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Legal status of Gyanvapi, Shahi Idgah mosques

Print edition : Dec 07, 2018 T+T-

IN 1991, Parliament enacted the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act “to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947”. The Act made it clear that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to exist as it existed on August 15, 1947.

The Act made it clear that if, on the commencement of this Act, that is, on July 11, 1991, any suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, existing on August 15, 1947, is pending, the same shall be disposed of in accordance with it. Subsection (3) of Section 4 of the Act, however, said it would not apply to a place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site or remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, or any suit, appeal or other proceeding, which has been finally decided, settled or disposed of by a court, tribunal or other authority before the commencement of this Act. It would also not apply to any dispute with respect to any such matter settled by the parties amongst themselves before the commencement of the Act.

More important, Section 5 of the Act made it inapplicable to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and to any suit, appeal or other proceedings relating to it. The Act, enacted when the Hindutva campaign for Ram Janmabhoomi was at its peak, before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, was aimed at protecting places of worship other than the Babri Masjid from becoming targets of hate campaign and vandalism by the Sangh Parivar, and therefore, was a huge statement of the then P.V. Narasimha Rao government at the Centre in defence of secularism.

It is clear that the Act would apply to the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex in Varanasi, and to the Shahi Idgah adjacent to the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple at Mathura, the two structures that were also targeted by the Sangh Parivar along with the Babri Masjid.

Despite the enactment of the Act in 1991, the Additional District Judge, Varanasi, in 1997 and 1998, dismissed an application challenging a civil suit filed by the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust in 1991. The trust had filed the suit claiming that the king Vikramaditya had constructed a temple more than 2,000 years ago on the site where the mosque was built later. Alleging that the temple was demolished by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1664 and a mosque was built on part of the land with the remains of the razed place of worship, the trust sought the removal of the mosque and possession of the entire piece of land.

In its application before the Additional District Judge, the Anjuman Intazamia Masjid (AIM) contended that a “Mandir-Masjid dispute” could not be adjudicated by a civil court and demanded that the trust’s petition be dismissed. The dismissal of this application was challenged by the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Waqf Board and the AIM before the Allahabad High Court. The board also challenged the Magistrate’s refusal to make it a party in the case. On May 10, 2017, Justice Sangeeta Chandra of the Allahabad High Court directed its registry to place the two petitions before an appropriate bench. The petitions are still pending. The status of the Shahi Idgah flows from the provisions of the 1991 Act, which recognises the validity of any agreement reached between parties to settle pending disputes before its commencement. Therefore, the agreement reached in 1968 between the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Sanstha and the Idgah committee granting ownership of the land to the former, while leaving the management rights of the masjid to the latter, continues to govern the rights of the respective parties, as it is valid under the 1991 Act.