India’s History Wars Heat Up

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India’s History Wars Heat Up

The Babri Mosque ruling galvanized a new wave of legal attacks, with Hindu nationalist groups claiming hundreds of mosques built by Muslims emperors centuries ago were temples in ancient India.

India’s History Wars Heat Up

An aerial view shows Gyanvapi mosque, left, and Kashiviswanath temple on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, Dec. 12, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

On May 17, 2022 a local court in Varanasi city of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, issued an order asking authorities to seal a compound meant for performing ablution inside an 18th-century mosque, Gyanvapi.

Spread on 1,000 square feet of land Gyanvapi Mosque Complex is located adjacent to Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. The mosque was constructed by Muslim emperor Muhi al-Din Muhammad, popularly known as Aurangzeb, who ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1658 to 1707.

The order for the closure of the compound was issued a few days after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted a three-day long videography survey of the mosque complex on the direction of the Varanasi court, as a few petitioners claimed to have found a “Shivling” – an abstract or aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva – inside the mosque’s premises. However, the Muslim community rejected the claims saying that the structure found inside the ablution compound is a fountain.

This survey was conducted in May after five women in April 2021 had filed petitions to seek permission for daily worship at the Shringar Gauri Temple, which, according to them, is located inside the premises of Gyanvapi Mosque Complex. After hearing the petition on May 22, the court ordered for the survey to test their narrative.

Abhay Yadav, a council member representing UP Central Waqf Board for Gyanvapi Mosque, told The Diplomat that the survey order of the complex issued in May earlier this year is “illegal” and in “contempt of court” as the Allahabad High Court had previously stayed such a survey on September 9, 2021.

“How can a lower court issue an order for conducting the survey when the High Court has stayed the order?” Yadav questioned. “The current survey order is illegal.”

Referring to the case “Deen Mohammad Vs State Secretary,” which dates back to British India in 1937, Yadav said that the court had issued a judgment saying Gyanvapi Mosque Complex belongs to Muslim Waqf Board and Muslims have the right to offer prayers inside its premises. The ruling was made on the basis of oral testimony and documents.

The dispute over Gyanvapi’s ownership in independent India, however, re-emerged in 1991 when a Hindu community member, Vijay Shankar Rastogi, approached a court and called for the demolition of the mosque. He argued that Gyanvapi was built back in the 18th century by Aurangzeb after the destruction of a portion of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple which was built by Maharaja Vikramaditya some 2000 years ago.

However, Muslims represented by Sunni Central Waqf Board and Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, the mosque management committee, in 1998 approached the High Court for a stay on the lower court proceedings in view of the fact that both the “temple and the mosque coexisted.” They also said that Hindus, as well as Muslims, had been “offering prayers at their respective worship places without any hindrance or obstacle” and hence there was no need to revisit the case.

Worship Place Dispute History

The dispute between Muslims and Hindus regarding the subject traces its origin to the 18th century. The first legal battle over the ownership rights of disputed worshipping sites in India emerged in December 1949 after a member of the Hindu community identified as Gopal Singh Visharad filed a lawsuit demanding permission to pray inside Babri Mosque.

Constructed by Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur in Ayodhya city of today’s UP, back in 1528, Hindus say that Babri Mosque compound is Ram Janmabhoomi – the birthplace of one of their most revered deities, Lord Ram.

Following the case, the entire compound was sealed by the UP administration to avoid “further disputes.” Representatives of both Hindu and Muslim communities filed court cases to seek access inside the compound to offer prayers.

On December 6, 1992 clouds of dust covered Ayodhya as a Hindu mob supported, by the then leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which today forms India’s government, razed the giant structure to rubble.

The Babri Mosque-Ram Janmabhoomi case remained unresolved for several decades until the Supreme Court of India finally announced its verdict on November 9, 2019. The court ordered that the disputed land should be given to Hindus for the construction of the grand Ram Temple, adding that the Muslims should be given a piece of land somewhere else so that they can construct a mosque.

The Supreme Court judgment left the Muslim community of India “disheartened,” but they accepted the verdict. Members of the minority community, however, say that Ayodhya verdict emboldened right-wing Hindus to lay claims over thousands of mosques spread across India.

“We accepted the [Ayodhya] verdict vouching for communal harmony, peace, and to put an end to temple-mosque conflict but it is not happening,” Syed Muhammad Yasin, joint secretary of Anjum Masajid Banaras said. He added, “It looks like there is no rule of law but Jiski Lathi Iski Bhains” – a phrase used to describe the rule of the powerful.

‘Correcting the Wrongdoings’

The communal flare in India has reached to new heights following the claims made by right-wing Hindus that Gyanvapi was the site of a Hindu temple. The battle to correct the alleged wrongdoings of Muslim rulers is getting stronger ever since Hindu nationalist BJP came in to the power in 2014.

The ruling BJP, critics say, is in constant motion to “rewrite” Indian history, including changing the names of the cities named after the Muslim rulers or having any Islamic connection.

On  May 19, when the Varanasi court ordered the videography survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque Complex, a district judge in Mathura – a city 700 kilometers away from Varanasi – allowed the reopening of a lawsuit related to a dispute over the ownership of land that hosts Shahi Eidgah Mosque by accepting a PIL filed by Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust and other parties.

The petitioners in that lawsuit demanded the removal of the Shahi Eidgah Mosque by alleging that the mosque is constructed on Krishna Janmabhoomi – the birthplace of another Hindu lord, Krishna.

“We have heard from our ancestors that a temple was turned into a mosque,” Jagdish Pandit, a local Hindu who lives near the disputed site told The Diplomat, adding that the structure of the ancient mosque appears to be a temple. “The matter now is sub-judicious and the Hindu community is hopeful that the court will announce the judgment in their favor.”

The decades-old Shahi Eidgah Mosque-Krishna Janmabhoomi dispute between minority Muslims and majority Hindus was resolved in October 1968, when the two parties – Shahi Eidgah Trust and Sri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh (SKJSS] – signed an agreement. However, the current petitioners say that SKJSS was not authorized to execute the said agreement. For that reason, they are demanding the ownership of the entire plot, a total of 13.37 acres, that houses the mosque as well as the temple.

The Diplomat approached Mahendra Pratap Singh, one of the counsels challenging the agreement in Mathura court, for his comments. “Please email me the questionnaire for a better query and I will answer every question,” he said. However, as of press time he had not proved answers. The Diplomat will update the copy if Singh responds to the detailed questionnaire.

Syed Mohammad Yaseen told The Diplomat said that the Hindu supremacists are claiming a thousand mosques across the country. “Their prime aim is to take control of all the historical religious places of Muslims,” Yaseen said, adding, “Right-wing Hindus are eyeing to claim 30,000 mosques in cities like Banaras, Mathura and Lucknow.”

Violation of Places of Worship Act

The raging debates over mosques allegedly being temples in ancient India have brought the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 to the fore.

Shadan Farasat, an advocate in the Supreme Court, wrote in an article published in The Wire, a widely read online news website in India, that the destruction of a monument of political, cultural, or religious significance erected by an earlier, defeated order followed by the erection of a new building upon its ruins was standard practice for emperors and kings of all faiths in history.

“None of this is of any legal relevance to the religious character of a site, after the passing of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991,” she said.

The Act says that a mosque, temple, church or any place of public worship in existence on August 15, 1947, will retain the same religious character that it had on that day – irrespective of its history – and cannot be changed by the courts or the government.

However, during the petition hearing of the Shahi Eidgah case in Mathura, the court stated that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991 does not apply to the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Eidgah Mosque case because the settlement decree was issued long before it became law. The disputed land agreement was signed in 1968.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim Parliamentarian and the chief of India’s largest Muslim political party, All India Muslim Itehaad Muslameen (AIMIM), while referring to the Places of Worship Act, 1991 stressed, “Gyanvapi was a mosque, and it will be there till the judgment day, Insha’Allah.”

“When I was 20 years old, Babri was snatched from me. We will not let them snatch away our mosques anymore. We will not lose another mosque,” Owaisi said, in a video speech he shared on Twitter.

Meanwhile, within nine months of the Ayodhya verdict, in which the Supreme Court had hailed the Places of Worship Act, the 1991 Act was questioned in the same court.

The court in March 2021 admitted the petition of Ashwini Upadhyay, a former spokesman of the BJP, challenging the constitutional validity of parts of the Places of Worship Act, including its ban on of conversion of places of worship and the decree 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.”

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), a non-government organization constituted in 1973 by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sees the attempts to term mosques into temples as “nothing more than a conspiracy to create communal disharmony.”

“It is a matter of constitutional rights and is against the law,” General Secretary of AIMPLB Khalid Saifullah Rahmani said.