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New Delhi: Amidst the ongoing dispute surrounding the Gyanvapi mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, Hindu right-wing outfit the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has claimed that the mosque is actually a temple and that Hindus have always done ‘puja’ there.
The VHP claims that the Places of Worship Act, 1991 – on the basis of which the caretaker committee of the mosque has sought for the ongoing survey on the site to be halted – doesn’t apply to the case since it contends that no change in the status of the religious site is being sought.
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, says the religious character of place of worship will continue as it existed on on August 15, 1947, and:
“No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.”
The same act says “conversion, with its grammatical variations, includes alteration or change of whatever nature.”
The only exception to the Act had been the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled this case in favour of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, which got sole ownership of the land.
On May 16, the lawyer for the petitioners – five Hindu women who are seeking unrestricted access to the ‘Maa Shringar Gauri’ shrine, supposedly located within the mosque complex – claimed to have found a ‘shivling’ in a pond within the mosque premises. The pond is used by Muslim devotees to perform ‘wazu’ (ablutions).
The caretakers of the mosque, however, have contended that what was discovered was only a part of a stone fountain.
It is important to note that the discovery of the ‘shivling’ was not detailed in the official report that the survey committee has been tasked with producing (which is yet to be submitted to the court) but was told by the plaintiff’s lawyer to the Varanasi court of Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar.
Judge Diwarkar, however, passed an order on May 16 in which he said that the site where the supposed ‘shivling’ was discovered must be sealed and protected, and imposed sundry restrictions on access to the mosque.
The VHP’s claims
The right-wing group’s international working president, Alok Kumar, has used the supposed discovery of the ‘shivling’ to propound the claim that the mosque has, in reality, been a temple for decades.
“The place where the Shivling is, is a temple and it was one even in 1947. This has become self-evident,” the Hindu quoted him as saying.
VHP spokesperson Vinod Bansal echoed Kumar’s claims and thus contended that the Places of Worship Act should not apply in the present case.
“We clearly believe that the status of the mandir never changed. It is a different matter that sometimes puja was regular and at other times it was official,” Bansal was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Hindu Sena moves Supreme Court
Another hard-line Hindutva group, the Hindu Sena filed an intervention application before the Supreme Court seeking for the Masjid committee’s appeal to be dismissed.
However, the Sena’s claim was not the same as the VHP’s. The Sena’s application contends that the ‘Maa Shringar Gauri’ shrine, as well as the nearby Kashi Vishwanath temple, fall under the ambit of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
It further claimed that several Hindu temples have existed on the site in the past and have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years. That was until, as the application claims, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the temple in the 1600s to build the Gyanvapi mosque.
The case before the Supreme Court
The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid committee – the caretaker committee of Gyanvapi mosque – had moved the Supreme Court, challenging the decision of the Allahabad high court wherein it refused to stay the inspection and video survey of the mosque premises, order by the Varanasi court of Civil Judge Diwakar.
During the hearing in the top court on May 17, Huzefa Ahmadi, counsel for the Masjid committee, sought for a status quo – as it was before the petitioner’s suit was accepted – to be ordered. He cited the Places of Worship Act to contend that the order to survey the mosque and all subsequent orders in the case were bad in law and violative of previous judgements of the top court.
Ahmadi also took objection to how the discovery of the supposed ‘shivling’ was made known to the court; not through an official report but from the word of the petitioner’s lawyer.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state of Uttar Pradesh, asked the court not to immediately pass an order on the matter and sought time to get instructions.
The Supreme Court, however, passed an interim order wherein it directed the authorities to protect the ‘shivling’ and the site where it was discovered, but to do so without impeding the access to the mosque or the religious observances of the Muslim devotees.
While the bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and P.S. Narasimha used the blanket term “religious observances”, Ahmadi requested that the act of wazu be categorically mentioned, since the ‘shivling’ was supposedly found in a pond meant for that purpose.
Muslim groups allege conspiracy
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has junked the VHP’s and the Hindu Sena’s claims, holding that the Gyanvapi mosque has always been a mosque.
AIMPLB general secretary Khalid Saifullah Rahmani has called the Hindu groups’ contentions a “conspiracy” and, according to The Hindu, said that a court, in 1937, had said that the mosque in question belonged to the Muslim Waqf.
Further, S. Farman Naqvi, the Masjid committee’s counsel in the Allahabad high court, said that the discovery of the ‘shivling’ cannot be considered evidence as it was submitted by the lawyer for the Hindu petitioners.
“It is not evidence just because the applicant is interpreting it in some way. It is to be decided by the court,” the newspaper quoted Naqvi as saying.
Senior advocate Ahmadi, during the Supreme Court hearing, had made this point as well. Moreover, there was a reported argument between the two parties in court regarding the manner in which the findings of the video survey were made public, even though the official report has not yet been submitted.
Following the argument, the Varanasi court sacked the survey’s advocate commissioner, Ajay Kumar Mishra, for having hired the videographer who reportedly leaked the information to the press.
An extension was also granted by the Varanasi court to the survey committee to submit its report, which was due on May 17.
The next date for hearing in the Supreme Court has been set for May 19.