Mathura throws up larger issues
The survey of the Shahi Eidgah mosque shows such disputes will simmer until the top court weighs in on the Places of Worship Act
In a virtual replay of events from Varanasi in 2021, a court in Mathura last week ordered a survey of the Shahi Eidgah complex, which abuts the Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple. The order by the civil court came on a petition filed by members of a Right-wing organisation who sought the shifting of the mosque complex and claimed it was constructed after the partial demolition of a temple during the Mughal rule. The controversial order — which is set to be challenged before the district court — brings back memories from the summer of 2021 when a local court in Varanasi had ordered a similar survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex in a similar dispute, where five Hindu women wanted the rights to daily worship idols that they claimed were installed within the mosque complex. The survey stoked communal tensions in the area, and the regular leaks of photos and videos from the exercise further vitiated the already delicate social fabric. The Supreme Court had to step in and clamp the status quo after Hindu groups claimed that a “shivling” was discovered on the final day of the survey (Muslim petitioners say the structure is part of a ritual ablution fountain).
The Mathura order marks a crucial turn in what has come to be seen as the new temple movement, where some Hindu groups have turned to the courts to claim worshipping rights at Islamic holy sites, instead of street mobilisation, the preferred route of agitation in the turbulent 1990s, the heyday of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. This is why the authorities must remain alert, not allow any of the slips that ratcheted up animosities during the Varanasi survey, and not allow either party involved to indulge in sensationalism or sectarian rhetoric.
Ultimately, the resolution of such disputes will come down to the interpretation of the 1991 Places of Worship Act. The law — which barred any change in the religious character of a holy site after August 15, 1947 — was aimed to forestall religious disputes from assuming the proportion of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid one, which simmered on for decades and wreaked havoc across India before the apex court resolved it in 2019. But, as the flurry of litigation around identical disputes in Mathura and Varanasi shows, the law appears to be failing to act as a guardrail, and, therefore, the top court should consider weighing in on the issue and also ask the government to clear its stand. This will not only strike at the heart of the new temple disputes but also guide subordinate judiciary in deciding similar issues expeditiously.