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Home > 2022 > Gyanvapi, Mathura Idgah, Qutab - BJP agenda: Scrap PoW Act, 1991 | Faraz (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 23, New Delhi, May 28, 2022

Gyanvapi, Mathura Idgah, Qutab - BJP agenda: Scrap PoW Act, 1991 | Faraz Ahmad

Friday 27 May 2022, by Faraz Ahmad


The BJP has opened its cards for the coming polls, right up to the 2024 general elections—whip up a frenzy over Gyanvapi Masjid of Varanasi, Idgah in Mathura, even Qutub Minar in Delhi and a host of other historical monuments and thereby seek to scrap the Places of Worship (PoW) Act, 1991, which expressly forbids any alteration or claim on any place of worship other than those in whose care or possession it existed on 15 August, 1947, the day India achieved independence. The Act while leaving the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in Ayodhya untouched for it was already being contested in courts with the Sangh war: ‘Mandir wahin banayenge’ when this Act was passed, put a stop to any further claims on such historical monuments.

Notwithstanding the Act, a fresh controversy has now been raised staking claims by Hindutva forces on the 600 years old Gyanvapi Masjid adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir in Varanasi, through a petition by five Hindu women ‘devotees’ in the Varanasi court of Civil judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Divakar seeking unhindered access to the masjid to offer prayers. Admitting the petition, Judge Divakar ordered a survey inside the Masjid by a court appointed lawyer/Commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra, brushing aside the objections by the Masjid Intezamia (administration) that this is in contravention of the PoW Act. He not only ordered forcible conduct of Mishra’s a survey to ascertain whether there were any Mandir remnants in the mosque, brushing aside Masjid Intezamia’s objections that Mishra was biased against them but also made certain personal remarks from the bench which raised questions about his objectivity.

The Masjid Intezamia approached the Supreme Court against the Lower Court order citing the PoW Act. But strengthening the petitioner’s bid to circumvent the 1991 Act, a three-judge bench comprising of Justice D Y Chandrachud, Justice P S Narasimha, who had earlier appeared for the Ram Janmabhoomi party In the Babri Masjid case at one point of time, and Justice Surya Kant pronounced that ”ascertainment of the religious character of a place is not barred…by the Act,” thus opening the floodgates for all the Sangh affiliates to demand a probe to “ascertain the character” of any mosque, church or gurudwara or any other place of worship. Dismissing the plea the apex court sent the masjid party back to the District Court.

On the face of it, Judge Divakar’s survey order appeared clearly in contravention of the PoW Act which forbids raking up any issue regarding any place of worship existing on 15 August, 1947—making any claims upon, such a monument, seeking any alteration or removal in such a place of worship. This is a godsend to the RSS/BJP to make it an issue of campaign and communal polarisation for all the forthcoming elections right upto the general elections of 2024.

Mishra announced to the media of the existence of a ‘shivling’ in the Wazu Hauz (ablution pond) of Gyanvapi Masjid, which the Masjid intezamia described as a fountain through which water spouts into the Hauz. But dismissing the intezamia plea the District Judge ordered sealing of the area (meaning the Hauz). This, the Intezamia explained would directly affect their right to offer prayers in the mosque since ablution is a necessary pre condition for offering any namaz anytime.

The apex court made this small concession to the Muslim party as to allow them to offer prayers in the masjid while upholding the sealing of the wazu hauz. Thus now the Muslims can either offer namaz without the wazu or else do this at home before coming to the Masjid.

The BJP reacted positively to the court proceedings in the Gyanvapi case. While UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, himself a former office bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) an offshoot of the RSS, stated, “No matter how much you hide the truth, one day it will come to the fore because, Satya hi Shiv hai (truth is Shiva); Baba ki jai; Har, har Mahadev!’ Vinay Saharsbudhe another BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member reacted on similar lines saying, “Satya hi Shiv hai, Shiv hi sundar hai # (Gyanvapi). About the same time a similar plea has been made in a Mathura court claiming proprietary rights with Shri Krishna over the land on which the Idgah masjid is situated. Judge Rajeev Bhati admitted the petition ignoring the Pow Act holding that this was a land dispute. At least a dozen cases have been filed in Mathura courts by different petitioners. A common thread in all the petitions is for removal of the Shahi Idgah mosque from the 13.77 acre complex, which it shares with Katra Keshav Dev Mandir.

The Allahabad High Court is hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) by advocate Mehak Maheshwari demanding that the mosque be acquired by the government. Initially the PIL was dismissed by the High Court. But a bench comprising Justice Rajesh Bindal and Justice Prakash Padia, revived it.

Other affiliates of the Sangh have approached various courts laying claims to Qutub Minar and not to be left behind another petition came up in Allahabad High Court seeking unlocking 22 rooms in the Taj Mahal basement claiming that this too is a Hindu monument Tejo Mahalya. Allahabad High Court rejected this plea. But the other courts are freely admitting such petitions being filed it seems by interested parties to foment communal hysteria once more in the run up to the 2024 general elections. Except of course a lower court in Saket District Court in South Delhi where the counsel for the Archaeological Survey of India Subhash C Gupta mentioned that the Masjid Quwatul Islam, in the Qutab complex is protected by the ASI under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remnants (AMASR) Act, 1958. And ASI counsel pointed out that the “character of a place is determined on the date the monument comes under the purview of the AMASR Act. The character once frozen as that in the monument, cannot be changed.,” invoking a Delhi High Court ruling.

The Saket Court judge questioning the petitioners demanding turning the complex into a Mandir observed, “What is the legal right? Assuming it was invaded, demolished, some structure raised, let us assume it was not being used by Muslims. The important question is, can you now claim it to be restored under what basis? Now you want this monument to be turned into a temple, calling it restoration, my question is how would you claim that the plaintiffs have a legal right assuming it existed about 800 years back?”

But following the Supreme Court observation, the BJP plans for rubbishing the 1991 Act are slowly and determinedly unfolding, with the evident assistance of a section of the judiciary. A senior BJP leader opined immediately after the Supreme Court order of May 17 that the discovery of a ‘shivling’ in the Gyanvapi mosque has facilitated the imminent restoration of pooja inside the mosque. BJP leaders acknowledge that this might involve challenging the 1991 Act but claim that the finding of the ‘shivling’ in the mosque “changes everything”.

Such judicial pronouncements have put new spirit into RSS’ Hindutva forces. The other day RSS Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh (all India Publicity in charge) Sunil Ambekar said, “I believe the time has come to put historical facts in the right perspective before society, while speaking at an RSS event to felicitate journalists at their Devrishi Narad Patrakar Samman Sammelan. Ambekar also dismissed India’s syncretic Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb (culture) of Awadh saying, “People talk about the Ganga-Jamuna culture. True. But later it should become Ganga. Only then we can walk together, ” implicitly urging the minorities, nee Muslims to subsume their identity in the mainstream of Hindutva. The direction in which the Sangh Parivar with tacit support of the Prime Minister and his government are moving, reminds one of the second Sarsanghchalak of RSS Madhav Sadashiv, (nee Guru) Golwalkar and what he wrote in his book We, or Our Nationhood Defined about non Hindus, (read Muslims) “claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.” And here this entire controversy seeks to undermine the citizens’ rights of Muslims

Naturally guided by the Sangh, the BJP and other affiliates of RSS have started seeking scrapping of the POS Act, 1991. It makes political sense to them since Ram Janmabhoomi, Love Jihad, Gau hatya, triple talaq, Art 370, have all run their course and lost the novelty. BJP leaders have started conceding privately that “There could be demands for changes to the Places of Worship Act. Ultimately the law will have to be changed . It’s not an Act created by God. It’s by Parliament and it will become part of BJP’s agenda even if it does not want it,” said a senior BJP leader explaining “When the Act was made the reality was different. Now, with the new findings it’s going to change everything. Things will unfold in that direction.”

But with the Act leaving no ambiguity, what is in question in the current controversy is not merely the claims being made by a RSS/BJP inspired/prompted section of people attempts to appropriate or demolish all remnants of the medieval past. It all boils down to whether the Muslims (and later the number of other minorities may also come, but of that later) are equal citizens of this country as guaranteed by the Constitution of India, enunciated by its author Dr. B.R. Ambedkar or as Guru Golwalkar desired— living entirely on the mercy of the majority wishing nothing, seeking nothing, not even citizenship rights, except the glory of Hinduism.

Ashutosh Varshney, the Saul Goldman Professor of International Studies at Brown University, comparing India under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the current situation wrote, “Unlike then, India’s elections are now increasingly legitimising Hindu nationalism. And driven by such electoral fervour, India’s Parliament has enacted majoritarian laws such as the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), multiple state level laws and/or executive decrees banning beef eating and inter-faith marriages and altering historical Muslim names of towns and roads; BJP states are stopping Muslim girls from going to schools if they cover their heads…and BJP state governments, constitutionally responsible for law and order, look the other way when Hindu mobs attack minorities. Bulldozers have been used to demolish ‘illegal’ Muslims homes and businesses even though illegal constructions are (an activity) in which a lot of citizens participated, not simply Muslims,” said Varshney

He further said of the judiciary in India, “If it is serious about its Constitution-protecting role, the judiciary, should check the Hindu nationalist popular frenzy. But it does not even schedule hearings of any fundamental challenges to Hindu nationalist policies or legislation. For example, Article 370 and the CAA. It even approved conversion of a contested site in Ayodhya into a Hindu temple. It has now admitted petitions on the Gyanvapi mosque, and it is not clear which way it will go. The Places of Worship Act, 1991 made in accordance with the Constitution, clearly says that the status of a religious place cannot be altered beyond what it was at Independence. Judicial interpretation must follow the law, not faith.” Varshney concluded. But will it?

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