No Ganesh puja at Idgah, says SC amid high drama

Published on Aug 31, 2022 12:01 AM IST

The three-judge bench lent credence to the fact that no Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations have been held at the Idgah Maidan for last 200 years

HT Image
HT Image
By, New Delhi

Following a dramatic turn of events spanning over four hours across different benches, the Supreme Court on Tuesday restrained the Karnataka government from using Bengaluru’s Idgah Maidan for Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, asking the state to permit the religious event “elsewhere”.

A three-judge bench, which was constituted in less than 30 minutes after the two judges on the previous bench had a difference of opinion, ordered the state government to maintain status quo and sent the matter back to the high court for final adjudication at a later date.

Ganesh Chaturthi will be celebrated on Wednesday.

“The writ petition is pending before the single bench of high court and has been fixed for hearing on September 23. All questions/issues may be agitated in the high court. In the meanwhile, status quo, as of date, with regard to the land in question shall be maintained by both the parties,” the order by the bench of justices Indira Banerjee, Abhay S Oka and MM Sundresh said.

The three-judge bench lent credence to the fact that no Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations have been held at the Idgah Maidan for last 200 years, and therefore the state should not allow the conduct of the religious event until the issues relating to ownership and possession of the disputed site are finally decided.

“Why don’t you maintain status quo for a few days. You can hold Ganesh Puja elsewhere. Go back to the high court,” the bench told solicitor general Tushar Mehta and senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who represented the Karnataka government. The court turned down a proposal by the state to allow Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations for two days, starting Wednesday, for once and that other issues can be finally decided later.

The order was passed at 6.20pm — well past the normal working hours of the top court, occasioned by a dissent between justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia in the previous bench at 3.40pm, and a nod by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Uday Umesh Lalit at 4.12pm to set up the new three-judge bench to hear the case.

Separately, in Karnataka’s Hubballi, the Hubballi-Dharwad Municipal Corporation (HDMC) decided to allow the installation of Ganapati idol for three days at the Idagh Maidan in the city, setting up a similar dispute.

The matter reached the Karnataka high court after the Supreme Court’s order, but the appellate court did not announce a status quo of the nature announced in the Bengaluru case after stating that the circumstances were different in this case and the Idgah land was not under dispute per se. The court, therefore, allowed the Ganesh festival to continue at the Hubballi site.

The top court was hearing appeals filed by Central Muslim Association of Karnataka and the Karnataka State Board of Auqaf (Waqf) against an August 26 order by a division bench of the high court which said that religious and cultural activities can be allowed by the government on the two-acre land. This order negated a previous order by a single-judge bench, which directed that the Idgah Maidan can be used on certain days by Muslims for offering prayers and as a playground at other times.

When the appeals came up before the two-judge bench in the Supreme Court, the SG informed the court that the state government has permitted the conduct of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at the ground on Wednesday and Thursday.

Senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Dushyant Dave and Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the petitioners, vehemently opposed the state’s mandate, contending the waqf board has been in possession of the ground for 200 years and that no such religious event took place during this period.

This bench, however, could not issue an interim order since justices Gupta and Dhulia remained divided on whether or not to allow Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations for the time being. The matter was thus referred to the CJI for setting up a larger bench in view of the difference of opinion.

Sibal and Dave rushed to the first court, making a request before CJI Lalit to immediately form a three-judge bench since the matter could not brook delay at all. “Our petition will be rendered meaningless if it is not heard today. It is too serious a matter for the country,” Dave stressed.

It was 3.50pm. Justice Lalit took a 10-minute break to check whether the judges were available to hear the case, for the benches in the top court normally sit till 4pm. The CJI came back to inform the parties that he could manage to constitute a three-judge bench that would sit at 4.45pm to start the hearing.

Before the three-judge bench, Sibal and Dave pressed for a stay on the high court order, saying the Waqf board has an absolute right to administer its properties and any violation would also infringe Articles 25 and 26, which accord minorities the right to practice and profess their religion and manage the affairs of their institutions. “Don’t give an impression to religious minorities that their rights can be trampled,” Dave argued.

On behalf of the Karnataka government, Mehta and Rohatgi pointed out that neither the Waqf board nor the Bengaluru municipal corporation has been able to prove before any court their ownership right over the Idgah Maidan in favour, and therefore, the property delved upon the state government by the force of law (escheat). The lawyers also disputed that Waqf board has been in exclusive possession of the ground.

Mehta further made a proposal that the court may allow the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations for two days and rest of the legal issues can be decided later. “The state undertakes that there will not be any permanent structure at the site and we will also take care of law and order,” he added.

To this, Dave retorted: “Uttar Pradesh chief minister (Kalyan Singh) also gave an assurance to this court (in November 1991) but Babri Masjid was still demolished (in December 1992).”

At this point, the court asked the Karnataka government to “hold its horses” and maintain status quo on the disputed site. “Ganesh Puja was admittedly not done in last 200 years. Nobody is denying this fact,” it observed, and proceeded to pass the order of status quo.

The Idgah Maidan had been at the centre of a controversy with both the Waqf board and the city administrative body, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), claiming the ownership until it was declared to be the property of the revenue department earlier this month.

Hindu organisations have since been pushing for their festivals to be celebrated at the ground, seeking permission to hold the Ganesh Chaturthi festival there, especially after the August 26 order of the high court.

The order was also celebrated by BJP leaders, with BJP national general secretary CT Ravi tweeting on August 26: “I welcome the judgment of Karnataka high court to leave it to the discretion of the state government to decide about the Idgah Maidan in Chamarajpet, Bengaluru. Cultural & religious activities must be allowed on this land as per the desire expressed by citizens & organizations.”

On Saturday, chief minister Basavaraj Bommai had told news agency PTI that the state government will decide on implementing the court order after holding a meeting with the advocate general and the revenue minister. The state government order allowing the celebration was produced before the top court on Tuesday.

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