Kashi Gyanvapi mosque

Gyanvapi order could keep BJP's communal cauldron boiling till 2024

It may still be a long time before the Gyanvapi Mosque suit reaches final legal closure but a Varanasi court’s decision of September 12 upholding the maintainability of pleas by Hindu parties in the case could have far-reaching political ramifications.

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It may still be a long time before the Gyanvapi Mosque suit reaches final legal closure but a Varanasi court’s decision of September 12 upholding the maintainability of pleas by Hindu parties in the case could have far-reaching political ramifications.

The Varanasi court’s order comes at a time when renascent demands are being made by the Hindu right, backed by prominent BJP leaders, to “reclaim” several Islamic religious sites – particularly Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Mosque and Mathura’s Shahi Idgah – on grounds that each of them were built by Mughal rulers after demolishing ancient Hindu temples.

Significantly, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act that was enacted by Parliament in 1991 with the specific purpose of preventing such legal suits or demands against historic religious structures – with the exception of the now settled Ram Janmbhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit – is presently under challenge before the Supreme Court.

The fact that a court has allowed pleas which, as per several legal luminaries, fly in the face of the PoW Act, 1991 that grants protection to religious monuments against any change in their character as it existed on or before August 15, 1947, could open the floodgates for similar cases being filed against other historic Islamic monuments. Attempts by members associated with the Hindu right and RSS affiliates have been afoot to claim ownership for the Hindus over Mathura’s Shahi Idgah on grounds that it is built on the birthplace of Lord Krishna. A petition in this regard is pending adjudication before a Mathura court.

The Varanasi court’s order effectively paves the way for a legal battle to settle the question of whether or not the five Hindu petitioners – Lakshmi Devi, Manju Vyas, Sita Sahu, Rakhi Singh and Rekha Pathak – can be granted uninterrupted access to offer prayers and perform Hindu religious rituals inside the Gyanvapi Mosque. Currently, Hindus are allowed access to the site in question once a year to offer prayers on the on the fourth day of the chaitra navratri in April.

As such, at least in theory, there is a major difference in the current case from the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Unlike the Ayodhya case, the five petitioners in the instant Varanasi case are not demanding that the mosque be handed over to the Hindu parties or that Gyanvapi’s character of a Hindu temple allegedly built over 2000 year ago be restored in its entirety. Instead, the appeal is to allow the five women – and Hindus, at large – unimpeded access to the mosque to perform Hindu religious rituals and prayers round the year. However, in practice, what the fate of the Gyanvapi Mosque would be if the final judgment comes in favour of the Hindu parties is not too difficult to imagine.

Also read: REPLUG: Legal tangle over Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque explained

Besides, in a political landscape deeply divided by communal polarisation and the ruling BJP eager to stoke the fires further for electoral gains, the subtle legal difference between the Varanasi and Ayodhya cases is likely to be lost on the ever-increasing cheerleaders of the Hindu right. It is pertinent to recall that reclaiming the Gyanvapi and Shahi Idgah – among sundry other Islamic sites – for the Hindus has been a stated plank of the RSS-BJP combine for a long time.

During the BJP’s poll campaign for the UP assembly polls held earlier this year, deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya had averred to the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the redevelopment of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir in Varanasi and said, “Ayodhya-Kashi jaari hai, Mathura ki tayyari hai” (preparations are on for Mathura while work is underway in Ayodhya and Kashi).

The Varanasi court’s decision has triggered a tsunami of similar comments amid jubilation within BJP and the overarching Hindu right that already projected the court order as a “victory for Hindus”. Soon after the court upheld the maintainability of pleas by the five Hindu women, Maurya put out a pinned tweet that read “karvat leti Mathura, Kashi” (things are turning in Mathura and Kashi).

Former Union minister Uma Bharti, a leading figure of BJP veteran LK Advani’s brigade that provoked rabid Hindus during the Ram Janmbhoomi movement, which culminated with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, also welcomed the Varanasi court’s order. “I have always held that Hindus will not live peacefully till the time they get control of and can worship at all the three places – Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi. I pray that the courts will rule in our favour in Mathura and Kashi just as the SC did in the Ayodhya case because the structures that currently exist (Gyanvapi and Shahi Idgah) remind Hindus of how Muslim invaders destroyed our temples and oppressed us,” Bharti told The Federal.

Bharti added that she was “confident that if Muslims gave up their wrongful claim on Shringar Gauri Gyanvapi and Krishna Janmbhoomi, then Hindus will be so happy that they will offer to protect all other Muslim sites from any further problems because ultimately, unlike Muslims who are radical fundamentalists, Hindus are tolerant and forgiving; they do not want conflict.”

The Varanasi court’s order puts the so-called secular parties, including the Congress, in a quandary as they know well that criticising it, even on the basis of legal arguments, will give the BJP a handle to dub them as anti-Hindu.

Also read: What Mahatma Gandhi said on Aurangzeb, and how it matters now

The Congress, which opened this Pandora’s Box of communal polarisation with Rajiv Gandhi allowing opening of the locks to the disputed site in Ayodhya in 1986 and later performing the shilanyas (ground-breaking ceremony) for a Ram Mandir to appease hardline Hindus, is presently pontificating on the need for rebuilding communal harmony through Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Grand Old Party, already besieged by an existential crisis in wake of an unending drought of electoral victories and a corresponding glut of internal turmoil, is being cautious in reacting to the Varanasi order.

A senior Congress spokesperson told The Federal, on condition of anonymity, “as far as the constitutionality of the PoW Act is concerned, P. Chidambaram, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and others have repeatedly said that the safeguards given to religious sites under the Act are sacrosanct and should not be altered in the interest of maintaining peace and harmony… this position also articulates our view on the Gyanvapi matter because it’s a site that has protection under the 1991 Act but now that a court has upheld the maintainability of petitions filed by certain people, we have to wait and see how this case progresses. The SC is also scheduled to hear challenges to the constitutionality of the PoW Act; we should not pre-empt what may or may not happen; we will wait for judicial closure.”

A section of Congress leaders is also wary of how Rahul, with his proclivity for tying himself in knots while responding to tricky political questions, may react if quizzed by the media on the Varanasi court order. “Rahul will address the press regularly during the Bharat Jodo Yatra and it’s obvious that he will be asked about this case. For him, it is a tightrope walk – the message of communal harmony is a major component of the yatra while the Gyanvapi case and the challenge to the PoW Act are intrinsically divisive. Rahul often speaks bluntly on such matters based on his beliefs and he doesn’t care about how the BJP will twist his words or spin them to present a false narrative. We saw this happening when he met a Christian priest during the Tamil Nadu stretch of the yatra. We can only hope he doesn’t end up saying something that will give the BJP more fodder to attack us,” a party MP said.

That the Gyanvapi case has already become a matter of communal jousting was evident in the way BJP leaders went euphoric over the court order and how AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) reacted to it.

The AIMPLB dubbed the Varanasi court’s order as “disappointing and hurtful”. Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, general secretary of the AIMPLB told The Federal that at least as of now the PoW Act, 1991 is still in effect and so, Gyanvapi should have been protected as per its provisions. “It is unfortunate that the court has upheld the maintainability of petitions filed by people who want to spread hate and divide the country even though these petitions go against the spirit of the PoW Act and the SC’s assertion in the Ayodhya judgment that the 1991 Act gives protection to all monuments that existed prior to August 15,1947 against any attempt to change their character. Such orders erode the confidence that the minority communities have in the country’s judicial system,” Rahmani said.

Owaisi echoed similar views and told reporters that he could foresee “a new cycle of litigation” that will “render the 1991 Act useless and we will be pushed back to the 1980s and 1990s, which will have a destabilising effect on the country”. The Hyderabad MP added, “We’re going on the same path as that of the Babri Masjid issue. When the Babri Masjid judgment was given, I warned everyone that this will create problems in the country as this judgement was given on the basis of faith but even that judgment had said that the 1991 Act applies to all other religious monuments that existed on August 15, 1947. After this order, what is the point of the 1991 Act… The court should not have opened this door; it should have nipped this in the bud.”

The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, the Muslim respondent for the Gyanvapi Mosque, has decided to challenge the Varanasi court order in the Allahabad High Court. Irrespective of how that appeal pans out in court, it is evident that the communal polarisation that the Gyanvapi case was expected to trigger has already begun. So have the Hindu right’s plans of raking up similar disputes, starting with Mathura’s Shashi Idgah, well in time to give the BJP its Mandir-Masjid pitch ahead of a packed electoral calendar that will feature a bunch of crucial assembly polls – Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh – and ultimately the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

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