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Plea to worship Hindu idols, survey row — the latest Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi legal tussle

The Print logo The Print 11-05-2022 Shikha Salaria

Varanasi: For the past several months, the Gyanvapi mosque complex in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi has been at the centre of another fiercely fought legal dispute. The issue, however, dates back several decades, to 1991, when a suit was filed in the courts seeking directions for the “temple land” to be handed over to the Hindu community.

The latest bone of contention is a survey and videography of the “Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal and other areas” within the mosque premises, ordered by a civil court in response to a petition filed last April by a group of women seeking permission to worship idols of Hindu deities situated on the outer wall of the Gyanvapi mosque. 

The survey took place last weekend, but was restricted to the outer compound of the complex, amid objections from the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, the panel that manages the Gyanvapi mosque. It was opposed to the survey team entering the mosque itself, and a barricading around it.

The Intezamia committee also moved the civil court Saturday, and sought replacement of the advocate commissioner on grounds that it had “doubts over his fairness”. The matter was heard Tuesday, and is likely to be heard Wednesday as well.

ThePrint takes a close look at the complex legal tussle, which has revived an old religious debate, and is fast snowballing into a political controversy.

Also Read: ‘Now they know how it feels’: Varanasi man plays Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeaker during azaan

The Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi complex

The Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi complex is home to the 18th century Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the 17th century Gyanvapi Mosque. 

According to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust website, the temple was constructed in 1780 by Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. The Gyanvapi mosque is believed to have been built in 1669 on the orders of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb after demolition of an old temple dedicated to Hindu god Shiva.

Historians’ accounts also state that several structural and architectural additions were made to the complex by other rulers, like Baiza Bai of Gwalior, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Raghuji Bhonsle III of Nagpur etc.

Some historians have said that the ‘Gyanvapi masjid’ now stands where the Vishweshwar Temple once stood, which was demolished by several invaders between 1194 CE and 1669 CE, and its western wall still has remains of the old temple.

Ajay Sharma, state president of the Kendriya Brahman Mahasabha, a body of Brahmin scholars, claims that the Vishweshwar Temple demolished by Aurangzeb was partially built by Raja Man Singh during Akbar’s rule, and the work was continued by Raja Todar Mal in the 16th century.

Litigation dating back to 1936, title dispute from 1991

The complex has been the subject of several rounds of litigation. The first one was filed in 1936 by three Muslims who demanded that the full complex be declared as part of the mosque. That petition was dismissed, and an appeal in the Allahabad High Court was also dismissed in 1942.

The first petition on the title dispute that was filed in a Varanasi civil court in 1991 had three plaintiffs — Pandit Somnath Vyas, who claimed to be a descendant of the priests of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sanskrit professor Dr Ramrang Sharma, and social worker Harihar Pandey. Advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi was their counsel.

The petition asked for the “temple land” be handed over to the Hindu community, and contended that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, doesn’t apply to it since the mosque was built on the remnants of the temple, parts of which still exist.

A Google Earth image of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi Mosque © Provided by The Print A Google Earth image of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi Mosque A Google Earth image of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi Mosque

The Act “prohibits conversion of any place of worship and provides for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

Speaking to ThePrint, advocate Rastogi said the civil court had decided the matter in favour of the Hindu petitioners, against which the Intezamia committee filed a civil revision petition in the court of the Additional District Judge I.

“The court disposed of the petition, directing that evidence be produced to ascertain the religious character of the complex, as to whether it was a temple or a masjid as on 15 August 1947,” he said.

However, the mosque committee and UP Sunni Central Board moved the Allahabad High Court, contending that the dispute cannot be adjudicated as it is barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

Rastogi said the high court stayed the proceedings of the trial court in that case, and the same is pending till now.

The current legal tussle

On 8 April 2021, Delhi-based Rakhi Singh, along with four other women — Manju Vyas, Sita Sahu, Lakshmi Devi and Rekha Pathak — backed by an organisation called the Vishwa Vaidik Sanatan Sangh, filed a petition in court seeking permission for daily worship of idols of Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesha, Lord Hanuman and Nandi, located on the outer wall of the Gyanvapi mosque. 

The senior division civil court of Varanasi then ordered that an archaeological survey of the premises be carried out, appointing an advocate as a court commissioner for inspection of the compound.

On 12 April this year, the mosque’s managing committee moved a petition before the Allahabad High Court, challenging the lower court’s order for inspection of the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi complex. The petition was, however, dismissed on 22 April.

Since the high court’s stay order in the trial court proceedings exceeded six months and the committee’s plea was dismissed, the court-appointed team led by the advocate commissioner Ajai Kumar went ahead with the survey on 6-7 May, Rastogi told ThePrint.

Survey stalled

When the team led Kumar attempted to enter the masjid and a barricaded area inside it on 6-7 May, they were stalled by a crowd.

Meanwhile, the Intezamia committee has alleged bias on the part of the advocate commissioner, and a “1992 security plan” as the basis of its objection.

“We will not allow them (advocate commissioner’s team) to enter the masjid and the barricading. If they want to do their survey outside, we have no objection. When it is well established that within the limits of barricading, only Muslims and security personnel can enter, then should that be done away with? We will not let anyone enter,” the Intezamia committee’s joint secretary Sayyad Mohammed Yaseen had told mediapersons Sunday. 

He also claimed that their side was not given a proper hearing during appointment of the court commissioner.

The bone of contention & the ‘1992 security plan’

While the court has ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque compound adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple to ascertain whether it was a “superimposition, alteration or addition or there is structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any other religious structure”, the mosque committee is firm that it will not allow anyone to enter the mosque and the survey should be restricted to the outer wall.

Several local residents of Varanasi ThePrint spoke to said that till the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, both Hindus and Muslims used to freely enter the complex without any security checks. 

Mahant Kulpati Tiwari, a former priest of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, told ThePrint: “After 1992, in line with the new security plan, Hindus were barred from entering the mosque premises.”

‘Mere politics, endless affair’

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, president of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a non-governmental organisation devoted to cleaning up the Ganga, said the controversy was “a needless and endless affair”.

Kashi ke kankar-kankar mein bhi Shiv hai (Shiv lives in every stone of Varanasi). Even if more excavations are carried out, you will find Shivlings everywhere, but then how far can you go? This is an endless affair… There are many important issues to be talked about but this is continuing due to vested interests,” he told ThePrint.

Ajay Sharma, state president of the Kendriya Brahman Mahasabha, who has written several Facebook posts criticising the “uprooting of old temples” during the construction of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor, told ThePrint: “Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal is located at the back side of the masjid at a platform near the wall of the ancient Vishweshwar Temple, which is still part of the masjid. The government has built a road along it. While earlier there used to be space for worship at the spot, now it has gotten crunched in the platform. Several idols inside the Vishwanath Temple were uprooted during the construction of the (Kashi Vishwanath) corridor, which is the real problem. The Sthal can be surveyed from outside.”

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

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