Lawyers, experts term Varanasi court’s sealing of area around Gyavapi mosque as ‘illegal, and violation of Places of Worship Act ‘

A three-day videography survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex e | Photo: LiveLaw

Water was drained out of the pond on Monday morning and a Shivling was allegedly found, claimed a lawyer representing a group of Hindu women who sought year-long access to pray at the shrine behind the mosque.

Muhammad Raafi | 

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NEW DELHI — As a local court in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh ordered to “immediately seal” a portion of a mosque and prohibit the entry of any person in the area where allegedly a “shivling” has been found, the court’s order has been dubbed as a blatant violation of the Places of Worship’s Act 1991.

The court has directed the District Magistrate, Police Commissioner and CRPF Commandment, Varanasi, to ensure the protection of the sealed place where shivling was reported to have been found in the survey of the Gyanvapi mosque.

In April, the court ordered a video inspection of the site after five women affiliated with the right-wing Hindutva group Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh filed petitions saying they were entitled to have daily darshan, pooja, and perform rituals at the site of Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and other “visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex.”

The three-day videography survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex ended on Monday, a day before the next hearing of the case in court. Three domes, underground basements, and a pond were filmed by the survey team. They will share their findings with the court on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will also hear an appeal by a Muslim party against the Allahabad High Court order permitting videography inside the mosque. The connected file in the case is to be presented during the hearing on May 17.

Water was drained out of the pond on Monday morning and a Shivling was allegedly found, claimed a lawyer representing a group of Hindu women who sought year-long access to pray at the shrine behind the mosque. The lawyer, Subhash Nandan Chaturvedi, said that the pond was used for ablution (wazoo) purification rituals.

The petitioners claimed that the pond, which is used for purification ritual or  wazoo, must be sealed. The court accepted the plea and ordered the Varanasi DM to ensure that the pond won’t be used, for now, he said.

All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi told a news gathering agency that the permission to video graph the premises is a blatant violation of the Places of Worship Act 1991. “It is a violation of the Supreme Court judgment given in the Babri Masjid title dispute,” he said. 

On Monday, Owaisi said the court’s decision is a textbook repeat of December 1949 in Babri Masjid. “This order itself changes the religious nature of the masjid. This is a violation of the 1991 Act. This was my apprehension and it has come true. Gyanvapi Masjid was & will remain a masjid till judgment day inshallah (SIC,” he tweeted.

Senior Congress leader and former Home Minister P Chidambaram, said, “Places of Worship Act was passed by the PV Narasimha Rao government with the only exception being Ram Janmabhoomi. All other places of worship should remain in status as they are. We shouldn’t change the status of places of worship (as) it will lead to huge conflict.”

Section 3 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, bars conversion of places of worship. This means that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination.

Conversion, under section 2(b) states, “with its grammatical variations, includes alteration or change of whatever nature.” Section 4 of the same Act declares 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. This means that if a building was a temple on 15 August 1947, it cannot be turned into a mosque in the future and vice versa.

The singular exception to these provisions, as stated in section 5 of the Act, was the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid conflict.

Anas Tanvir, a Supreme Court lawyer, told that the order of survey, as well as today’s order of sealing the mosque area, was completely illegal.

“This order is in contravention of the Places of Worship Act. The same act has been affirmed repeatedly (by courts) and latest in the Babri Masjid verdict,” he said. 

Tanvir said any such activity in contravention to law “is an exercise in futility.” 

Former Allahabad High Court Judge Amar Saran told The Quint that the objective of the plaintiffs appears to be to unearth some Hindu artifacts from the campus of the mosque. “But the plaintiff itself says that the plot in question was illegally appropriated by Aurangzeb for erecting the Gyanvapi mosque. This confirms that members of the Muslim community and the mosque were on the plot on 15 August 1947, and therefore Places of Worship Act will apply.”

Besides (retired) Justice Saran said the fact that the suit has been filed stating that the Hindus had permission to worship their deities on one day of the year in the mosque campus and that they would like continuous permission to do the same indicates that they were not in continuous possession of the plot or even a portion of it on and since 15 August 1947. “Otherwise they could have simply carried out their religious activities without seeking permission or filing a suit for the same,” Justice Saran said, before adding:

“Therefore this admission as to the factual position and prayers to recite perform Hindu rituals at the spot amounts to an attempt to utilize the legal and administrative process for converting the mosque into a Hindu place of worship post 15 August 1947.”

The former judge also asked, “If that part outside the western wall had no connection with the mosque, then why would only once a year access be allowed there for Hindu prayers?”

Muhammad Raafi is a journalist based in New Delhi. He tweets at @MohammadRaafi