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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue

Gyanvapi, Mathura idgah disputes a boon for BJP electoral politics | Faraz Ahmad

Friday 16 September 2022, by Faraz Ahmad


Soon after L.K. Advani started his Ram rath yatra on a DCM Toyota truck across greater part of India from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990, seeking to replace Babri Masjid with a “Bhavya Ram Mandir,” Advani’s confidant and the then Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) International President Ashok Singhal held a press conference asking the Muslims to meekly surrender Babri Masjid, Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi and the Eidgah in Mathura to the Hindus, to avoid Hindu claims on 3000 mosques and shrines all over India, which he considered a thorn in Hindu flesh.

Reacting to this potential VHP/BJP/RSS threat from further escalating communal polarisation the then Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao got Parliament to pass the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 strictly forbidding any claims on any places of worship as they existed on Indian Independence Day, 15 August 1947. But all that seems to be forgotten history so soon even by the courts, meaning more than one.

The rowdy and lumpen elements all along Advani Yatra route loudly raised slogans: ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan, Mulla bhago Pakistan’. We all laughed them away as fringe elements. Even when Babri Masjid was demolished by Sanghi kar sevaks with the active connivance of the BJP led UP government of Kalyan Singh, we dismissed it as a passing phase. Soon after that when the BJP lost mid-term polls in three states namely UP, MP, and Himachal Pradesh caused by the dismissal of the BJP governments in these three states, for sending kar sevaks to demolish the mosque, we were convinced that communal insanity does not last long and in any case there are courts to protect and enforce the rule of law. Never mind that it was Faizabad district judge K.M. Pandey, who on a petition by one Umesh Chandra Pandey ordered on 28, January, 1986 opening the locks of Babri Masjid to allow Hindu devotees to perform puja. Believers like me in Indian rule of law still considered this an aberration.

But now we see a clear pattern. Varanasi District Judge Ajay Krishna Vishvesha pronounced on September 12 that “Hindu Groups are not barred by the 1991 Places of Worship Act to worship inside the Gyanvapi mosque,” the judge observed adding that “According to the plaintiffs (five Hindu women petitioners) even after 15th August 1947 they were worshipping Maa Sringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh and Lord Hanuman daily upto the year 1993. If this contention is proved then the suit is not barred by Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. Citing the averments of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya case in 2019, Judge Vishvesha said, “The destruction of the idol does not result in the termination of the pious purpose and consequently the endowment. Even where the idol is destroyed or the presence of the idol is intermittent or entirely absent, the legal personality created by the endowment continues to subsist,” the Varanasi court held quoting verbatim the Supreme Court ruling.

Senior Supreme Court counsel Nitya Ramakrishnan pointed out that there is no ambiguity in Sections 3 and 4 of the Places of Worship Act. She explained that realising that there were instances of places of worship having been destroyed in the past, Section 4 was incorporated in the Act to freeze at a point in time the religious character of such sites…If a site was a temple, mosque, church or a gurudwara or any other place of worship of August 15, 1947, it will remain so, no matter what it had been in the past and what physical traces of that past remain.”

But dismissing the plea of the Anjumane Intezamia of Gyanvapi mosque on these grounds as well as that Shri Kashi Vishwanath Act, 1983 had never claimed possession or “taken any steps for proper darshan, pooja and performance of rituals, the court observed, “In my view this argument of defendant No. 4 (the mosque) does not hold much water because the plaintiffs are claiming only right to worship at the disputed property. They want to worship Maa Srinagar Gauri and other visible and invisible deities with the contention that they worshipped there till the year 1993..”

The contention over 500 year old Gyanvapi Mosque was started apparently by five women, who it was alleged, were set up by Sangh bodies like the VHP or even the BJP which welcomed the order rejecting the Masjid Intenzamia’s plea that women’s petition and the resultant survey inside the Masjid to ascertain the existence of Hindu deities, as claimed by the women, ordered by another district court, amounted to defiance and contravention of Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. But both Justice Vishwesha and his predecessor in this case drew their legal strength from observations made by Supreme Court Judge Justice D.Y. Chandrachud who heading a three-member bench held on May 19, that “The ascertainment of the religious character of a place as a procedural instrument may not necessarily fall foul of the provisions of sections 3 and 4 of the Act of 1991." Rejecting the Masjid Intezamia plea to stay the survey in the Masjid, Justice Chandrachud held that Section 3 does not expressly bar ascertaining the religious character of the place of worship. “We have dealt with the provisions in our Ayodhya verdict. The ascertainment of the religious character of the place of worship is not expressly barred." Justice Chandrachud’s interpretation seems to have provided the long sought after excuse to the VHP to press yet again its claim and this time simultaneously on both the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi and Shahi Eidgah in Mathura. In Mathura for instance a Lucknow resident Manish Yadav claiming to be a direct descendant of Lord Krishna had staked claim on the Eidgah land around the same dates as the five women demanded unhindered daily access to Gyanvapi masjid in Varanasi to perform puja pleading that their deities including the shivling resided in the mosque in the middle of wazu khana, where the namazis performed their ablutions, every time before they assembled for the namaz, obligatory for offering the prayers.

The immediate reaction to Varanasi court judgement was one of shock and disbelief. Even mainstream media expressed its disapproval of the apparent way in which the 1991 Act was misinterpreted. Wrote The Indian Express the next day, “The Hindu claim to mosques at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura has been part of a political project pursued by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits, in courts and on the street. Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura emerged as political flashpoints—put on the backburner only during the BJP’s coalition years…The Supreme Court, in its 2019 order clearing the decks for the temple to be built in Ayodhya where the Babri masjid once stood, described the Places of Worship Act as a ‘legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one basic feature of the Constitution. The Varanasi court order puts a question mark on that and frames the challenge ahead.”

The Hindu too criticised the Varanasi court verdict saying, “The ruling is also grounded in other claims that appear to question the mosque status…Courts should be wary of underhand designs behind legal façade that such litigation builds to gain a toe-hold right that can be incrementally expanded….It is now clear that the enactment of a special law to freeze the status of places of worship and prohibit litigation over inter-religious disputes over their location has not stemmed the Hindu right-wing’s obsession with targeting mosques and stoking communal passions. It is no surprise that the latest efforts to raise civil and legal disputes…are being made in tandem with a campaign against the Places of Worship Act….It is unfortunate that an atmosphere has been created in which the political leadership can encourage divisive litigation and exploit the process if not influence the outcome.”

Inspired by May averments of the Supreme court, Karnataka High Court upheld the Dharwad Municipal Commissioner’s order allowing Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations on Hubballi on Idgah maidan, rejecting the Idgah committee objections to the trespass of Idgah land, thus establishing the claims of Hindutva elements in Karnataka, the current cauldron of anti-Muslim hate campaign, to a traditional Muslim space protected by the 1991 Act.

The Varanasi judgement caused euphoria and jubilation in BJP circles, even as the Central government and the national leadership preferred silence on it. VHP leader Alok Kumar said, “ This decision is significant as the first barrier in the way of Varanasi temple has been crossed. We knew earlier that the Places of Worship Act won’t be applied in this case.”

Uttar Pradesh Deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya reacted by tweeting, “Karvat leti Mathura, Kashi (Varanasi and Mathura are stiring)…Satyam Shivam, Sundaram…I welcome the order of honourable court in the matter of Baba Vishwanathji, Maa Shringar Gauri Mandir.” Another UP Deputy chief minister said, “UP government welcomes and respects the court order.”

Privately BJP leaders candidly admitted that economics issues can never be a (long term) winning formula. Polarisation has always helped BJP—without it, BJP will not be able to retain its dominance, adding that they anticipated a long drawn legal battle on these two disputes carrying on for decades and providing the BJP enough fussilade to use for many, many elections to come.

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