Court orders ASI panel to survey Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi

By, Hindustan Times, Varanasi
Apr 09, 2021 05:59 AM IST

Civil judge (senior division) Ashutosh Tiwari ordered a five-member committee, comprising two Hindu, two Muslim members and an archaeological expert, to oversee the “comprehensive physical survey”. A court-appointed observer will chair this panel.

A Varanasi court on Thursday ordered an archaeological survey of a centuries-old mosque complex abutting the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, saying the exercise is required to decide on pleas that allege the mosque was built by Mughal emperors after partially demolishing a Hindu shrine.

The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi(Shutterstock)
The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi(Shutterstock)

Civil judge (senior division) Ashutosh Tiwari ordered a five-member committee, comprising two Hindu, two Muslim members and an archaeological expert, to oversee the “comprehensive physical survey”. A court-appointed observer will chair this panel.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) will conduct the exercise at its expense without any media briefings, the judge ordered. The court fixed May 31 as the next date of hearing.

“This court finds that survey by ASI alone can bring truth of the matter before this court. Irrespective of what surfaces, the survey by ASI may go on to help not only to the plaintiffs, but also to the defendants, if their version is indeed true,” the order read.

Muslim parties opposed the decision and said they will approach the Allahabad high court.

The decision came on a clutch of petitions that claimed that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb demolished a portion of the Kashi Vishwanath temple to build the Gyanvapi Masjid in the 17th century, and demanded that the land on which the mosque stands be restored to Hindu parties.

The religious dispute – similar to the one in Ayodhya that was resolved in 2019– is decades old and first reached the courts in 1991, when local Hindu priests sought permission to worship in the mosque area. The hearing was later suspended by the Allahabad high court.

But the case gained steam in December 2019 when Vijay Shankar Rastogi filed an application in the civil court as the next friend of the presiding deity of the temple, Swayambhu Jyotirling Bhagwan Vishweshwar. Rastogi demanded that the mosque area be surveyed. Rastogi claimed in his petition that Mughal rulers had demolished a part of the temple and illegally built a mosque. In law, a next friend is a representative of someone incapable of maintaining a suit directly.

The petition came roughly a month after the Supreme Court paved the way for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, resolving a decades-old religious dispute at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site. “The survey will bring out facts that we have been saying for so long,” Rastogi said.

Abhay Nath Yadav, who represented the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board, expressed his dissatisfaction and said he would challenge the order in the Allahabad high court. Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which runs the Gyanvapi Masjid, also opposed the decision. “I am dissatisfied with the decision and will challenge it in the court,” said committee’s joint secretary SM Yasin.

The Gyanvapi mosque dispute, along with a similar row in Mathura, was a core part of the Hindutva agenda in the 1980s but largely petered out after 1991, when the then Narasimha Rao government passed a law freezing lawsuits to reclaim any place of worship after India was declared independent in 1947, except Ayodhya.

In effect, this meant that seers and Hindu activists put movements in Mathura and Varanasi on the backburner and focused their energies on the Ram Janmabhoomi. But ground mobilisation picked up in 2019 after the Supreme Court favoured the Hindu parties in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Last month, the top court agreed to review the 1991 law, boosting the hopes of Hindu activists.

The Sunni Central Waqf Board said that the case was barred under the 1991 law. “Even otherwise, we can say as per legal advice that the order of survey is questionable because technical evidence can only supplement certain foundational facts. No evidence has been produced before the court that suggests that there was a prior existing temple at the site of the mosque...this practice of mosques being ‘investigated’ by the ASI has to be stopped,” said said Zufar Ahmad Faruqi, chairman of the board.

In its order, the court said it was unable to determine whether the mosque was built illegally after partially demolishing a Hindu shrine. It held that revenue department records – which showed that a mosque stood on the site – was not enough.

The court said the five-member panel will find out if the mosque at the site was a superimposition, alteration or addition, and if a Hindu shrine ever existed before the mosque was built. During the survey, devotees shouldn’t be prevented from offering prayers and, if necessary, alternative places within the mosque premises should be provided. The work will be done under strict security and without media reporting.

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