Guest post by Pallavi Mohan
A District Judge in Varanasi is currently hearing the petitions about the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. Let’s see what the controversy is all about.
What is the history behind the Gyanvapi mosque case?
In 1991, local priests in Varanasi filed a title suit (a suit declaring a person’s ownership of a property) in the civil court, claiming that the Gyanvapi Mosque had been built at the site of a demolished ancient temple. They demanded that they be allowed to worship there. The civil court dismissed the suit in 1997, because of the law outlined in the Places of Worship Act, 1991. This Act bars the filing of a suit or initiation of any legal proceeding for the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, as it existed on August 15, 1947. The priests challenged this dismissal, and the higher court restored it to be heard again on whether it is maintainable.
In 2022, three other title suits were filed in the Varanasi civil court – one by a group of five women demanding that they be allowed to worship all year round at a shrine of a goddess at one end of the Gyanvapi Mosque complex.
What does the ‘Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991’ say exactly?
This Act intends to retain ‘religious places of worship’ as they were on August 15, 1947. It explicitly bars the filing of a suit or initiation of any legal proceeding for the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947.
However, the Act exempts Ram Janma Bhumi Babri Masjid at Ayodhya from this bar.
The District Judge hearing the title suits will also have to decide whether allowing the “videographic survey” of the mosque complex would itself be in conflict with the provisions of the Act.
What is the current controversy about?
In April 2022, the Varanasi civil court appointed three advocate commissioners, along with the lawyers of the parties, to conduct a video graphics survey of the site. The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee (the committee that manages the Gyanvapi Masjid) challenged the order directing the survey in an appeal. The Allahabad High Court dismissed the appeal on 21 April 2022 and the survey started on 6 May 2022.
The Varanasi Civil Court on 16 May 2022 passed an order stating that in the survey, a Shivalinga had been found in the Masjid Complex. It directed the police to seal the area where the Shivalinga was found and to restrict the number of Muslims praying in the mosque.
What is the Supreme Court’s role in the entire proceedings?
The Masjid Committee appealed against the Allahabad High Court’s dismissal before the Supreme Court. On 17 May 2022, the Supreme Court heard the appeal and directed that the area where the Shivalinga was found would be protected, but it should not affect the access of Muslims to the mosque or the offering of prayers at the mosque. The Court directed parties to maintain this position until it had finally heard the appeal.
On 20 May 2022, the Supreme Court transferred the Gyanvapi title suits from the Varanasi Civil Judge (Senior Division) to the District Judge on account of the sensitivity of the matter. The court also said that its earlier order, which protected the Shivalinga but allowed access to Muslims to the mosque, would continue until the maintainability of the suit was decided by the District Judge.
What is the status of the case before the District Judge?
The District Judge is currently hearing the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee’s plea on the non-maintainability of the title suits. The hearing will continue on 30 May 2022.