The old case of Gyanvapi Mosque once again came into the limelight when, on May 13th, 2022, a local Varanasi court allowed for the continuation of a videography survey of the site. Three days later, on May 16th, 2022, reports came in that a ‘Shivling’ like structure was found at the center of the wazu khana or ablution tank located inside the Gyanvapi Mosque complex. Anjuman Intejamia Masajid, the body that manages the mosque, argued that the structure is part of a fountain inside the tank and not a ‘Shivling.’
The Gyanvapi case started way back in 1991 when the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi case was at its peak. Parallel to the Ayodhya dispute, some Hindu devotees in Varanasi filed a suit in the lower court of Varanasi, claiming that the Gyanvapi mosque complex houses idols of Hindu deities. Therefore, the complex should be handed over to the Hindus. The petitioners also demanded a right to worship at the site, and their final prayer was to put a permanent end to the Muslim occupation of the Gyanvapi mosque complex. But the issue went into the cold case files with the passing of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which stated that the character of a religious site would remain the same as it was on August 15th, 1947. Therefore, citing section 4 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the issue. Another petition was filed by Mr. Vijay Shankar Rastogi alleging that the mosque complex is only a part of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. Therefore, Hindus should be given possession of the complex. This petition is also pending before the court since 1991.
But recently, five women filed a petition in the court to seek permission for daily prayer at the Shrigar Gaurin Temple, which is claimed to be situated inside the mosque premises. The petitioners alleged that some 3-4 decades ago, such permission for worship was granted once a year. But now, they are seeking approval for daily prayer. Their claims are supported by local records of Varanasi, which showcase that such permission was, in fact, granted, albeit only once a year. To solve this issue, Varanasi civil court ordered a videography survey of the complex to be conducted by a committee headed by a court commissioner comprising some local lawyers and both Hindu and Muslim representatives. Muslim groups opposed this order in the Allahabad High Court, but the high court upheld the civil court’s ruling in its order dated April 21st, 2022.
The 135-hour court commissioner survey concluded on May 16th, 2022. The committee filed a report of its findings with the Varanasi Civil Court. Varanasi civil court ordered the district magistrate (DM) of Varanasi to seal off the ablution tank area and prohibited the entry of the public or, more specifically, local Muslim devotees inside the complex. Anjuman Intejamia Masajid challenged this order in the Supreme Court, stating that this order would infringe on their right to offer prayer in the mosque. Supreme Court bench comprising Justice D.V. Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha gave an ambiguous ruling while upholding the lower court’s order directing the DM of Varanasi to protect and seal the ablution tank area. But the Supreme court issued an additional direction stating that the protection of the tank site should be done without affecting the rights of Muslim devotees to offer their prayer. However, Muslim representatives argued that wazu khana is an essential part of the process of offering their namaz. Therefore, the direction by the apex court without providing an alternative to the ablution tank is, in effect, hampering them from offering their namaz and infringing on their fundamental right under article 25 of the Constitution of India.
The Anjuman Intejamia Masajid also pleaded for a stay on the district court proceedings on this issue, which the apex court rejected. The court also issued a notice to the Hindu petitioners and the UP government to present their submissions regarding the plea of the Anjuman Intejamia Masajid challenging the order of the Varanasi district court for a videography survey of the mosque complex. The court will weigh in on these submissions in the hearing scheduled for May 19, 2022.
Author’s Name: Manav (NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)