Political commentators believe that the ‘photo-leak of the fountain’, which Hindu parties claim the existence of a ‘Shivling’, has fulfilled the purpose of the right wing politicians. By leaking the photo, a grain of doubt has been dropped. “While the BJP may not necessarily take lead in the issue and start ‘Ramjanambhoomi-like movement, the mere surcharged atmosphere is sufficient for the party to get electoral dividend. In short, whoever takes up the issue, the final beneficiary will be the BJP,” observed a commentator.

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