On June 11, the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh (VBPPM) moved the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Specifically, it seeks to declare section 4 of the Act unconstitutional. This has far reaching ramifications for several mosques across India, most notably the Gyan Vyapi mosque in Varanasi.
Therefore, the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), a Muslim NGO, has now, on June 13, moved the Supreme Court, asking for it to be made party to the case in a bid to foil the right-wing attempt to further divide the country along communal lines. Let us take a closer look at the case.
Places of Worship Act
It is Section 4 of the Act that is being challenged by the VBPPM. Here’s what it says.
Section 4 (1) states, “It is hereby declared that the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.”
Section 4 (2) states, “If, on the commencement of this Act, any suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, existing on the 15th day of August, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority, the same shall abate, and no suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to any such matter shall lie on or after such commencement in any court, tribunal or other authority: Provided that if any suit, appeal or other proceeding, instituted or filed on the ground that conversion has taken place in the religious character of any such place after the 15th day of August, 1947, is pending on the commencement of this Act, such suit, appeal or other proceeding shall be disposed of in accordance with the provisions of sub-section (1).”
In its petition, the VBPPM said, “Petitioners feel that Hindus should take legal remedy to restore the temples and religious places which were destroyed, damaged, desecrated, during foreign rule and at the same very place the followers of another faith have raised their religious construction and such action has to be remedied by the courts by applying appropriate law and Hindus should get justice from the tyranny of invaders. Since the impugned Act has taken away the right to approach the court and right to remedy has been completely locked, the petitioners feel their bounden duty to raise the issue under Article 32 of the Constitution of India as impugned Act is ultra virus (sic) to Article 14, 15, 25, 26 and 29(1) of the Constitution of India and also the against the principle of Secularism, held to be one of the basic feature of the Constitution of India.”
However, this petition has widespread ramifications for several mosques, including those in Varanasi, Mathura and other places across India. This prompted the JUH to move SC.
The petition moved by the JUH defends the Places of Worship Act saying, “The law speaks to our history and to the future of the nation. Cognizant as we are of our history and of the need for the nation to confront it, Independence was a watershed moment to heal the wounds of the past. Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands. In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”
The petition says, “Since the present Petition proceeds on the basis that the impugned provision, i.e., Section 4 of the Places of Worship Act, prevents members of the Hindu Community from reclaiming those places of worship, which according to the Petitioners were Hindu places of worship but were allegedly, converted by Muslim invaders, it is apparent that the present petition seeks to indirectly target places of worship which are presently of Muslim character. In such circumstances, this Hon’ble Court maybe pleased to implead the Applicant Organization in the present petition as the Applicant Organization wishes to put forth the views of the Muslim Community.”
The direction this case would take has wide-ranging ramifications for many mosques, the most notable being the Gyanvyapi mosque in Varanasi.
The Gyanvyapi Mosque case
The Gyanvyapi mosque that is adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple has been in the eye of the storm with many right-wing organisations keen to turn it into an Ayodhya like dispute. After the conclusion of the Ayodhya case, many whatsapp messages were reportedly circulated containing names of mosques that had allegedly encroached upon temple premises, Gyanvyapi was allegedly on the top of most lists.
The Varanasi based temple and mosque share a common wall. 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. This prompted the AIM to move HC against this decision. The HC then ordered that the stay be maintained and also invited members of the Bar to assist the court in the matter.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Waqf Board (SWB) had moved the Additional District Judge to be made party to the civil suit, a request that was turned down. This prompted them to also move Allahabad HC. In May this year the HC directed its registry to place two separate petitions related to the dispute, one by AIM and the other by the SWB, before an appropriate bench.