It's "Yesterday Once More".
The immortal Carpenters song usually resonates beautifully with most people. But for India, in the context of its sociopolitical history, the song is an unsettling reminder.
For the past several days, events related to Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Mosque have been re-enactments of events in Ayodhya between December 1949 and January 1950. Back then, the judiciary and the local administration had willingly collaborated in converting a fully functional mosque into a de facto temple.
Judiciary Has Become a Mute Spectator
This time, too, the judiciary – not just local civil judge Ravi Kumar Diwakar but even the Supreme Court – have become willing participants, as had happened in Ayodhya, in the ‘conversion project’ for a portion of the Gyanvapi Mosque, though small and ‘temporary’.
It must be, however, stated that unlike the proactive role that Diwakar has chosen for himself, the two top court justices, DY Chandrachud and PS Narasimha, besides Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, have opted to be mere spectators to this gross violation of the rule of law. They have also failed to act in time, as a result of which a law that is critical to India’s survival as a secular nation has been violated.
It’s common knowledge that there was a dispute over the mosques in Varanasi and Mathura. Although there have been no mass agitations for demolishing these shrines and building temples at the sites, both Gyanvapi Masjid and Shahi Idgah remained in the shadow of the Babri Masjid and were on the ‘list’ of Islamic places of worship that had to be ‘restored’.
The enactment of the Places of Worship Act on 18 September 1991 by a majority in Parliament had put a lid on these two disputes, while keeping the Ayodhya conflict out of its ambit.
Ironically, a five-judge Ayodhya title suit Bench, which included Justice Chandrachud, had termed this law emblematic of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. The law was described as being “intrinsically related to the obligations of a secular state”, and which “reflects the commitment of India to the equality of all religions”.
The Long Forgotten Places of Worship Act
While awarding the disputed site in Ayodhya to Hindu parties, the top court also asserted that the Act fulfilled “two purposes”. First, it prohibits the conversion of any place of worship. In doing so, it speaks to the future by mandating that the character of a place of public worship shall not be altered.
Second, the law seeks to impose a “positive obligation” to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947.
This ‘positive obligation’ was in reference to the responsibility of ensuring that other shrines remained out of dispute in return for the Ayodhya conflict to run its course. And this ‘obligation’ was everyone’s, the judiciary included.
Yet, when the civil judge in Varanasi mischievously issued a direction to conduct a rank amateurish survey on a fresh petition filed by five Hindu women, an action whose intentions were obvious, the Supreme Court chose not to act towards preventing the eventual violation of the Act about which it had spoken so appreciatively thirty months ago.
One wonders whether the Varanasi civil judge’s court is a “repeat offence”. The question arises because the Allahabad High Court on 9 September 2021 stayed the proceedings in the Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Vishwanath Temple land dispute case, and this judicial stay included the order by the lower court of conducting a ‘survey’ of the mosque premises by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The High Court verdict was necessitated when an order of the same civil court, albeit a different judge, Ashutosh Tewari, on 8 April 2021, called for a “comprehensive archaeological physical survey” of the area, in a suit that was filed in 1991 on behalf of the deity.
Although Justice Prakash Padia of the Allahabad High Court stated that Tewari’s order was “prima facie bad in law”, Diwakar, in his questionable decision, ordered a survey by a person who was not trained for the task – he was an advocate. And when this was objected to by the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Management Committee, which manages Gyanvapi Masjid, the court added the names of two others, who, however, were not any more qualified.
Would Muslims' Right to Offer Prayers Be Hampered?
Ajay Kumar Mishra was eventually removed from his post by the civil judge because was allegedly the source of the leak of the video of a small structure within the mosque, which is now claimed to be a ‘shiv ling’. But his removal does not undo the damage or diminish his role in enabling the violation of the Act.
Tewari and Diwakar wilfully displayed ignorance about the Act, which specified that after it came into effect, all cases seeking conversion of a place of worship to the status prior to 15 August 1947 “shall abate”.
The law also states that “no suit, appeal or other proceeding” of similar nature shall “lie on or after such commencement in any court, tribunal or other authority”. But two civil judges, over a period of barely a year, ignored the Act.
Even the Chief Justice of India, Justice NV Ramana, turned down a plea from the Anjuman Committee to order status quo on the survey. His Bench consisted of two other judges of the top court, and yet, the collective judicial wisdom still had ”no idea about this case”.
The counsel for the Muslim party pointed to the urgency and the need for the top court to intervene immediately, but to no avail. Even Justices Chandrachud and PS Narasimha (coincidentally, he represented Hindu parties in the Ayodhya case in Supreme Court) gave no direction to reverse the violation of the law.
On the contrary, the two asked the Varanasi District Magistrate to ‘secure’ the area where the ‘shiv ling’ was found without impeding the right of Muslims to enter the premises and worship. They did not scrutinise whether this order would alter irreversibly the character of the Gyanvapi Mosque and thereby violate the 1991 law.
The Supreme Court also did not examine the effect of the move on Muslim devotees or the question of whether namaz would be hampered to some extent due to the denial of access to the wazukhana.
Muslims Still Own the Mosque, But Till When?
In December 1949, after the idols of Ram Lalla were surreptitiously placed inside the Babri Masjid, no court or administrator restored the mosque to Muslims, saying they feared an untoward situation.
Even the state government asked the local administration to “maintain status quo” and it did not provide rightful restitution to Muslims. Still, it was necessary to apportion blame for facilitating the desecration of the Babri Masjid and its virtual conversion into a temple.
Instructions were eventually issued by the state government, at Jawaharlal Nehru’s directive, to remove the idols. But the Deputy Commissioner-cum-District Magistrate, KKK Nair, had by then ensured that thousands of Hindu devotees would gather at the site upon hearing ‘news’ of Lord Ram’s ‘divine appearance’.
He then took the plea that “removing the idol and restoring the mosque would make the situation volatile and was highly avoidable”.
Likewise, it is now highly unlikely that the wuzukhana would be unsealed and Muslims would be allowed the use of the structure that they insist is a fountain.
Make no mistake, Hindutva votaries have, courtesy of the civil judge, secured access to the precincts of the mosque, just as the Ram Chabutra built within the Babri Masjid after the clash in the 1850s gave local mahants a foothold within the mosque.
It is just a matter of time before public assembly begins at the sealed portion within the Varanasi mosque to offer ‘prayers’. Muslims remain in physical possession of the Gyanvapi Mosque for the moment. The moot question is, till when?
What will be the opportune time for the Sangh Parivar to make the final push? Will this be before the parliamentary elections in 2024, or would it be earlier? Importantly, what will be the social cost of these impending steps?
'Yesterday Once More'
There are other related questions, too. Will the Shahi Idgah in Mathura face a similar offensive? Furthermore, will the BJP mount a national campaign for repealing the Places of Worship Act? The party, after all, had opposed the legislation in 1991 when PV Narasimha Rao’s government had tabled it and staged a walkout during its passage.
The BJP has numerous options, and time is running out for not just the two shrines in Varanasi and Mathura, but perhaps many more. The irony is that after waxing eloquent about how after awarding the Ayodhya land to Hindu parties other targeted mosques would be protected, the judiciary has now played a role in making them vulnerable.
There is also a history of gainful rewards. KKK Nair and his wife were elected as Lok Sabha members on Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh tickets. Some others who ‘worked’ with Nair on project Ram Lalla became lawmakers at various levels, from municipal boards to Parliament. More recently, Justice Ranjan Gogoi was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
A grim occasion to hum ‘Yesterday Once More’.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)