A local Varanasi court’s order on May 12 for a survey and videography inside the Gyanvapi mosque, including its basement, has opened a Pandora’s box. On April 26, civil judge Ravi Kumar Diwakar ordered a survey and videography of the mosque complex, adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. A court-appointed advocate commissioner undertook a survey at the site on May 6 and 7, but the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (the mosque committee) said the order was not for a survey inside the building.
The mosque management committee filed an application in the court demanding that Ajay Kumar Mishra, the advocate commissioner, be replaced as he was biased. After hearing the case for three days, from May 9 to May 11, the court not only refused to change the advocate commissioner but assigned two more court commissioners to assist him in the task. The court also directed the police and the district administration to ensure that the survey was completed without any obstruction and take punitive action against anyone who interrupted the proceedings. It ordered that the survey be conducted between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. daily and the report be submitted on May 17.
Significantly, this is despite the Allahabad High Court’s stay, on September 9, 2021, of another order issued by the Varanasi civil court directing the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct a comprehensive physical survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex.
The dispute over the ownership of the land on which the Gyanvapi mosque stands reached the Allahabad High Court in 1998. In 1991, the temple trust and a few members of the Hindu community petitioned the Varanasi civil court to hand over the land on which the mosque stood to the Hindu community. They argued that the land belonged to Lord Visveshwar and that a grand temple existing on the same site had been demolished by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1664.
The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid and the Sunni Central Waqf Board sought the dismissal of the petition. They argued that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, prevented any change in the status of a place of worship that came into existence before August 15, 1947. When the lower court dismissed the application, they moved the High Court.
Even as the High Court was deliberating the matter, the Varanasi civil court, on April 8, 2021, issued an order directing the ASI to conduct a survey of the mosque complex to decide whether a temple was destroyed to build the mosque. This order was issued in response to a petition filed by Vijay Shankar Rastogi, a lawyer, claiming that the Gyanvapi Mosque was built upon the ruins of an ancient Siva temple, some of which could still be seen near the mosque. He pleaded that the entire Gyanvapi mosque complex be handed over to the Hindu community.
The Sunni Central Waqf Board and the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid asked the High Court to stay the lower court’s proceedings in view of the fact that the temple and mosque had coexisted for a long time and that both communities had been offering prayers in their respective shrines without hindrance. The High Court stayed the proceedings in the lower court.
The High Court observed that the Varanasi court should not have decided on the application filed for an ASI survey of the temple-mosque complex in view of the fact that a verdict in similar petitions was still pending before the High Court. It said it was not appropriate for the Varanasi court to proceed in the matter until the High Court had decided on the issue.
Meanwhile, in August last year, Rakhi Singh and four other Hindu women petitioned the Varanasi civil court to be allowed to offer daily puja at the Shringaar Gauri shrine located on the outer western wall of the mosque. They also requested that they be allowed to offer daily worship to all other visible and invisible deities present inside the mosque building. The civil court’s order on April 26 of a survey of the mosque complex comes in the wake of this petition.
The Sangh Parivar has clearly targeted the Gyanvapi mosque in pursuit of its agenda of “Ayodhya to bus jhanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baki hai” (Ayodhya was just a beginning, Kashi and Mathura remain). During the Ramjanmabhoomi temple movement, Hindu right wing groups used to chant “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do” (One more shove, and bring the Babri Masjid down).The dhakka (shove) was in reference to street protests, campaigns, litigation, rath yatras and finally the physical push to demolish the mosque. Although no such battle cry has been heard in Varanasi, shoving and pushing for control of the Gyanvapi mosque complex has begun. The latest round of surveys to ascertain whether Hindu deities such as Maa Shringaar Gauri, Ganesha, Hanuman and Siva are still present inside the mosque complex is one of many such attempts in the last two years since the Ayodhya verdict.
The ruins of an ancient Hindu temple can still be seen on the outer walls of the Gyanvapi mosque, but the question is whether 21st century India can afford to expend time and resources to correct historical injustices. Both Hindus and Muslims have been offering prayers at their respective places of worship for over 400 years.
Muslims fear that if Hindus get unrestricted access to the mosque, thousands will descend on it and raze it to the ground, similar to what happened in Ayodhya in 1992. This fear was evident in Varanasi when the survey team reached the site on May 6. Muslims gathered in large numbers and shouted slogans. With Hindu groups also shouting slogans, the administration deployed a large police force to allow the court-ordered team to complete its work.
Lower court overreach?
What is intriguing is that the Varanasi civil court judge issued such an order in the first place despite the Allahabad High Court quashing a similar order in September last year. Besides, Sections 3 and 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, state that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it was on August 15, 1947. According to Section 4(2) of the Act, all suits, appeals or others regarding converting the character of a place of worship will stand abated when the Act comes into force and no new proceedings can be filed.
The Act had, however, excluded Ayodhya, where a bitter legal battle was already raging when it was legislated. While delivering the Ayodhya verdict in November 2019, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi reiterated the predominance of the Act. Making an exception in its Ayodhya judgment, the court allotted the entire land at the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site to contesting Hindu outfits. The bench hoped to limit the demands for the ownership issue of Hindu-Muslim structures in Kashi and Mathura.
This has not stopped people from filing suits in different courts seeking ownership rights or to offer prayers inside the Gyanvapi mosque at Varanasi or the Shahi Idgah Mosque at Mathura, which is said to be the birthplace of Krishna. While the administration in Mathura has so far done nothing to instil fear in the minds of Muslims, the situation is quite different in Varanasi. In the name of the beautification of the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, which began in 2018, the administration has razed houses, shops and other buildings surrounding the mosque, apparently to build a broad corridor that would make it easier for devotees to reach the temple from the river Ganga. This has left the Gyanvapi mosque, which was earlier shielded by houses and other buildings, completely exposed, raising fears among Muslims that this is just a prelude to thousands of Hindus gathering at the mosque.
The court-ordered survey, coming after the beautification drive, has raised further doubts among Muslims. “Their intentions do not seem right. First, the mosque was exposed to full public view, and now if they allow Hindus to come here and offer puja daily, what can stop a large crowd from gathering here and enacting a repeat of December 6, 1992?” asked a prominent member of the mosque management committee referring to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on that day.
Given the fact that there are BJP governments both at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, and that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) agenda on Kashi and Mathura is well known, Muslims across India are in panic because of the high level of trust deficit.