What is Gyanvapi Mosque Dispute and the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991

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Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Vishwanath Dispute: Everything You Need to Know

Background:

  • In Varanasi, the Gyanvapi mosque complex is located next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
  • The legal battle dates back to 1991, when the P.V. Narasimha Rao government passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to protect a place of worship’s “religious character” as it existed on August 15, 1947.
  • It is to be noted that the Places of Worship Act, 1991 was passed by the PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress regime and imposes a positive obligation on the state to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed at the time of independence.
  • Some believe the Kashi Vishwanath temple has been rebuilt several times, with an older version of the temple standing where the Gyanvapi Mosque now stands. Some historians believe that the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb demolished the temple to build the Gyanvapi mosque in the 17th century.
  • The Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath dispute first came before the courts in 1991, when a petition was filed to have the mosque demolished and the land given to the Hindu community.
  • Recently, the masjid complex was ordered to be sealed, and a report claiming the discovery of ancient temple debris was submitted to the court.

The historical claims surrounding the mosque

  • The Gyanvapi Masjid is in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, near the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple.
  • Some believe the Kashi Vishwanath temple has been rebuilt several times, with an older version of the temple standing where the Gyanvapi Mosque now stands.
  • Some historians believe that the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb demolished the temple to build the Gyanvapi mosque in the 17th century.
  • The old Viswanath temple structure, which was demolished on Aurangzeb’s orders, serves as the masjid’s qibla wall (a significant wall facing the Maccah). We don’t know who built the mosque, which dates back to Aurangzeb’s reign.”Gyanvapi mosque dispute.
  • In an article published in the Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, architectural historian Madhuri Desai claimed that the Vishwanath temple was only built in 1776-77 and that no temple building could be dated earlier than the sixteenth century. She stated that the Vishwanath temple was constructed after the Gyanvapi mosque and is located next to it.
  • The ongoing controversy over the Gyanvapi Masjid, which is located adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has once again brought the Places Of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, to the fore.
  • Following the destruction of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple, Aurangzeb is said to have built the Gyanvapi mosque.
  • Experts cite a source written in 1669 by Saqi Musta’idd Khan, Aurangzeb’s contemporary historian, to support this claim, which dates back 353 years.

From 1991 to 2021

  • The Hindu side has attempted to reclaim the Gyanvapi mosque area several times, citing this history.
  • The case’s first lawsuit was filed in 1991 in the name of the deity ‘Swayambhu Lord Vishweshwar,’ requesting that Hindus be allowed to “renovate and reconstruct their temple.”
  • The management committee of the Gyanvapi mosque, Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, managed to get a stay on the proceedings from the Allahabad High Court in 1998 while the suit was pending.
  • The committee stated that the Places of Worship Act of 1991 prohibits such a lawsuit. While this stay lasted for the next two decades, another attempt at an ASI survey was made in December 2019, a month after the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya decision, which gave Hindus control of the disputed site.
  • In April 2021, Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ashutosh Tiwari granted the application for an ASI survey of the Gyanvapi complex, despite the high court’s 1998 stay.
  • On September 9, the Allahabad High Court intervened once more, criticising the order and staying it.Gyanvapi mosque case and Places of Worship Act, 1991.
  • However, 22 days prior to the high court’s intervention, the stage had been set for a new battle.
  • On August 18, one Delhi-based woman and four Varanasi-based women filed a petition in another local court in Varanasi, requesting permission to worship Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and Nandi idols allegedly located inside the mosque.

Recent Developments

  • The original Gyanvapi mosque suit was filed in 1991 in the Varanasi district court for the restoration of the ancient temple on the current site of the Gyanvapi mosque.
  • The raging debates over the ongoing row over the Gyanvapi mosque survey have bought the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 to the fore.
  • The controversy over the mosque situated next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex in Varanasi is being taken up by the lower court.

What is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?

  • The Places of Worship Act of 1991 prohibits “conversion of any place of worship” and provides “for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, and for matters connected with or incidental thereto.”
  • The religious nature of a place of worship remains the same as it was on August 15, 1947, according to the Act passed by P.V. Narsimha Rao’s Congress government during the Ram Mandir movement.
  • Section3: The Act prohibits the conversion of places of worship under Section 3. “No person shall convert any religious denomination or section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or section thereof,” it says.
  • Section 4: “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,” says Section 4(1) of the Act.
    • Section 4(2) of the Act further states that “any suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, existing on the 15th day of August, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority, the same shall abate, and no suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to any such matter shall lie on or after such commencement in any court, tribunal or other authority”.
    • However, suits, appeals and legal proceedings can be initiated with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship after the commencement of the Act if the change of status took place after the cut-off date of August 15, 1947.
  • Section 5: Section 5 of the Act states that the law does not apply to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, as well as any suit, appeal, or other proceeding related to it.
  • Section 6: If Section 3 is not followed, Section 6 of the Act allows for punishment. The Act states, “Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, as well as a fine.”
    • Interestingly, the term “conversion” is defined in Section 2(b) of the Act as “‘conversion’, with its grammatical variations, includes alteration or change of whatever nature.” The opponents of the Hindu side’s Gyanvapi mosque petition claim that the case violates Section 3 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

The 1991 law enactment

  • The Parliament passed and enacted the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act in 1991, at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
  • The Act was introduced by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s Congress government when the Babri Masjid was still standing.

Petitions that are challenging the Act

  • The Supreme Court is currently hearing two petitions challenging the Act’s constitutionality. While the Lucknow-based trust Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and followers of the Sanatan Vedic Religion filed one petition, advocate Ashwini Upadhyay filed another.
  • The law has been challenged on the grounds that it:
    • a) prohibits judicial review, which is a fundamental feature of the Constitution;
    • b) imposes a “arbitrary irrational retrospective cut-off date”; and
    • c) denies Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs their right to religion.
  • In his petition, Upadhyay claims that the government cannot pass legislation restricting the right to petition the court to reclaim a religious site.
  • The Act “has barred the remedies against illegal encroachment on places of worship and pilgrimages, and now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs cannot file suit or approach the High Court under Article 226,” according to the statement.
  • Meanwhile, Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh filed a petition challenging Section 4 of the 1991 Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act.
  • “The encroachment made on religious property of Hindus exercising might of power by followers of another faith is barred by the impugned Act,” it said.

Supreme Court Observation on the Places of Worship Act in Ayodhya judgment

  • The Supreme Court referred to the Places of Worship Act in its Ayodhya decision in 2019, saying that it embodies the Constitution’s secular values and strictly prohibits retrogression.
  • “In providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on 15 August 1947 and against the conversion of places of public worship, Parliament determined that independence from colonial rule provides a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by assuring every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and their character will not be altered,”
  • It also stated: “The law applies equally to the state and to all citizens of the country. Its rules bind those in charge of the country’s affairs at all levels. Those rules implement Article 51A’s Fundamental Duties and are thus positive mandates for all citizens. The State has enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalized its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism, which are part of the Constitution’s basic structure, by enacting the law.”
  • The constitutionality of the 1991 Act was not challenged, and it had not been examined before the Supreme Court bench hearing the Ramjanmaboomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Despite this, the court made specific observations in support of the Act, while disagreeing with certain conclusions reached by the Allahabad High Court.

Why Was The Act Introduced?

•Shankarrao Bhavrao Chavan, the former Union Home Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Cabinet, introduced a bill that resulted in the Act.
•When LK Advani’s Rath Yatra for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement received widespread support, the Act was passed.
•Following Advani’s arrest in Bihar and the government of Mulayam Singh’s order to shoot kar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh, Chavan sought to prevent communal unrest through the Bill.

The current case

  • In April 2022, a group of five women linked to the right-wing group Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh filed a petition demanding daily access to Maa Shringar Gauri sthal (holy site) in the Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath complex, adding another chapter to their long-running legal battle.
  • The petitioners requested permission to perform daily prayers and observe other rituals of “visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex” located at settlement plot no. 9130 in the area of the ward and police station Dashwamedh, claiming that an image of goddess Shringar Gauri is present at the back of the western wall of the Gyanvapi Masjid.
  • Ravi Kumar Diwakar, a civil judge in the senior division, appointed an advocate commissioner and ordered him to survey the site and report on where the Maa Shringar Gauri site was located.
  • The survey was halted, however, when the mosque’s management committee claimed that the court commissioner was biassed and objected to a videographic survey being conducted inside the mosque.

The directions of the Varanasi court 

  • On May 12, the court denied the mosque committee’s request to replace advocate commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra, while also approving videography inside the Gyanvapi mosque grounds. The following is what the court said:
    • The court ordered the commission to complete its inspection by May 17 and submit a report. Two additional advocate commissioners were also appointed to assist Mr. Mishra with videography inside the complex.
    • The judge ordered that the inspection process be continued. He also ordered the process to be overseen by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police.
    • In response to the mosque committee’s assertion that videography inside the mosque was unnecessary because the Maa Shringar Gauri site is outside the mosque’s western wall, as claimed by the petitioner, the court stated that the report will clarify the exact location of the Shringar Gauri. “If anyone creates any impediment, such as locks at some locations,” the court stated, “the district administration will have the full right to have the locks opened or broken for the commission’s action.” The court stated that the inspection process will not be halted under any circumstances, regardless of whether any of the parties cooperate or not.
    • The court directed officials to lodge an FIR against anyone who hinders the process of videography inside the complex.

Survey of the complex

  • The court-ordered survey at the Gyanwapi Masjid complex continued after the Supreme Court refused to grant a stay.
  • From 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., the survey was conducted under tight security. The survey included three court-appointed advocate commissioners, five lawyers from each side, and an assistant, as well as a videography team.
  • According to the court’s order, the survey report will be presented to the court on May 17.
  • The dispute stems from a lawsuit filed in Varanasi by five Hindu women seeking access and the right to offer daily prayers at the Hindu shrine Maa Shringar Gauri, which is located outside the Gyanvapi mosque’s western wall.

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