Just three months after a Varanasi court permitted a survey of the Gyan Vapi Mosque – Kashi Vishwanath Temple complex by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the committee that runs the mosque, has handed over a piece of land to the trust that runs the temple for a temple corridor project.
Speaking to SabrangIndia, S M Yasin, general secretary of the Anjuman Intizamiya Masjid (AIM) said, “The piece of land (plot no. 8276) that we have given the temple trust was originally owned by the UP Sunni Central Waqf Board and was one of the three plots under the AIM. It measures approximately 1,700 sq feet and is located at a distance of 15 meters from the mosque.”
He further explained, “We had originally handed over this plot on lease to the administration in 1993 to build a police booth after the Babri Masjid demolition. But now that booth has been demolished for the temple corridor project.” In exchange for this piece of land, the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust (KVMT) that runs the temple has handed over a piece of land measuring 1,000 sq ft to the mosque. “This was an amicable exchange. We accepted a smaller piece of land as it is a commercial property and has equal value,” he clarified.
Previously, Sunil Verma, who is the CEO of KVMT had also clarified the nature of the exchange to the Indian Express saying, “Because this land could not be bought as it is Waqf property, we exchanged it, which was done on the basis of value. The land handed over to the mosque was under the control of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Special Area Development Board till now.”
However, SM Yasin rubbished media reports of another piece of land to be handed over to the temple. “The other two plots are the one on which the mosque stands (plot no. 9131) and one on which there is a common passageway (plot no. 8263),” Yasin told SabrangIndia. “A newspaper, without even speaking to us published a story saying that we are in talks with the temple trust to also give them plot no. 8263. This is not true,” clarified Yasin adding, “We wonder what their objective was for publishing this news item.”
Unverified news about a sensitive matter related to land upon which two religious structures of two different communities stand, can cause unnecessary panic and even communal conflagration.
The land exchange is also significant given that a court is hearing the land dispute case between the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Gyan Vapi mosque. The Allahabad High Court had reserved judgment in the matter earlier this year, and now Yasin hopes that the matter can be finally put to rest at the next hearing on August 2, 2021 when the judgment is expected.
Brief background of the dispute
It is alleged that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had razed the temple in 1664 and the mosque was built on its ruins using the temple’s debris. Hostilities simmered over time and the dispute went to court when the title suit was filed in 1991. The two parties in this case were Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust (KVMT) and the Anjuman Intazamia Masjid (AIM). But back then, the Allahabad High Court had imposed a temporary stay on hearings in the case via an order dated October 13, 1998.
However, on February 4, 2020, a local court decided to commence hearings in the case stating that the HC’s order had not been extended within six months with a separate order, and that therefore the stay was deemed to have been vacated. In March 2020, the Allahabad High Court had stayed the Varanasi court’s order to commence hearing and ordered that the stay be maintained.
Multiple petitions filed
It may be recalled that on February 18, 2021, a suit seeking “restoration of performance of rituals at the principal seat of an Ancient Temple at the Gyan Vapi mosque area” was filed before a district court. The suit stated that every citizen has a fundamental right to perform pooja, worship and rituals according to the tenets of his religion within the ambit of Article 25 and any obstacle created before January 26, 1950 has become null and void by virtue of Article 13(1). The plea stated, “An idol worshipper cannot complete his pooja and gain spiritual advantages without having objects of worship. Any hindrance/ obstacle created in performance of pooja, is denial of right to religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution of India”. This suit has been filed by ten individuals acting as next friends of deities claimed to be existing in the mosque precincts including Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh and Lord Shiva.
It is also noteworthy that on March 11, the court of Civil Judge (Senior Division) Kumud Lata Tripathi had issued notice to Central government, UP government, Varanasi District Magistrate, Senior Superintendent of Police, Varanasi, UP Muslim Personal Law Board, mosque management- Anjuman Intazamia and Board of trustees of Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The court had also fixed April 2 as the date for filing written statements and April 9 for framing of issues.
Meanwhile, on March 13, BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991 as it bars remedies against illegal encroachment on the places of worship and pilgrimages prior to August 15, 1947.
According to Section 3 of the Places of Worship Act, “No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.”
The petition by Upadhyay asserts that the law has created an arbitrary, irrational retrospective cut-off date and in the process has legalised the illegal acts of invaders who encroached upon religious institutions back in the day. The plea submits that the provisions of the law, particularly, section 2,3 and 4 take away rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs to reclaim their places of worship through Courts. A bench of CJI SA Bode and Justice AS Bopanna issued notice to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Culture.
Then on March 18, the court of Civil Judge (Senior Division) Mahendra Kumar Singh admitted a new petition related to the case. The new plea demands that an area of the Adi Vishweshwar temple, that is currently deemed ‘occupied’ by the petitioner, be freed, and that the portion of the temple that was demolished on the instructions of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, be rebuilt. The court then issued notice to the Union of India, Uttar Pradesh Government, the district administration, Varanasi SSP, UP Sunni Central Waqf Board, Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee and Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust making them respondents in the case.
Permission for ASI survey
On April 8, 2021, a Varanasi civil judge (senior division) Ashutosh Tiwari allowed ASI to conduct a survey, the cost of which is to be borne by the Uttar Pradesh government. The order was passed in connection with a plea filed by local lawyer VS Rastogi in December 2019, who demanded that the land upon which the mosque was constructed be returned to Hindus.
The permission for an ASI survey brought back memories of a similar survey that was carried out in connection with the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. Speaking to SabrangIndia, AIM general secretary SM Yasin had at that time said, “The Allahabad High Court had given a stay order, meaning a hearing could not be conducted in the case. But the lower court still conducted hearings in the case. The judge also shot down our request for the case to be presented before the Waqf tribunal.”
“Between January 18 and March 12 arguments were on in the High Court in connection with the stay order case by all parties including the Sunni Central Board and the Anjuman Intazamia Masjid. The judgment was reserved and was expected after April 5, but there was a lockdown due to Covid,” he explained. “On April 6, we moved another application before the High Court requesting that the lower court be restrained from delivering any order in the case while the High Court judgement remained reserved and this application was to be heard on April 9. But the hearing could not take place, perhaps due to Covid. Meanwhile, the lower court went ahead and passed its order,” he said.
The Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board then moved an urgent petition before the Allahabad High Court against the order of the trial court. The Waqf Board’s counsel Puneet Kumar Gupta argued that the trial court passed the order illegally and without its jurisdiction as the matter is in the High Court and Justice Prakash Pandia reserved its order on March 15.
Another application has been moved by Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Varanasi contending that the Civil Judge acted in the “most arbitrary manner” while passing the order to allow the ASI for undertaking a survey at the disputed site and has acted against the spirit of judicial discipline. The application states that by passing orders despite the High Court reserving judgment in the case, the lower court acted “against the spirit of complete justice as well as the challenge to the entire suit proceeding and its authenticity.”
The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on August 2, 2021 at the Allahabad High Court.