Gyanvapi mosque case to proceed, rules court

Updated on Sep 13, 2022 05:04 AM IST

A plea by five Hindu women seeking the right to pray daily to idols installed inside the Gyanvapi Masjid complex in Varanasi is not barred under existing laws and should be decided on merits, a district court held on Monday, setting the stage for a long and fractious legal fight in the communally sensitive case.

By, Varanasi

A plea by five Hindu women seeking the right to pray daily to idols installed inside the Gyanvapi Masjid complex in Varanasi is not barred under existing laws and should be decided on merits, a district court held on Monday, setting the stage for a long and fractious legal fight in the communally sensitive case.

Varanasi district judge AK Vishvesha dismissed the petition by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which controls the 17th century Gyanvapi mosque and argued that the Hindu women’s plea was not maintainable for being in contravention of the 1991 Places of Worship Act and two other laws.

“I have come to the conclusion that the suit of the plaintiffs is not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, the Waqf Act 1995 and the U.P. Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983 and the application 35C filed by the defendant no.4 is liable to be dismissed,” said the judge in a 26-page order.

Court dismisses mosque board's plea
Court dismisses mosque board's plea

The court held that right to worship is a civil right which falls under the jurisdiction of the civil court. It also emphasised that the Hindu plaintiffs were not seeking a title of the property or a declaration that the disputed property is a temple. “The plaintiffs are claiming only right to worship at disputed property,” it added.

The court fixed the next date of hearing for September 22, when the petition of the Hindu side will be taken up on its merits. “It’s a big day not only for us but also for all Kashi residents and sanatanis (traditionalists). We were hopeful that we will win. I am sure that people from the other community will take it sportingly,” said Rekha Pathak, one of the five petitioners.

The Muslim petitioners said they will likely approach the Allahabad high court. “There is always an option to move high court. Our team of lawyers will study the judgement first, especially the ground on which our plea was rejected, and then move high court, challenging the district court’s verdict,” said Mohammed Touhid Khan, one of the advocates representing the mosque committee.

Though the order on Monday only decided on the preliminary issue of maintainability of the petition, it sparked celebrations among Hindu groups. People distributed sweets, burst crackers and played drums on various roads and ghats in Varanasi. “The first hurdle has been crossed and now the court will hear the matter on its own merits,” said Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s working president, Alok Kumar.

This is only the first stage in the communally sensitive case, whose outcome may have deep reverberations in similar suits pending before local courts in Mathura and Agra. In all three cases, Hindu petitioners argue that medieval-era Islamic structures were built by demolishing temples and demand praying rights. The Muslim sides reject the contention and say that any such legal action violates property and religious laws, including the 1991 Act.

The Gyanvapi dispute dates back decades but in August last year, five women filed a petition in a local court demanding the right of unhindered worship at the Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal, located inside the 1.5acre complex that housed idols of Hindu gods Parvati, Hanuman, Kuber, Ganesha and Ganga. In April this year, the local court ordered a controversial survey of the complex, which quickly ran into protests. The survey was finally completed in May, but not before the Hindu side claimed that a shivling was found in the final hours of the exercise. The court clamped a security cordon around the entire complex even as the Muslim side argued that the structure found was a ceremonial ablution fountain. The leak of photos and videos of the survey also attracted the court’s ire, leading to the removal of the then commissioner.

The case finally reached the Supreme Court, which on May 20, transferred the suit from the Varanasi civil judge to the district judge and ordered the district judge to first decide on the maintainability of the suit filed by the Hindu women. The top court, however, refused to interfere with the case or entertain the petitions challenging the survey.

In its order, the district court rejected all three grounds raised by the mosque committee.

The first was the 1991 Places of Worship Act. The law, passed against the backdrop of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, locks the position or “religious identity” of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, and the Muslim side said it barred any legal attempt to reclaim title or other rights at the complex. But the court sided with the Hindu petitioners, who said that devotees were allowed to worship the idols between 1947 and 1993, when the state government abruptly restricted access and only allowed them to offer prayers on the fourth day of the Chaitra month. The court also held that the suit didn’t attempt to change the religious character of the place as it only dealt with the right to worship.

“According to plaintiffs, they worshipped Maa Sringar Gauri, Lord Hanuman at the disputed place regularly even after 15th August, 1947. Therefore, Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not operate as bar on the suit of the plaintiffs and the suit of plaintiffs is not barred by section 9 of the Act,” the judge wrote.

The second was the 1985 Waqf Act. The Muslim side argued that as the mosque was a Waqf property, any legal proceedings on it could only be decided by the Central Waqf Tribunal, Lucknow. But the court rejected this argument and said as the petitioners were not Muslim and the relief they sought – the right to pray daily at the spot – was not covered under the Waqf Act, the petition was not barred under the law. It also held that Hindu petitioners were not heard when the site was declared a Waqf property.

The third was the 1983 Sri Kashi Vishwanth Temple Act, which governs the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (that adjoins the Gyanvapi mosque and largely shares the same complex). The court said that it placed no bar on the worship of idols placed within the “endowments” of the temple complex. “It is clear that no bar has been imposed by the Act regarding a suit claiming right to worship idols installed in the endowment within the premises of the temple, or outside. Therefore, defendant failed to prove that the suit of the plaintiffs is barred by the UP Sri Kashi Vishwanth Temple Act, 1983,” the judge said.

Monday’s decision clears the decks for the case of the Hindu women to be heard. But every stage in the controversial case is likely to be challenged in the higher judiciary, even as the proceedings will garner nationwide attention, especially from some Hindu groups looking to renew their claims on Islamic sites. Not since the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid title suit, which was finally decided by the top court in a historic verdict in 2019, has a religious dispute attracted such controversy. On Monday, the government tightened security across the state, with heavy police deployment in Varanasi and state capital, Lucknow.

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    Oliver Fredrick is working in capacity of Senior Correspondent and is based in Lucknow. Other than covering important beats like Railways, Defense, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), District Administration, he loves to write on human interest stories as it gives an instant connect with the readers. In his career of around 10 years, he has done several path-breaking stories which had forced the State Government authorities to take appropriate actions. Prior coming to Lucknow, he was based in Bareilly and was taking care of politically-sensitive West UP districts like Rampur, Moradabad, Pilibhit, Badaun,Muzaffarnagar and others.

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