The story so far: On May 16, a local court in Varanasi directed the district administration to seal the spot in the Gyanvapi Masjid complex where a “shivling” was reportedly found during a court-mandated videography survey. The three-day survey, conducted under tight security, had concluded in the morning.
The Supreme Court on May 13 had refused to grant an interim stay on the videography survey of the Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath temple complex in Varanasi, ordered by the local court. Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, however, had said on May 13 that the apex court would examine the documents in a plea requesting a halt to the videography, and later directed that the matter be listed before a Bench headed by Justice D.V. Chandrachud.
This developments comes after a Varanasi court ordered the survey commissioner to resume videography inside the Gyanvapi mosque, directing that the inspection of the complex be completed by Tuesday. The dispute stems from a case filed by five Hindu women in a Varanasi court, demanding access and the right to offer daily prayers at the Hindu site Maa Shringar Gauri located outside the western wall of the Gyanvapi mosque.
The historical claims surrounding the mosque
The Gyanvapi Masjid is located near the iconic Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi.
Some believe that the Kashi Vishwanath temple has gone through multiple reconstructions, with an older version of the temple where the Gyanvapi Mosque stands today. Some historians believe that Mughal ruler Aurangzeb built the Gyanvapi mosque in the 17th century by demolishing the temple.
Author-historian Audrey Truschke in her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, wrote: “My understanding is that the Gyanvapi masjid was indeed built during Aurangzeb’s reign. The masjid incorporates the old Viswanath temple structure—destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders—as its qibla wall (a significant wall facing the Maccah). While the mosque dates back to Aurangzeb’s period, we do not know who built it.”
On the other hand, architectural historian Madhuri Desai wrote that the Vishwanath temple was only built in 1776-77 and no temple building could be dated earlier than the sixteenth century, in an article published in the Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review. She wrote that the Vishwanath temple was built long after the Gyanvapi mosque, and stands adjacent to the latter.
When did the legal dispute begin?
The Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath dispute first reached the courts in 1991, when a petition sought the removal of the mosque from the site and the transfer of possession of the land to the Hindu community.
The petitioners, which included the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, claimed that Maharaja Vikramaditya had built the temple more than 2,000 years ago and that the mosque was only constructed in 1664 after Mughal ruler Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of the temple.
The petitioners alleged that the Gyanvapi mosque was built on a portion of the land using the ruins of the temple, saying that remains of the old temple could still be seen adjacent to the mosque.
The legal suit coincided with the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue in Ayodhya. Interestingly, the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi mosque complex featured as one of the three religious sites the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) wanted to “liberate” during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, along with Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura.
In 1998, the managing committee of the mosque filed an application before the court, demanding the dismissal of the Trust’s petition. Citing provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, the committee contended that a dispute involving religious sites could not be adjudicated as it was barred by the law. The lower court dismissed the application, following which the committee approached the High Court.
The committee also expressed to the Court that the temple and mosque had co-existed for a long time and that both the communities had been offering prayers in their respective shrines without any hindrance.
The Court stayed the proceedings and the legal battle remained dormant for more than 20 years before it was revived in 2019.
What is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?
In the wake of the Ram Mandir movement in Ayodhya, the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government enacted the Places of Worship Act in September 1991. Introduced to preserve communal harmony, the Act stated that the religious character of places of worship shall be maintained as it existed on August 15, 1947. The law kept the disputed structure at Ayodhya out of its ambit, largely because it was already a subject of litigation.
This Act was intended to pre-empt new claims by any group about the past status of any place of worship and attempts to reclaim the structures or the land on which they stood.
Section 4 of the Act provided that all pending cases related to claims over places of worship would come to an end, and no further proceedings could be filed.
Certain sites were exempted from the purview of this section, including ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains that are covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. It would also not apply to any suit that was settled before the 1991 Act came into force.
A fresh suit in 2019
In December 2019, a month after a Constitution Bench led by then-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi delivered its judgment in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute, allotting the disputed land for the construction of a temple, a fresh suit was filed in a local Varanasi court over the Gyanvapi-Vishwanath dispute.
One of the counsels in the Babri Masjid case, advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi, filed a plea as a “friend” of the Vishwanath temple deity Swayambhu Jyotirling Bhagwan Vishweshwar, seeking a survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque complex by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI).
The mosque’s management committee and the U.P. Sunni Waqf Board then appealed the lower court’s decision in the Allahabad High Court, which came down heavily on the local court for deciding on the application filed by the plaintiffs in the original (1991) suit when the judgment in it was reserved by the HC.
The High Court placed an interim stay on the local court’s proceedings and the ASI survey ordered by it. In April last year, the Varanasi court directed the ASI to survey the Gyanvapi Mosque compound adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple to find out whether it was a “superimposition, alteration or addition or there is structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any other religious structure”.
The current case
Adding another chapter to its long-drawn legal battle, a group of five women linked to right-wing group Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh filed a petition in April this year, demanding daily access to Maa Shringar Gauri sthal (holy site) in the Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath complex.
Submitting to the court that an image of goddess Shringar Gauri is present at the back of the western wall of the Gyanvapi Masjid, the petitioners sought permission to perform daily prayers and observe other rituals of “visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex” situated at settlement plot no. 9130 in the area of the ward and police station Dashwamedh.
Civil judge (senior division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar appointed an advocate commissioner, directing him to survey the site to assess where the Maa Shringar Gauri site was located and submit his report on May 10. The survey, however, was interrupted when the mosque’s management committee alleged that the court commissioner was biased and objected to the carrying out of a videographic survey inside the mosque.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Abhay Nath Yadav, the lawyer for the mosque, accused the advocate commissioner of going beyond the order of videography.
Mr. Yadav said during the survey, the commissioner demanded locks of the mosque barricades be opened for videography. He also alleged that the commissioner went on with the inspection without first identifying the disputed site.
Anjuman Intejamia Masajid joint secretary Sayid Yasin reiterated that the survey commissioner was not acting impartially. “When it was nowhere mentioned in the order [that the inspection team would enter the mosque], why insist on entering the mosque,” Mr. Yasin asked. Seeking clarification, the plaintiffs filed another application before the court to specify the areas of inspection along with the duration of the process.
The directions of the Varanasi court
The court, on May 12, rejected the mosque committee’s demand to replace advocate commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra, also giving its consent for videography inside the Gyanvapi mosque premises
Here’s what the court said:
1. The court asked the commission to complete its inspection and submit a report by May 17. It also appointed two additional advocate commissioners to assist Mr. Mishra in videography inside the complex.
2. The judge ordered that the process of inspection will continue daily from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. He also directed the Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police to supervise the process.
3. On the mosque committee’s submission that there was no need for videography inside the mosque since Maa Shringar Gauri site is outside the western wall of the mosque, as claimed by the petitioner, the court said the report will clarify the exact location of the Shringar Gauri. “If anyone creates any hindrance, like if there are locks at some places, then the district administration will have the full right to get the locks opened or broken for the commission’s action,” the court noted. The process of inspection will not be stopped under any condition whether any of the parties co-operate or not, the court stated.
4. The court directed officials to lodge an FIR against anyone who hinders the process of videography inside the complex.
Survey of the complex
After the SC refused to issue a stay on proceedings, the court-mandated survey continued at the Gyanwapi Masjid complex.
The survey was carried out amid tight security from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. Three court-appointed advocate commissioners, five lawyers each from the two sides and an assistant besides a videography team reportedly participated in the survey.
The survey report is expected to be presented to the court on May 17, as per the court-ordered timeline.