Kashi Vishwanath Temple vs Gyanvapi Mosque: Why Hindus have a stronger case

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While most Hindus are rejoicing the verdict of the Varanasi District and Sessions Court, which not only allowed the community to worship Shringar Gauri regularly but also said that the community’s claim on the Gyanvapi Masjid was tenable, rejecting the Muslim argument, a cautiously optimistic note came from Subramanian Swamy, a leader on his own merit regardless of his incidental BJP membership. He said the main legal battle was being fought at the Supreme Court and that this judgement from the Varanasi court was merely an “intermediate step”.

Quite a few aspects of the Kashi Vishwanath case are curious if not baffling. First of all, the history of the temple is so well established that it had surprised many when the VHP and then the BJP picked the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya to fight for, as the evidence dating back to Babar’s time (AD 1483-1530) was blurry as compared to those dating back to Aurangzeb’s time (AD 1618-1707). The Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya notwithstanding, it is still not historically established that Babar ordered a demolition of a temple before erecting a mosque there, although there indeed was a temple there, making some archaeologists and historians infer that Mir Baqi, one of the generals of Babar, might have found nothing but ruins on the plot. This theory got credence also from the fact that other than all the temple artefacts that the Archaeological Survey of India found in Ayodhya, it also found tombstones with marsiyah (Islamic funeral prayers) inscribed on them. It is therefore said in history that it is possible that before Baqi, another group of Muslims found ruins at the place and built a graveyard there. In due course, the graveyard fell to disuse too.

The historical case

In contrast, not even a hardcore Marxist or Islamist historian denies that Aurangzeb had ordered a partial demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. And the only plausible explanation for demolishing the temple partially was to constantly tease Hindus of the humiliation meted out to them by a Muslim ruler. That repugnant attitude in itself is enough to swing the case in favour of the Hindu side. But let’s first deal with the history of demolitions of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. To begin with, the Kashi Khanda of the Skanda Purana mentions the temple (section), but Marxists may say scriptures don’t make history. So, let’s come to the next stage. The Kashi Vishwanath temple was originally called the Adi Vishveshwara Temple. The Ghurids demolished it first in AD 1194 CE after Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad ibn Sam invaded India and defeated Jayachandra of Kannauj near Chandawar. Following his victory, the Ghurid conqueror razed Kashi, of which the Vishveshwara Temple was a part. After a few years, Muslims constructed what they called the Razia Mosque in its place.

In 1230, a Gujarati merchant rebuilt a temple near the Avimukteshwara Temple, away from the main site. This happened when Sultan Iltutmish (AD 1211–1266) was the ruler of Delhi.

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The history gets a little hazy here, with some historians saying Hussain Shah Sharqi (AD 1447–1458) and others saying Sikandar Lodi (AD 1489–1517) demolished the temple again.

Then, Raja Man Singh under Mughal Emperor Akbar built the temple and Raja Todarmal enhanced its looks in 1585. However, the priestly class boycotted the temple because Todarmal’s daughter was married to Islamic rulers.

Thereafter, at the time of Jahangir, Vir Singh Deo carried out some repairs of the original temple.

Then comes the most easily recalled history of In AD 1669 when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered a partial destruction of the temple and construction of the Gyanvapi Mosque in its place. The most prominent piece of evidence that stands to this day is the Nandi facing away from the present-day Shiva Linga, showing that the original Linga used to be in the opposite direction where Gyanvapi Mosque stands today. In no other temple of Shiva does Nandi face away from Him; the holy bull is not supposed to.

The names of historians who would testify for the histories since that of the Ghurids must be mentioned here, lest somebody dismisses it all as pamphleteering by ‘Sanghis’. The Ghurid part comes from Satish Chandra’s book, History of Medieval India: 800-1700, published by Orient Longman in 2007. The construction of the Razia Mosque comes from Heeryoon Shin’s thesis “Building a ‘Modern’ Temple Town: Architecture and Patronage in Banaras, 1750-1900” recognised by Yale University.

“The Kashi Vishvanatha, Varanasi city, India” by RPB Singh and PS Rana mentions the rebuilding of the temple by a Gujarati merchant. Even a Pakistani scholar Fazila Shahnawaz recognises the demolition by Hussain Shah Sharqi in “Growth of Authority over Conquered Region: Politico-Cultural Study of Banaras during Sultanate Period”, which is an intellectual property of the Pakistan Historical Society’s Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society in Karachi.

That Sikandar Lodi demolished the rebuilt temple is mentioned in The Kashi Vishwanatha, Varanasi city, India by RPB Singh and PS Rana, Temples in Kashi by S Tiwari and Reclaiming & Decongesting Temples by SMM Gogate among many other historians.

SP Udayakumar’s Ramarajya: Envisioning the Future and Entrenching the Past”. Presenting the Past: Anxious History and Ancient Future in Hindutva India mentions the Todarmal episode. Temple Destruction and the Great Mughals’ Religious Policy in North India: A Case Study of Banaras Region, 1526-1707 by P Alam in the Journal of Social Science and Religion recognises the contribution of Vir Singh Deo.

Finally, the part on Aurangzeb can be verified from the books Architecture of Mughal India by Catherine B Asher, publisher Cambridge University Press and Delhi to Kolkata Footprint Focus Guide by Vanessa Betts and Victoria McCulloch.

The legal case

The case that was settled in the Varanasi District and Sessions Court today is a part of a larger case that has a pretty long history too, dating back to 14 May 1937 when historian Prof Paramatma Sharan gave a statement on behalf of the British Empire. He cited excerpts of “Ma Asire Alam Giri”, written by a historian of Aurangzeb’s era who acknowledged that the Gyanvapi Masjid was a temple in the 16th century.

Until 1991, the dispute had nearly died down when several petitions arrived before the Varanasi court. Here, local priests wanted to worship Shiva in the Gyanvapi Masjid premises. As a deity is admitted as a party to some legal dispute, a petitioner called Vijay Shankar Rastogi, a lawyer from Varanasi, pleaded in the lower court that he was the “next friend” of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir’s presiding deity. In legalese, a “next friend” is someone who represents someone unable to represent himself in court.

Rastogi argued in his petition that about 2,050 years ago, Chandragupta Vikramaditya had built the temple where the current mosque stands. He asked for the demolition of the Gyanvapi mosque and the grant of ownership of the entire plot of land, as well as the right to worship inside the mosque, to Hindus.

Rastogi asserted that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, would not apply in this case, as the Gyanvapi mosque was erected upon a partially ruined temple.

The case continued till 1997 when a trial court in Varanasi said that the said law enacted during PV Narasimha Rao’s rule restricted the petitioners’ redress. The Hindu side filed revision petitions, which were clubbed and heard in Varanasi’s trial court.

On the Muslim side, the Anjuman Intezamia Committee filed a petition at the Allahabad High Court in 1998. They said that the matter could not be heard by a civil court. On the basis of Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, therefore, the Allahabad High Court put a stay on the civil court’s proceedings. This is the part of the larger case that saw a closure on 12 September — unless the Muslim side moves the high court against the district and sessions court judgment.

In this part, five Delhi-based women — Rakhi Singh, Laxmi Devi, Sita Sahu, Manju Vyas, and Rekha Pathak — had filed a lawsuit on 18 April last year, seeking permission to worship and perform rituals at Shringar Gauri, Ganesha, Hanuman and Nandi every day. These murtis (“idol” is an erroneous translation) are located on the walls of the Gyanvapi Mosque as remnants of the temple Aurangzeb had partially destroyed. Clearly, this part or this case is not the core, which is the Hindu claim over the mosque in its entirety. The petitioner-women requested the court further that their opponents be ordered not to damage these murtis.

There is yet another part of the case settled today that witnessed the ruckus some months ago. The organisation that has filed the appeal in the top court in the Gyanvapi case, namely the Committee of Management of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, argued that the order of the Varanasi civil court allowing a videography survey in the mosque complex violated the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. But the Hindu side rubbished the claim, saying that Hindus were worshipping the deities on both 15 August 1947, the cut-off date, and on the day in 1991 — 11 July — when the Rao government made the law, thereby not violating the status quo.

Meanwhile, Advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi filed a new petition on behalf of the Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar. He sought an archaeological assessment of the Gyanvapi mosque in December 2019. In the previous month, the Supreme Court had delivered its verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. He said that the highest court had in 1998 ordered gathering of evidence from the entire Gyanvapi complex in order to determine the site’s religious character, but the Allahabad High Court postponed the lower court’s decision.

This is how the findings of the video shoot are relevant to both the case of five women and the greater one being heard in the Supreme Court.

What happens to the larger case?

Citizens are advised against prejudicing a court, so this section of the article is not telling what is expected or hoped of the Supreme Court. It is this columnist’s way of looking at the Kashi Vishwanath case by reading the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, and studying the precedent set by the highest court in the Ayodhya case.

If the status quoist law is eventually repealed, the social as well as legal pressure for which is very high, with several lawyers telling the Supreme Court in separate petitions that the law does not gel with the Constitution of India, that it also pampers historical wrongs and that it militates against the spirit of justice, interpreting the law for the Kashi case is futile. The former royal family of Kashi through J Sai Deepak, the Tuluva Vellalar community, a Vaishnava, Vishnu Shankar Jain, Ashwini Upadhyay, Subramanian Swamy etc are fighting on the Hindu side while Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and AIMPLB are on the Muslim side. But assuming the 1991 law stays for a while, what comes in the way of a Hindu victory?

Section 2 of the law states if an appeal or other proceeding related to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, as of 15 August 1947, is pending before a court, tribunal or other authority, it “shall abate”. Any legal proceedings pending on the commencement of the Act “shall be disposed of”. As argued above, this does not protect the Muslim side.

Section 3 of the Act prohibits any conversion of places of worship. “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 says. Section 4 (1) says “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”. These sections have a loophole that may affect their application on a partially demolished temple that has observed Hindu rituals for ages since the demolition.

Section 5 says that the law does not apply to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, which does not merit any explanation.

Seen from the angle that I see it, the Hindu side has a strong case. And that’s an understatement.

The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are personal.

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Kashi Vishwanath Temple vs Gyanvapi Mosque: Why Hindus have a stronger case
Kashi Vishwanath Temple vs Gyanvapi Mosque: Why Hindus have a stronger case
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