The Varanasi Civil Judge's order to the Archaeological Survey of India to ascertain whether the Gyanvapi Mosque compound, adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, was built over a demolished Hindu temple, is the latest, and immensely unsettling development in the incessant Hindutva campaign.
In the backdrop of the Supreme Court's November 2019 judgement that adjudicated the Ayodhya legal case in favour of representatives of the Hindu community, this direction of the local court is not just legally disputable, but also has the potential to open the floodgates for a fresh round of religious conflict.
The development will have a considerable impact on the political, as well as electoral discourse in the country in the period ahead. It has the capacity to put paid to efforts to secure closure of sorts to an immensely divisive dispute although the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, on different occasions, hinted that it was time move on.
Temple-Mosque Conflict Shall Continue Shaping National Agenda
Even sections among Muslims, who unenthusiastically and at considerable risk to their standing within the community had accepted the verdict in the hope that the construction of the Ram temple would mark an end to the decades-old campaign for restoration of Hindu places of worship. They are likely to face increased isolation within their community.
Those who had taken a step backward on Ayodhya while shedding assertiveness, and backed the acceptance of the alternate site on the outskirts of the temple-town to build an alternate mosque, will henceforth have self-doubts over their past prudence.
The latest legal development gives rise to fears that all allusions to put the past behind us, were but smokescreens and that the temple-mosque conflict shall continue shaping national agenda, albeit in new avatars.
It is worth recalling that since the mid-1980s when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched the nationwide campaign for a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, various leaders claimed that thousands of Hindu shrines were destroyed by Muslim rulers and these had to be 'restored' to Hindus.
The removal of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and Shahi Idgah in Mathura has been on the formal charter of Hindu nationalist organisations since 1949.
After the Varanasi court's directive, the long-raised slogan in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation echoes once again: yeh to bus jhanki hai, Mathura-Kashi baaki hai (this is merely a trailer, the battle for Mathura and Kashi are yet to be waged). But, several others among the agitators were not even satisfied with just these three shrines.
The Places of Worship Act: A Legislative Effort at Assuaging Sentiments of Hindus
In the absence of definitive studies, save by RSS-linked historians like Sita Ram Goel and the self-styled Hindu scholar from an earlier period, PN Oak, it became a free-for-all — some claimed three thousand temples were destroyed in medieval ages, while others asserted there were thirty thousand.
The much-contested Ayodhya verdict dismayed a significant section of people in the country because despite the five apex court judges unanimously terming the Babri Masjid's demolition as "an egregious violation of the rule of law", their judgement did not provide commensurate restitution to the Muslim community.
Yet, the flawed judgement also offered hope by laying down legal principles on lingering disputes raised over decades by affiliates of the RSS.
The Supreme Court's verdict raised hopes that future agitations, similar to the Ram temple campaign, would be stymied because the five judges declared that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 imposed a "positive obligation" on the government to "maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947 when India achieved independence from colonial rule".
The Places of Worship Act, enacted in 1991by the PV Narasimha Rao government after the Ram temple campaign picked up momentum, was a legislative effort at simultaneously assuaging sentiments of Hindus by keeping open the door for constructing the Ram temple at a later point, while reassuring Muslims that other places of worship, claimed by the Hindu fringe, would be safeguarded by the state.
This law was described by the five judges as "a legislative intervention, which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values". The court further added that this law was "intrinsically related to the obligations of a secular state" and that the Parliament, by passing the Places of Worship Act, "mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future".
These assurances, one can list several other passages in the voluminous judgement, however have been belied, and not just by the latest order of the Varanasi civil judge. A few weeks ago, a two-judge bench of the apex court bench comprising the Chief Justice of India, S A Bobde and Justice A S Bopanna, issued notice to the centre after admitting a Public Interest Litigation filed by a BJP-linked lawyer, challenging the constitutional validity of the Places of Worship Act.
This decision too, paradoxically barely a month prior to the CJI’s tenure ending, has the potential to reopen the chapter of decades of Hindu-Muslim.
Additionally, Justice Bobde was part of the 2019 bench and effectively, admitting this PIL tantamount to the raising questions on a judgement he endorsed.
Likely to Open the Pandora Box
If the court, after hearing various parties, indeed rules against the 1991 law, 15 August 1947 shall no longer remain the cut-off date for maintaining status quo of shrines. This would open the Pandora's Box as a large number of historical Islamic structures shall be claimed to have been raised after demolishing a pre-existing temple.
But, even before the apex court has begun hearing the challenge to the 1991 law, the Varanasi court's order disregards the 2019 Ayodhya judgement. Ironically, the judge, Ashutosh Tiwari, draws strength from that verdict but limits this to citing from it that archaeology is a credible "branch of knowledge" which "draws sustenance from science of learning".
This demonstrates, that the civil judge has treated the judgement of his seniors as a slave, just as history is often treated, merely by uni-dimensional representation.
The civil judge's order is also questionable because last month, the Allahabad High Court reserved orders on the maintainability of the suit filed by the Hindu side against the Gyanvapi Mosque.
A survey by the ASI would add fuel to the fire because the issue in Varanasi, and the Mathura shrine too, does not pertain to whether a temple exited prior to the construction of the mosques.
Instead, it is a matter related to its status being maintained as it was at the dawn of independence. Furthermore, in 1968 various parties disputing over the shrine complex in Mathura had reached an agreement and this governs the status quo under which ownership of the property vests with the Krishna Janmabhoomi Sanstha while management rights of the Shahi Idgah is with a committee formed for this. A former president of VHP, Vishnu Hari Dalmia was signatory to the settlement.
Several petitions have been filed in Mathura local courts. The Varanasi civil judge's order would provide impetus to courts hearing the Mathura case and further precipitate conflict between the two communities.
A plea is also pending against Lucknow's Teele Waali Masjid, claimed by pro-Hindutva groups as being built after destroying the so-claimed Laxman Teela.
Likewise, a Delhi court is hearing a claim that the Qutub Minar was originally a complex of twenty-seven "lofty" Hindu and Jain temples and these were destroyed in the 12th century.
Significantly, the VHP working president, Alok Kumar, said that no other issue barring the Ram temple is currently on its agenda. He elaborated that the demand for the 'removal' of the Gyanvapi Mosque shall not be taken till 2024, suggesting that this can be done at a later date.
A Fight for Secularism
The continued existence of the Places of Worship Act and its interpretation by the Supreme Court in 2019 remains the only legal bulwark to prevent Hindutva votaries from unceasingly seeking 'restoration' of one Hindu shrine after another and simultaneous demolition of Islamic structures on the same site.
The importance of the Places of Worship Act has been recognised by even acerbic communitarian Muslim leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi. He reminded Modi that he is "required by law to enforce the Places of Worship Act, 1991".
The UP Sunni Central Waqf Board has declared its intention to challenge the Varanasi order in the Allahabad High Court. The HC must consider the appeal in conjunction with the pending suit on which it has reserved orders besides the 1991 legislation.
Opposition parties too need to shed their fear of being seen as 'pro-minority' and take up the brief for the 1991 law and pressure both the government and SC to ensure that this law is not nullified.
It is no longer a fight to protect shrines, symbolic of India’s secularism. Rather, it is now a battle to safeguard the basic tenets of the Constitution.
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