Gyanvapi Mosque Dispute
Committee of Management Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Varanasi v Rakhi Singh
The SC will decide if the Varanasi Civil Court’s Order allowing a videographic survey into the origins of the Gyanvapi Mosque violates the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
Petitioners: Committee of Management, Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Varanasi.
Lawyers: Senior Advocate Huzefa A. Ahmadi, Advocate On Record Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, Advocate Nizamuddin Pasha, Advocate Ibad Mushtaq, Advocate Kanishka Prasad.
Respondents: Rakhi Singh, Laxmi Devi, Sita Sahu, Manju Vyas, Rekha Pathak, State of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi District Magistrate, Varanasi Police Commissioner, Board of Trustees of Shree Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Lawyers: Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, Advocate General Ajay Mishra, Additional Advocate General Ardhendumauli Kumar Prasad, Senior Advocate Garima Prasad, Additional Advocate General Sharan Dev Singh Thakur, Advocate On Record Ruchira Goel, Advocate Barun Kumar Shinha, Advocate Pratibha Shihha, Advocate Baby Devi Bonia, Advocate Abhishek.
Does a Court-ordered survey into the disputed origins of a religious structure violate the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991?
While the survey is pending, which religious denomination has the right to pray at the structure?
On May 13th, 2022, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana agreed to list the Gyanvapi mosque case before a Bench presided over by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud. With this listing, political debates over the historical origins of places of worship have entered the Supreme Court once again.
The Gyanvapi mosque is located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh—and is a stone’s throw away from the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. The present case dates back to August 2021, when five Hindu women affiliated with the Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh filed a petition before a Varanasi Civil Court. Their request: permission to worship the Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and Nandi idols allegedly located inside Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque. They also sought to prevent any damage to these statues.
This legal and historical debate over the mosque’s origins first reached India’s legal corridors in 1991. Priests filed petitions at a Civil Court in Varanasi seeking to worship within the mosque. They argued that the mosque stood atop a demolished portion of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The temple’s demolition was ordered by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707), and the Gyanvapi mosque was subsequently built in 1669. In 1998, the Allahabad High Court stayed the proceedings.
While challenging these early petitions at lower courts and eventually at the Allahabad High Court, the Gyanvapi mosque’s Management Committee stated that a survey would violate Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which maintains that the character of a place of worship shall be determined as it was on August 15th 1947. The Act was passed in 1991 partially in response to the heightened politicisation of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janma Bhoomi dispute at the time. S 3 criminalises the conversion of a place of worship from one sect to another—however, s 5 specifically excludes the Babri Masjid dispute from these provisions.
Nevertheless, the matter resurged with the Hindu women’s 2021 petition. Responding to it on April 8th, 2022, Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar ordered a ‘videographic survey’ of the mosque to ascertain the existence and location of these deities. The Judge appointed Ajay Kumar Mishra as Advocate Commissioner to lead the survey and file a report. Mr. Mishra was suggested for the role by the plaintiffs—a move the Gyanvapi mosque’s Management Committee challenged before the Allahabad High Court. On April 21st, 2022, the Court dismissed the petition—and so the survey began on May 6th.
However, the survey ran into trouble on the first day—with religiously charged protests heralding the exercise. The Management Committee, on May 7th, approached the Varanasi Civil Court to specify both the areas of inspection and how long the survey would take to complete. Protesting against the videographic survey, it also sought Mr. Mishra’s removal as Advocate Commissioner. Mr. Mishra had reportedly demanded that the locks of barricaded areas within the mosque be broken. Additionally, he conducted the survey without identifying the disputed site.
On May 12th, the Civil Court rejected the mosque’s request to replace Mr. Mishra, allowing a videographic survey within the premises. While clarifying the duration of the investigation, the Court stated that the survey is expected to reveal the exact location of the Maa Shringar Gauri site as well as other idols. It authorised the district administration to open any locks on the premises—while ordering officials to file FIRs against those who attempt to hinder the process.
On May 13th, the matter finally reached the Supreme Court. The Mosque’s Management Committee filed a petition before the Court, once again requesting the stay of the survey and of pending proceedings before the Varanasi Civil Court. Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the Gyanvapi mosque, argued that the exercise disturbs communal peace and harmony, while also violating s 4 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. The SC refused the stay but agreed to list the matter for the next week before a Bench comprising Justice D.Y. Chandrachud.
With the SC proceedings yet to commence, on May 16th, the Varanasi Civil Court ordered the District Magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma to seal an area within the Gyanvapi mosque. Before the Survey Committee filed a report, the petitioners informed Diwakar J that a shiv lingam was present within the premises. Without hearing from the Mosque Management Committee, the Civil Court accepted that the premises must be sealed—and namaz restricted to protect the alleged shiv lingam.
On May 17th, hearings on the matter commenced at the Supreme Court before a Bench comprising Chandrachud J and Justice P.S. Narasimha. Narasimha J, formerly a Senior Advocate, appeared in the Ayodhya Title Dispute, arguing in favour of the Babri Masjid’s demolition. Chandrachud J was part of the Bench for the same dispute—which ultimately granted the land the Babri Masjid stands on to Hindu devotees.
While the SC was hearing the case on May 17th, the Varanasi Civil Court ordered Mr. Mishra’s removal as Advocate Commissioner for the survey. Justice Diwakar’s Order came off the back of an application by Special Advocate Commissioner, Vishal Singh—Mr. Mishra had allegedly leaked footage from the video survey to the media. Work pending in the survey from May 12th, 2022, onwards will be handled by Mr. Singh and an Assistant Advocate Commissioner. Diwakar J has raised personal safety concerns during this time.
While some historians seem certain that Aurangzeb demolished a Vishweshwar temple to build the mosque, others argue that there is no evidence of a rebuilt structure. How the Court chooses to proceed in this case may galvanise many other long-contested debates over the identities of religious sites in India.