Varanasi: It was in 1991 - a year before the Babri Masjid demolition took place - that a group of priests in Varanasi field a petition in the court, seeking permission to worship on the Gyanvapi mosque premises.
Thirty years later in 2021, the Allahabad High Court stayed proceedings in the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir-Gyanvapi Masjid case in a Varanasi court, suspending a controversial archaeological survey of the premises to determine whether a Hindu temple was partially razed to build the 17th-century mosque.
The current controversy was ignited when five Hindu women knocked the doors of the court last year, seeking to worship the Shringar Gauri and other idols within the Gyanvapi mosque complex.
Last month, a Varanasi court ordered a video survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex after the petition.
The report of the survey was initially ordered to be submitted by May 10. However, a delay was caused after the order was challenged by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque committee.
The Gyanvapi mosque survey was concluded on May 16. The Hindu side in the matter has claimed that a 'Shivling' was found inside a reservoir on the mosque complex during the survey. The Muslim side, however, dismissed the claim and said it was only a 'fountain'.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque dispute was raised by the BJP, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS during the campaign for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya along with the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah Masjid in Mathura. They claimed that all the three mosques were built after demolishing Hindu temples.
The controversy has taken an expected turn as both the sides - Hindus and Muslims - have firmed up their stand.
UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya has said that the survey had lifted the veil on the truth.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), on the other hand, termed the court order for videography as a 'clear violation of The Places of Worship Act, 1991 that seeks to maintain the status quo of 1947 on all places of worship. The Act has been in force since July 11, 1991.
Section 4 (1) of the Act states: "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."
The Act in Section 4 (2) goes on to state that if any suit, appeal or other proceedings concerning the conversion of the religious traits of any place of worship, existing on August 15, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority, the same shall abate.
It further stipulates that no fresh proceedings on such matters shall be initiated.
Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion of a religious place in any manner, even to cater to a particular section of the religion.
"No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof," it reads.
The mosque committee's plea argued that the fresh suits filed in 2021 citing the "right to worship" were "barred by The Places of Worship Act, 1991", and were an attempt to revive the dispute which had been put to rest by the law.
The Act, however, exempts the Ayodhya issue. Section 5 of the Act states that its provisions shall not apply to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case.
"Nothing contained in this Act shall apply to the place or place of worship commonly known as Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid situated in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh and to any suit, appeal or other proceeding relating to the said place or place of worship," it says.
No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof
While delivering the Ayodhya verdict in 2019, the Supreme Court bench headed by the erstwhile Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, had said: "In providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on August 15, 1947 and against the conversion of places of public worship, the Parliament determined that independence from colonial rule furnishes a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by providing the confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered."
BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay had challenged The Places of Worship Act, 1991, in the Supreme Court last year. He said that the law was a contravention of the principle of secularism as laid down by the Constitution of India.
"The Centre has barred remedies against illegal encroachment on places of worship and pilgrimages and now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs cannot file a suit or approach a high court under Article 226. Therefore, they won't be able to restore their places of worship and pilgrimage including temple endowments in the spirit of Articles 25-26 and the illegal barbarian acts of invaders will continue in perpetuity," Upadhyay's petition read.
The petition pertained to a legal battle before a trial court over "reclaiming the birthplace of Lord Krishna in Mathura", which was directly affected by the restrictions under the 1991 Act.
Another petition, filed by Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh challenging the validity of the Act, is also pending before the Supreme Court.
Several petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court, Allahabad High Court and Varanasi court alleging that the mosque was built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by demolishing the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the 16th century.
The petitioners of 1991 had said that the mosque was built on the orders of Aurangzeb by demolishing a part of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple during his reign in the 16th century.
A Varanasi-based lawyer, Vijay Shankar Rastogi, had filed a petition in the lower court claiming illegality in the construction of the Gyanvapi mosque and sought an archaeological survey of the mosque. This came in December 2019 after the Supreme Court verdict in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title dispute.
The Varanasi court in April 2021 directed the ASI to carry out the survey and submit its report. However, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee that runs the Gyanvapi mosque contested the petition by Rastogi and also opposed the Varanasi court's order for survey of the mosque.
The matter then reached the Allahabad High Court and post hearing all the parties involved, it ordered an interim stay on the direction to the ASI for conducting the survey. The high court in its order said that as per the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the law prohibits any change in the religious character of a place of worship from as it existed on August 15, 1947.
In March 2021, a Supreme Court bench headed by then Chief Justice S.A. Bobde agreed to examine the validity of the Places of Worship Act.
A fresh petition was filed by five women seeking permission to perform daily worship of Hindu deities whose idols are located on the outer wall of Gyanvapi mosque and the court appointed a committee to conduct a survey and videography of the basements of the Gyanvapi-Gauri Shringar complex.
The survey was stalled amid objections by the mosque committee, which claimed that the advocate commissioner appointed by the court did not have the mandate to film inside the premises.
The committee completed its survey and videography of two basements in the Gyanvapi-Gauri Shringar complex after the exercise resumed on May 14 amid tight security arrangements.
The political implications of the ongoing Gyanvapi controversy, meanwhile, are too strong to be ignored.
After the Ram Janmabhoomi temple issue, the Hindu outfits have found another issue to whip up Hindu passions ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
"After we ensured a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya, we owe it to the people to liberate Lord Shiva in Kashi Vishwanath Dham from the Gyanvapi mosque and then the Krishna Janmabhoomi from the Eidgah in Mathura. This is our commitment to the people," said a BJP leader on condition of anonymity.
The BJP's strategists are well aware of the fact that the opposition cannot take a one-sided stand on the issue since that would deprive them of the majority Hindu support.