Mumbai: For as long as Aslam recalls, men from the Muslim community have been congregating inside the Jumma Masjid in Jalgaon’s Erandol Taluka five times a day to offer namaz. The 800-year-old structure is an important place of worship in northern Maharashtra and a property registered under the Waqf Board.
But it has suddenly become inaccessible to the community after the district collector passed an interim restraining order while hearing a complaint filed by a right-wing organisation. The collector issued an order under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, immediately banning prayers on the premises. In the order, the collector also directed police deployment in the area. The collector asked the tahsildar to take charge of the mosque, which he described as “disputed”.
While the collector’s interim restraining order and his power to pass it have been challenged before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court, Aslam, a member of the Jumma Masjid Trust, fears that the unprecedented order marks the beginning of the communalisation of a centuries-old mosque in the state.
The centuries-old mosque suddenly became a site of controversy because of a complaint filed by an unregistered organisation called “Pandavwada Sangharsh Samiti”. The complainant, Prasad Madhusudan Dandawate, moved a petition before the Jalgaon district collector Aman Mittal in mid-May. Dandawate, according to his Facebook profile, is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal. In his complaint, Dandawate claimed that the mosque was built over a Hindu place of worship and is illegal and should be taken over by the state authorities. The complainant also claims that the Jumma Masjid Trust has “illegally” encroached over the space.
The Jumma Masjid Trust members told The Wire that they were unaware of the claims made until they received a notice end of June. “By then, the collector had already been conducting hearings. In a restricted time, we were asked to defend our case. And on July 11, the collector simply passed a restraining order,” Aslam, one of the ad-hoc members of the trust committee, said.
Along with the mosque’s trust committee, the Waqf Board and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) too were issued notice by the collector. The ASI has supported the trust’s claims that it is an ancient structure. It said that since the time the ASI was involved in 1986, prayers have been offered inside the mosque premises. The ASI stated that the mosque has been an open and accessible space for the Muslim community for time immemorial.
The Waqf Board, citing the Waqf law, challenged the collector’s power to preside over the hearing of the complaint.
In its response, signed by Junaid Sayyad, the deputy chief executive officer (CEO) of the Waqf Board, the board points to the relevant sections of the law that bars any department other than the Waqf from looking at disputes arising out of titles and related property issues of those registered under the board.
‘Outside collector’s mandate’
Moin Tahsildar, the CEO of the board, told The Wire that the collector’s decision to issue a restraining order was clearly outside his mandate and it infringed on the legal jurisdiction of the Waqf tribunal. “The collector can interfere to the extent of handling the law-and-order aspects here; everything else is the Waqf board’s responsibility. The property has been registered with the board since 2009 and there is no ambiguity in that aspect,” Tahsildar clarified. He further added that the board, in its response to the collector, had clearly spelt out the legal position. “Yet, it was overlooked while issuing the restraining order,” Tahsildar added.
“We have challenged the interim order,” Tahsildar added. The hearing in the matter was scheduled for July 13 but later the collector deferred the hearing to July 18. The interim restraining order will continue until the next hearing date.
The Masjid Trust, meanwhile, has moved the high court with documents that are from pre-independence times – including court orders from time to time and those passed by the British Indian government. After the 1960s too, there has been periodic updation of documents and the mosque has been earmarked as an ancient monument, the petition mentions. The petitioners have also complained about the collector’s unwillingness to give them a fair hearing. “The learned Collector was not in a mood to hear anything from the petitioner and without giving any opportunity to the petitioner on 11.07.2023 the learned Collector, Jalgaon, passed an order under Section 144 and 145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” the petition alleges.