The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre seems to be engaging in a sinister communal game plan to take forward the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) agenda of ‘liberating’ the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura, in keeping with the Sangh battle cry of “ Ayodhya toh bas jhaanki hai, Kashi Mathura baaki hai ” (Ayodhya is just a glimpse, Kashi and Mathura are still to be completed).
Ever since the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict in 2019 handing over the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site to Hindus, there has been a growing clamour for similar action in Varanasi and Mathura as well. The Sangh Parivar now demands that the Gyanvapi mosque adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah mosque adjacent to the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura be handed over to Hindus, claiming that these mosques were constructed after demolishing temples considered sacred by millions of Hindus across the world. A clutch of petitions are pending before the Varanasi and Mathura district courts with these demands.
This, despite the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which was enacted by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government at the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in order to forestall similar movements around the Kashi and Mathura temples.
The Act stipulates that the status of all disputed religious places of worship would be maintained as they existed on August 15, 1947, and no litigation would be entertained about changing their status in any court of India. This law, however, made an exception for the Ramjanbhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy, which was raging then, leaving it to be adjudicated by courts.
However, ever since the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict in the Ayodhya issue, similar demands regarding the Kashi and Mathura sites were made at various forums, both legal and religious.
On April 8, 2021, the fast-track court in Varanasi ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct a survey of the Gyanvapi complex, just after the Supreme Court of India admitted a plea to review certain sections of the Places of Worship Act. A district court ordering the ASI to undertake such a study, which could have huge ramifications, was initially puzzling, but, when put in perspective, the pieces are falling into place.
Varanasi court order
Acting on a petition by Vijay Shankar Rastogi, who had contended that the Gyanvapi mosque was built upon the ruins of an ancient Siva temple, which was demolished by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1664, the fast-track court in Varanasi ordered the ASI to conduct a comprehensive survey of the mosque complex to find out whether a Hindu temple was demolished there to build the mosque.
Rastogi contended that the ruins of the ancient temple were used to build the mosque.
Some remains of the old temple could still be seen adjacent to the mosque, he said and pleaded that the entire complex was built over the ruins of the temple and that it should now be handed over to the Hindu community.
The original case about handing over the possession of Gyanvapi mosque to Hindus was filed in 1991, but the Sunni Central Waqf Board and the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (mosque management committee) approached the High Court in 1998 pleading for a stay on the lower court proceedings in view of the facts that the temple and mosque had co-existed since time immemorial, that both communities had been offering prayers in their respective places of worship without any hindrance and that there was no need to revisit the case.
However, emboldened by the Ayodhya verdict in November 2019, Rastogi filed another petition in the fast-track court in December 2019 requesting an archaeological survey of the temple-mosque complex to verify the claims of the Hindu community so that the issue of ownership of the place could be settled once and for all.
The hearing in the case was completed on April 2, 2021, and the civil judge Ashutosh Tiwari reserved his judgement. Passing the order, Justice Tiwari wrote that a “survey by the ASI alone can bring truth of the matter before this court”. He said that this case could not be treated like any other civil case as it was of a representative nature, meaning it had tremendous importance for crores of followers of both the religions and hence, it needed to be given importance.
The judge ordered the Director-General of the ASI to constitute a committee to conduct a comprehensive archaeological survey of the area.
The committee, the judge said, should have five members who should be eminent experts in the field of archaeology, and two of them should be from the minority community. The judge also directed that the D-G, ASI, should appoint a scholarly person of eminence, who is also an expert in archaeology and an academician from a Central university, as observer to oversee the entire exercise.
Also read: Kashi demolition can go on, says court
The judge ruled that the committee shall prepare a comprehensive document to find out whether the structure (mosque) standing at the present site was a superimposition, an alteration or an addition and whether there was any structural overlap of any kind with or over any other religious structure. If so, the committee should determine the exact age, size, monumental and architectural design of that religious structure and what material was used to build it.
The judge also directed that the committee shall investigate whether a temple belonging to the Hindu community ever existed before the mosque in question was built, or superimposed or added upon it at the disputed site.
If so, it should determine the age, size, monumental/architectural design of that temple and the deity it was dedicated to.
The court ordered that the committee shall use the ground penetrating radiation (GPR) technique or the geo radiology system, or both, to conduct the survey by trial trench method on a very small scale. If the committee deems it fit, a vertical excavation of a very small area, not more than four feet in size, should be conducted. The judge said in his order that a horizontal excavation could only be done when the initial findings were of a definite nature and the committee believed the final truth can come out by doing so.
Places of Worship Act
The order came only after the apex court decided to adjudicate upon the Places of Worship Act, 1991. On March 12, 2021, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre on a petition filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy challenging the constitutionality of the Act, which freezes the ownership of religious places as they existed on August 15, 1947.
A two-judge bench comprising the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, and Justice A.S. Bopanna issued notices to the Union Home and Law Ministries seeking their formal legal submissions so that it may adjudicate on the issue. Interestingly, the same court had, in its Ayodhya judgment, categorically said that this law would hold in the future. The bench had then hoped that it would prevent similar demands to reopen the ownership issue of the Hindu and Muslim places of worship that co-exist at Kashi and Mathura.
The Places of Worship Act was passed by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991, a year before the demolition of Babri Masjid with the objective of curbing communal tension. But that was not to be. The Ramjanmabhoomi movement reached a crescendo soon afterwards, culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
Following the Ayodhya judgment, several petitions were filed in the apex court challenging the Places of Worship Act. One of them was filed by BJP leader and the advocate Ashwini Upadhyay. His petition argued that the Act legalises illegal acts by invaders of India and takes away the rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs to restore their places of worship.
In his petition Subramanian Swamy challenged the constitutionality of the Places of Worship Act, arguing that “the Act of 1991 is unconstitutional and is also void ab initio and against the basic structure of the Constitution of India. The reason for this unconstitutionality is that it bars any person to approach the Supreme Court under Article 32 on enforcement of his/her fundamental right(s).”
He prayed for a direction to read down Section 3 and 4 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, and declare them to be unconstitutional, void ab initio and ultra vires to Articles 13, 25, 26 and 32 of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, suits were filed in the Mathura district court too, seeking to have the mosque removed and the land returned to the Hindus as in Ayodhya.
The Varanasi court order drew a sharp reaction from the Sunni Central Waqf Board, which described it as “unwarranted”. In a statement, Zufar Ahmad Faruqi, the Waqf Board chairman, said: “Our understanding is clear that this case is barred by the Places of Worship act, 1991…. The status of Gyanvapi masjid is as such beyond question.” He added that archaeological surveys did not produce any concrete evidence even in the case of Ayodhya, as was written in the judgment. “This practice of getting mosques investigated by the ASI has to be stopped,” he said. The Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque management committee on April 13 moved the Allahabad High Court against the order.
Campaigns on the ground
Significantly enough, besides taking the legal route to ‘liberate’ the Kashi and Mathura sites, the votaries have launched a simultaneous campaign on the ground. In February 2020, the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti announced programmes to begin a mass movement to ‘liberate’ the Kashi Vishwanth temple immediately.
Speaking to Frontline then, Baba Balak Das, national spokesman of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti, had said: “Liberating the Ram Janmabhoomi temple was the first phase of our movement and it is now complete. The second phase will comprise of freeing the Kashi Vishwanath temple from the stranglehold of the Gyanvapi mosque. And the third phase will liberate the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura. These are the only three temples the Hindu samaj wants. Now that Ram temple project is over, we will start work on the second phase.” The samiti he claims to be representing is an umbrella organisation of ascetics of all hues from all over India, numbering 18.5 lakh.
Also read: Over to Kashi
Yet another outfit in Varanasi launched a movement called the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Mukti Andolan around the same time. It called upon Hindus in Varanasi to blow conch shells and chant ‘Har Har Mahadev’ from 8 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. on Shivratri (February 21, 2020) and then subsequently, on every Monday, while worshipping at any Siva temple.
While the Muslim community in Varanasi had reacted to these campaigns with amusement, the latest court order for the archaeological survey has caused consternation among its members. Zafaryab Jilani, counsel of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said: “All this looks like a planned, concerted effort to repeat what happened in Ayodhya. But unlike then, when we were not expecting those events to happen, this time the Muslim community is on guard. There are at least 1-1.5 lakh Muslims living around the mosque in Varanasi who will go all out to protect the mosque.”
According to him, all this was only to prepare the ground for the forthcoming electoral battles, first in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 and then the general election in 2024. He said: “They need some emotive issue like this so that they can skirt the crucial issues like development.”
In his opinion, given the fact that a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had upheld the Places of Worship Act while giving the Ayodhya judgment, the apex court ought to have taken suo motu notice of the Varanasi court order. “But can you expect that from the Supreme Court today?” he asked. His question is the answer to all those apprehensions the minority community is grappling with.
By stoking communal fires yet again, the BJP is playing a dangerous game.