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

Aishwarya S Iyer
·9-min read

The Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Viswanath dispute has been given fodder after a Varanasi court allowed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to undertake a physical survey to establish whether the mosque was built on the ruins of the temple or not on 8 April.

The order was passed by a civil judge (senior division) of the Varanasi Civil on a petition moved by advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi on behalf of Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar, the main deity of the temple. The court also directed the Uttar Pradesh government to bear the cost of the survey, which should 'preferably' have two members of the minority community. This petition was opposed by the Gyanvapi Mosque Management Committee called the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (AIM).

The contentious claim is that the temple was destroyed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 and the mosque was built using the remains of the temple.

In light of the developments around the case, we trace the Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Vishwanath dispute.

Also Read: ASI to Survey Mosque Near Kashi Vishwanath Temple: Varanasi Court

How Old Is the Claim of Hindu Outfits on the Gyanvapi Mosque?

The matter dates back to as early as 1984 when 558 Hindu seers from all over India had congregated in the heart of Delhi. They came together for the first religious parliament, where amongst various other resolutions was a nationwide call for the Hindus to lay claim to the Holy shrines in Varanasi, Mathura and Ayodhya.

Then years later when the Babri Masjid and Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was at its peak in 1990s, with the demand to build a Ram Mandir gaining strength and following, so did the movement to regain control of the mosques in Mathura and Kashi. While the movement often spoke of about 3000 mosques, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu religious groups specifically had their eyes on these two mosques. While one was the Shahi Idbah mosque adjacent to Lord Krishna's temple in west UP's Mathura, the second was the Gyanvapi mosque built adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in East UP's Varanasi.

This led to the slogan, “Ayodhya to sirf jhanki hai, Kasi, Mathura baaki hai. (Ayodhya is only the beginning, Kashi and Mathura are also left)“ becoming increasingly popular.

While there was chatter to reclaim as many as 3,000 mosques in the early 1990s, these two temples were definitely on the agenda of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and several other Hindu organisations.

Thie fear of what this would do to the country, is is what led to the PV Narsimha Rao government enacting the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, a law to state that the places of worship would be frozen as they stood on August 15, 1947. This law was opposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was a minority in the opposition then. They had ridiculed the law as one of the 'secular' moves to 'appease Muslims' and keep their votebank safe.

Also Read: For India’s Muslims, Will New Mosque Near Ayodhya Offer New Hope?

Why Muslims Are Anxious Of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor

Built on the orders of Queen Ahilya Holkar, the Kashi Vishwanath temple is considered to be the most significant shrine of Lord Shiva by many. It is one of the more prominent of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Shiva, Vishveshvara or Vishvanath and is mentioned in the Skanda Purana.

Hindus from across the country go to visit the temple that is always buzzing with people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the MP for the Lok Sabha from the Varanasi constituency, laid the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor in March 2019. The plan is to expand and beautify the temple and the area around it. The plans include embellishing it with Makrana marble, Kota granite, Mandana and Baleshwar stones. Once the over Rs 1,000 crore project completes, one will be able to see the temple directly from the Ganga ghat.

In October 2018, a contractor had demolished a platform (chabootra) at the gate number 4 of the Gyanvapi Mosque. The mosque belongs to the Sunni Central Waqf Board. This led to a flaring of communal tensions in the area, local Muslims came out to protest, and the contractor then rebuilt the broken structure overnight.

The work being done for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor has made Muslims anxious in the area. During the time the platform was broken down, the S M Yaseen, joint secretary of (AIM) had said that it was very possible that ‘Gyanvapi mosque would meet the same fate as Babri.’

Similarly, the work around the corridor has meant that the several shops and homes around it have been removed, therefore broadening the lanes that lead to the mosque and exposing it unlike ever before. Mufti Abdul Baatin Nomani, imam of the mosque and secretary of the AIM said that while they had no problem with the corridor, the fact they are scared. “The lanes restricted movement and widening them could lead to an Ayodhya-like attack.” Yaseen added that similar to what is happening now, even in 1991 and 1992 the area around the mosque was cleared by the then BJP government under Kalyan Singh for the ‘beautification’ of Ayodhya.

How Old Is the Legal Dispute in the Case?

It started in 1991 when a petition was filed through advocate Vijay Shankar Rastogi on behalf of the Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar, the main deity of the temple, claiming that a temple was constructed by Maharaja Vikramaditya about 2,050 years ago at the spot. They alleged that this temple was then demolished by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 and the mosque was constructed thereafter, using and upon the ruins of the temple.

Then about a century later, Ahilya Holkar, the queen of Indore built a new Kashi Vishwanath temple next to the mosque in 1780. It is considered the most significant shrine of Lord Shiva by many. It is one of the more prominent of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Shiva, Vishveshvara or Vishvanath, that is also mentioned in the Skanda Purana.

The petitioners had sought removal of the Gyanvapi Masjid from the site, possession of the entire piece of land, and the right to worship inside the mosque.

They had contended that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was not applicable in this case as the mosque was constructed over a partly demolished temple, and many parts of that temple can continue to be seen today.

In 1997, the trial court in Varanasi framed preliminary issues where the main contention was if the issue was barred by Section 4 of the Act. The law states that a religious character of a place of worship shall continue as it stands on 15 August 1947. Part ii) of Section 4 of the Act states:

If, on the commencement of this Act, 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:

After hearings the trial court said that the relief sought by the petitioners was barred under the Act. This was followed by revision petitions being filed. They were clubbed and being heard at the trial court in Varanasi.

While this was happening, in 1998, the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee moved the Allahabad HC stating that this dispute could not be adjudicated upon by a civil court and cited Section 4 of the Places of Worship Act. The HC responded by staying the proceedings in the lower court, where the matter continued to remain pending for 22 years.

Then in December 2019, a month after the Supreme Court declared its judgment on the Babri Masjid- Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, VS Rastogi filed a plea on behalf of the same Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar seeking an archaeological survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex. Rastogi filed the petition in the Varanasi court as the 'next friend' of the deity Visheshwar.

His petition stated that in an order dated to 1998, the first additional district judge had directed a lower court to take evidence from the entire Gyanvapi compound for determining the religious status or character of the compound. However, this hearing was suspended following a stay order by Allahabad High Court.

Despite the stay on the trial by the concerned high court which is yet to deliver its verdict, the Varanasi court ordered the ASI to conduct a survey of the mosque on 8 April 2021. The Sunni Waqf Board has said that they will challenge the order.

“Our understanding is clear that this case is barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. The Places of Worship Act was upheld by a 5-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya judgment. The status of Gyanvapi Masjid is, as such, beyond question,” Zufar Faruqi, Chairman, UP Sunni Central Waqf Board, said.

What Has the Varanasi Court Said?

The Court asked the ASI to set up a “five-member committee of eminent persons who are experts and well-versed in archaeology”. “Two of the experts should preferably belong to the minority community,” the court ruled.

The ASI chief has also been asked to bring in an eminent person as an observer for the committee and directed the UP government to bear the cost of the survey.

“The prime purpose of the Archaeological Survey will be to find out whether the religious structure standing at present at the ‘disputed site’ is a superimposition, alteration, addition, or if there is a structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any other religious structure.”

The court has handed out the following instructions, among others:

  • During the survey, artefacts must be properly preserved.

  • While conducting the survey, the committee must ensure that Muslims are not prevented from offering namaz at the disputed site. But the Court also added that, if the same is not practical due to the survey work, the Committee shall provide Muslims an alternative, suitable place to offer namaz at any other place within the precincts of the Mosque.

  • The panel, the court said, is expected to be aware of the sensitivity of the matter and must ensure that both Hindus and Muslims are equally respected.

  • After the survey is complete, the Committee's report should be submitted in a sealed cover without undue delay.

The next date of hearing in the case is on 31 May 2021.

(With inputs from Bar and Bench, Times of India and Business Standard.)

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