Kashi demolition can go on, says apex court

Print edition : December 21, 2018

Rubble from demolished buildings strewn around a temple in Varanasi on November 24. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

THE Supreme Court has dismissed a writ petition demanding a stay on the demolition of temples and houses in the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex in Varanasi. The petitioners, Jitendra Vyas and others including the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, who were represented by Raju Ramachandran, said the demolition work should not continue until the security concerns of the mosque were addressed to the satisfaction of the Muslim community.

Justices Arun Mishra and Vineet Saran, who heard the petition on November 30, held that the matter had arisen purely out of apprehension while the ongoing work was in the interest of the public at large. The court said the fears of the Muslim community were unjustified as the prevailing circumstances did not indicate any threat to the mosque.

“Where is the threat to the mosque? We assure you that there is no threat,” the judges are reported to have told counsel for the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, which manages the mosque.

To defend the matter, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, Additional Advocates General M.C. Chaturvedi and Aishwarya Bhati, and advocates on record Swarupma Chaturvedi and Vineet Sankalp were present in the court. The chief executive officer of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, Vishal Singh, was also present.

S.M. Yasin, general secretary of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, said: “We are definitely disappointed. We were hoping that the apex court would at least ask the Uttar Pradesh government to give some sort of assurance that there is no threat to the mosque, but this did not happen.” Talking to Frontline, he said that this [court stay] had increased the trust deficit among members of the minority community because the demolition work for the Varanasi corridor project was still going on without a blue print. Yasin said the State government had nothing to show by way of a project report, not even to the Supreme Court.

“We will now have to decide how to go about safeguarding our interests. But one thing is for sure, if they touch the waqf property then we will not allow it, and if this leads to untoward incidents, the administration will be fully responsible for that,” he said. This means that the Muslim community will be on a 24x7 vigil to ensure that there is no breach around the mosque area.

The fear has taken root because Muslims feel the demolition project may be a precursor to an eventual demolition of the mosque. The Sangh Parivar, it may be mentioned, has not withdrawn its pet slogan, “Ayodhya toh bas jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai”. The fear gained further ground when the local administration demolished a small platform outside the main gate, Gate No 4 (called chhattadwar), of the complex on the midnight of October 25, 2018. This is the entry gate to the Gyanvapi mosque. The platform was the property of the Sunni Central Waqf Board.

Although an innocuous event, considering the massive demolitions that were going on around the area between the temple and the Ganga ghat, the razing of the platform created much panic among members of the minority community and within minutes thousands of Muslims gathered at the spot. The administration immediately made arrangements to rebuild the platform. Although an ugly situation was averted that day, people living in the area fear that the government’s “modernisation and beautification” project to provide amenities for pilgrims is a sinister plan for a replay of the Ayodhya act since the modus operandi is similar to that which prevailed before the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in 1992.

It may be recalled that in Ayodhya, too, the then BJP government had acquired a vast area around the temple-mosque complex, apparently to create amenities for devotees. The events that followed ruptured the sociopolitical fabric of India forever.

“Beautification and modernisation” of the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex is a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Varanasi being his parliamentary constituency. But the manner in which the project is being executed has attracted the ire of both Hindus and Muslims. Hindus are upset at the massive destruction of ancient temples and heritage buildings in the temple complex area while Muslims are apprehensive that the widening of the roads leading to the temple, which will facilitate the congregation of thousands of devotees at one time, will pose a threat to the Gyanvapi mosque.

The project envisages creating a wide, tree-lined pathway from the Ganga riverbank to the temple, replete with public facilities, benches and floodlights. Heritage buildings and temples along the pathway are is planned to be restored to their pristine glory. But the demolition of hundreds of buildings and shops will render thousands of people homeless and deprive them of their livelihood. Besides, local people are upset with the idea because they say the temple-mosque complex and the narrow lanes and bylanes surrounding it are part of Kashi’s heritage and are deeply associated with their faith and culture.

Meanwhile, the three-day Dharma Sansad headed by the Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, which was held in Varanasi between November 25 and 27, 2018, declared that the ongoing demolition of temples in the city was not only irreligious but also unconstitutional as it amounted to hurting the religious sentiments of people. The sansad passed a religious decree, demanding that the government stop the demolitions.

The administration, however, appears to be in no mood to revise its plans or allay the fears of the Muslim community. The dismissal of the writ petition has emboldened the State government to go ahead with the demolition work. “Of course, the work is going on in full steam. Where is the question [of stopping the work]? There is no court order asking us to stop the work,” Varanasi Commissioner Deepak Agrawal told Frontline over the phone.

People associated with the project told Frontline that work on the corridor would commence on December 12. Interestingly, no one knows what exactly the project is.