The Gyanvapi mosque complex is embroiled in a conflict that has yet again fuelled communal tensions in India. On Monday, September 12, the Varanasi District and Sessions Court rejected The Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Committee’s appeal evoking the 1991 Places of Worship Act against the civil petition filed by a group of five Hindu women.
This civil petition by these women sought permission to worship Hindu deities inside the grounds of the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The “Anjuman Intezamia Masajid” is the Muslim committee that manages the Gyanvapi mosque complex.
Brief History of the Gyanvapi Mosque Conflict
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque conflict began last year. In August 2021 a case was first registered and presented to the local court by five Hindu women. Then, in April 2022 the district court in Varanasi appointed an advocate commissioner namely Ajay Kumar Mishra to this case. In the same month, an important announcement was made by a civil court that affected the Hindu-Muslim tensions significantly. The announcement was a verdict that ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that inspection be done in the mosque. This inspection demanded a video survey of the Gyanvapi mosque be done.
One significant development happened on May 19 when this video survey was apparently “leaked” by the Hindu group. The controversial video apparently revealed a stone shaft that allegedly is a symbol of a Hindu deity, inside the mosque. However, even this claim has been refuted by many people. After that, the court sealed off a portion of the mosque without allowing the Intizamia committee to argue their case.
The Hindu group claimed the presence of a “shivling”, the holy Hindu artifact, inside the mosque. Simultaneously, after a petition by the Anjuman Iztizamiya Masajid, the supreme court was also looking into this case. The petition by the Intizamiya committee sought the intervention of the supreme court. The committee doubted the nature of the investigation being carried out by the district and civil court. The committee questioned the very basis of the petition.
The supreme court at that point in time didn’t comment much on the presence of a shivling inside the mosque. However, it did order that security is provided to the Muslim worshippers in the Gyanvapi mosque. At the same time, the supreme court also said that the district court may continue to address this issue. The case will now be heard on September 22.
Also, read What’s Happening to the Muslims of India?
Historical claims at the Gyanvapi Mosque Complex
Many Hindu petitioners claim that the Gyanvapi Mosque was made after Muslims demolished the historic Hindu temple Kashi Vishwanath. They also claim that it was under the orders of the Muslim Mughal emperor Aurangzeb that the temple was razed. Many Hindus still ascertain that the mosque is still the original sacred site of Hindu worship.
Along with the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple- Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Temple movement also sought to “liberate” the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque site and the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura. The Gyanvapi mosque is one of the three mosques that make up some catchphrases of the Hindutva. One of the popular ones is “Ayodhya toh jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai,“. The BJP and other Hindutva organizations in the 1980s popularised this slogan. The slogan reads, “Ayodhya is just a trailer; Kashi and Mathura are next.”
The Intizamiya Committee approached the court claiming the nature of the petition of the Hindu group is in itself questionable. The mosque’s management committee claimed that the mosque next was Waqf property. What serves as the foundation for the defense of the Muslim committee is the Places of Worship Act of 1991.
Places of Worship Act of 1991
The long title describes it as “An Act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
A place of worship belonging to any religious tradition cannot be converted entirely—or even partially—into a place of worship belonging to another tradition, or even into a different branch of the same tradition, as stated in Section 3 of the Act.
According to Section 4(1), a place of worship “must continue to have the same character as it was on August 15, 1947” in terms of its religious affiliation.
As per Section 4(2), any lawsuit or legal action related to the conversion of a place of worship that existed on August 15, 1947, and was pending before any court, shall be dropped, and no new lawsuit or legal action shall be brought.
Section 5 states that the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case and any related lawsuit, appeal, or action are exempt from the Act’s application.
The Ram Temple movement was at its height when the then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao introduced the Places of Worship Act. L. K. Advani’s rath yatra had increased communal tensions even before the extremist Hindutva mobs demolished the mosque. Attempting to avoid any further communal violence, the congress government passed the bill in the parliament.
What did the Courts say about the Places of Worship Act in its Varanasi judgment?
District Judge A K Vishvesha noted in his ruling that one of the defendant’s “principal contentions” was that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred under Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. The judgment did note that the plaintiffs claimed that “they were worshiping…at the disputed spot ceaselessly from a long time till 1993”. After 1993, they were only permitted to worship the aforementioned deities once a year under Uttar Pradesh’s regulated administration. Thus, according to the plaintiffs, they continued to frequently worship at the contested location even after 15 August 1947. “Therefore, The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, does not operate as a bar on the suit of plaintiffs, and the suit is not barred by…the Act”.
The constitutional validity of the 1991 Act was not under challenge. Nor had it been examined before the Supreme Court Bench that heard the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Even so, the court, while disagreeing with certain conclusions drawn by the Allahabad High Court, about the act made specific observations in its support.
Hindus and Muslims have prayed side by side in Varanasi. The heavily guarded structure serves as a reminder of this sight’s tense past. It is also a reminder of communal disputes and unrest in India. A country where Hindus make up the majority and Muslims constitute the largest religious minority.