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SC notice renews debate over holy sites in Varanasi, Mathura

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In April 1984, 558 Hindu seers from across India joined forces with leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) at the first Dharm Sansad, or religious Parliament, in the heart of Delhi. Among their main resolutions was a nationwide call to press for the “return” of the holy shrines of Varanasi, Mathura and Ayodhya to the Hindus.

As the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gained strength in north India through the 1980s, so did the campaign to remove Muslim religious structures in Mathura, considered by many as the birthplace of Hindu god Krishna, and Varanasi, where the Kashi Vishwanath temple dedicated to Hindu god Shiva stood. In Mathura, the Shahi Eidgah was adjacent to the Krishna temple and in Varanasi, the Gyanvapi mosque shared space with the Vishwanath shrine complex.

But in 1991, with mobilisation growing in Ayodhya and the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute gaining enormous political traction, the then Narasimha Rao government passed a law freezing lawsuits to reclaim any place of worship after India was declared independent, except Ayodhya.

In effect, this meant that the movements in Mathura and Varanasi petered out, and seers and Hindu activists focused their energies on the Ram Janmabhoomi. At the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party opposed the law.

Now, with the Supreme Court agreeing to review the 1991 Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, advocates and Hindu seers at Varanasi and Mathura say their claims — currently in litigation in lower courts across Uttar Pradesh — have been boosted. Muslim groups have expressed concern and pointed out that unlike Ayodhya — where a makeshift temple was erected for Hindu god Ram — grand temples already exist in Varanasi and Mathura.

“We welcome the news of the Supreme Court agreeing to examine the law. We have the registration papers of the property. It’s a confirmed property of Hindus,” said Mahendra Kumar, one of the advocates in the Mathura case.

Last Friday, a bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde and justice AS Bopanna sought the response of three Union ministries, home, law and justice, and culture, on a plea filed by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay against the law that fixed the “character” of all places of worship prevailing as on August 15, 1947, except Ram Janmabhoomi.

The petition challenged the provisions of the 1991 Act on the ground that it barred Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists from restoring their places of worship and pilgrimage and placed an arbitrary cut-off date by which the “illegal barbarian acts of invaders” were allowed to continue in perpetuity.

Vijay Shankar Rastogi, the main advocate in the Varanasi case, also welcomed the top court’s decision and said the 1991 law violated Article 14, 21 and 27 of the Indian Constitution that provided for equality before law, right to life and personal liberty.

But he added that the law didn’t apply to the Kashi Vishwanath temple case. “We are not changing the religious character of the place. Any structural change cannot alter the character of the religious place. In Kashi, the walls of first floor were demolished. Also, the deity has not been installed by anyone but the Jyotirlinga [deity] appeared itself thousands of years ago,” he said.

In November 2019, the apex court’s verdict paved the way for a Ram temple, work on which has begun in the 2.77-acre site in Ayodhya. The Muslim parties were allocated a five-acre site to build a mosque. That judgment also referred to the 1991 law and said it “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism”.

“The five-member bench had devoted almost ten pages to the Places of Worship Act as the basic structure of the constitution and had defined it too. By challenging the law, question is raised on the entire Ayodhya verdict. Thus it should concern all — Hindus or Muslims — who had welcomed the verdict,” said Athar Hussain, the spokesperson of the Indo-Islamic Cultural Foundation, which is responsible for building the mosque. In both cases, litigation is currently on in lower courts.

On September 30, last year, a case was filed on behalf of the deity, Sri Krishna Virajman, in the court of the civil judge in Mathura but was dismissed. The petitioner, Ranjana Agnihotri, filed an appeal in the court of Mathura district judge on October 12. The case is pending. While one more petition was filed in the court of district judge, three were filed in the court of civil judge. All petitions seek removal of Shahi Eidgah adjacent to the Shri Krishna temple complex and transfer of 13.37-acre land to the deity.

The Varanasi case reached the courts in 1991 when Hindu seers filed a petition in a local court on behalf of the deity, Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar, seeking permission to worship in Gyanvapi mosque area. The petitioners claimed Muslims occupied parts of the temple complex and built a mosque there.

After 22 years, on December 10, 2019, Rastogi filed an application in the court of the civil judge, requesting a survey of the entire Gyanvapi compound by the Archaeological Survey of India. He filed the petition as the next friend of the deity.

In his petition, he said the first additional district judge, Varanasi, passed an order in 1998, directing a lower court to take evidence from the entire Gyanvapi compound for determining the religious status or character of the compound. Later, the hearing was suspended following a stay order by Allahabad high court.

The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which runs the mosque, objected to Rastogi’s application in their own petition. Anjuman committee joint secretary Mohammad Yasin said the stay order given by the high court was still effective. Last February, the court of civil judge rejected the objection petition and ordered that the hearing will continue.

On the ground, the movements are gaining support from Hindu groups. On September 30 last year, when BJP and VHP leaders were acquitted in the Babri Masjid demolition case, senior Hindu seer Acharya Dharmendra had said, “Abhi to yeh jhanki hai, Mathura Kashi baki hai.”

The Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), the top decision-making body of the 13 recognised Hindu monastic orders, also passed a resolution at Prayagraj in September, demanding “liberation” of the two places of worship. Parishad president Mahant Narendra Giri said the ABAP was ready to move the Supreme Court, if needed.

“We wish for an amicable solution through consensus to this long-pending demand. We already held talks with the state government,” he said.

The state government has not officially commented on the twin demands. But it has announced ambitious development plans in both towns. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath on February 14 announced schemes worth 411 crore in Mathura. Work on the flagship Kashi Vishwanath corridor is in full swing in Varanasi.

The leader of opposition in UP Assembly and senior Samajwadi Party leader Ramgovind Chaudhary said: “BJP and its forces that support it are busy in these kind of things — how to play with Hindu sentiments and encash it. All the more for all these years they could not and did not do any public interest, welfare, development works. Price rise is unprecedented, unemployment has reached highest in 45 years. So they are back to usual tricks.”

While senior BJP leaders maintained silence, other leaders like former party MP Sakshi Maharaj, while talking to media in January 2020, demanded that justice should be done with Hindus by handing over Kashi and Mathura.

Some Hindu groups oppose the litigation. The Akhil Bhartiya Teerth Purohit Mahasabha (ABTPM) condemned the filing of the suit in the Mathura court. Its national president Mahesh Pathak said, “The ground realities are different in the two temple cities. While Ram was living in a makeshift temple in Ayodhya, in Mathura a grand temple exists.”

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