Gyanvapi Mosque: SC Says Shiv Lingam To Be Protected Without Restricting Muslims’ Rights

Justices Chandrachud and Narasimha, both previously involved in the Ayodhya Title Dispute, strive for 'balance' in the Gyanvapi mosque case.

Braving the ongoing heatwave in the national capital, news anchors, videographers, and clamorous saffron-clad groups dotted the Supreme Court’s front lawns on May 17th, 2022. The topic of discussion in their torrid public debate: how the Court will react to a Varanasi Civil Judge’s recent Order restricting Muslims from offering namaz at the controversial Gyanvapi mosque. 

Inside Courtroom 4, Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and P.S. Narasimha spent the day working their way through a packed docket. Both Judges allotted an extra hour at the end of regular working hours to hear Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argue this case.

Intent upon striking a balance in today’s proceedings, the Bench clarified that the shiv lingam allegedly found in the Gyanvapi mosque’s premises must be protected. However, at the same time, Muslims cannot be restricted from offering namaz at the mosque. The Bench further issued notice in the Gyanvapi mosque’s challenge to the Civil Judge’s April 2022 Order that allowed a survey into the mosque’s historical origins. 

A Long-Standing Dispute Over the Mosque’s Origins

The dispute over the origins of the Gyanvapi mosque, located in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, first appeared in Indian courts in 1991. Devotees of the famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple—located next to the mosque—sought an investigation of the mosque by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to confirm a theory they had regarding its history. They claimed that the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) had destroyed a Lord Vishweswar temple at the site and built the Gyanvapi mosque atop its remains. Historians and local religious leaders remain divided on whether these claims are true. Nevertheless, the mosque’s Management Committee challenged the petition at the Allahabad High Court—and the Court stayed the survey and proceedings in 1998. 

Similar petitions resurfaced post the 2019 Judgment in the Ayodhya Title Dispute. A local Varanasi court allowed a survey of the mosque in April 2021—however, the Allahabad High Court promptly stayed the survey in September 2021, stating that the lower Court cannot order a survey while the maintainability of the petitions is pending before the High Court. 

The parties representing the mosque argue that the move violates the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 (Places of Worship Act)Section 3 of the Act bars altering the form of religious structures in independent India. The Act was passed partially in response to the claims that Babri Masjid—in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya—was built on top of a temple marking Hindu deity Lord Rama’s birthplace.  

Interestingly, the current Bench at the Supreme Court bears connections to the Ayodhya case. Chandrachud J was one of five Judges to hold that the Babri Masjid site was a valid exception to the Section 3 rule—in that its structure could be altered post-independence. Justice Narasimha, then a Senior Advocate, argued in favour of the mosque’s demolition. 

The Current Case

In April 2021, the Gyanvapi mosque issue returned to a Civil Judge (Senior Division) in Varanasi. Five Hindu women, affiliated with the Vishwa Vedic Sanathan Sang, filed a petition seeking permission to worship at the site for one year. While hearing this case, the Civil Judge, in April 2022, ordered a survey of the site to find any evidence of a Hindu temple beneath the mosque. 

However, with the survey report yet to be filed, the petitioners returned to the Civil Judge alleging that a shiv lingam had been found at the wazukhana of the mosque. The wazukhana is the area of a mosque where devotees perform ritual ablutions before commencing their prayers. The petitioners asked for the shiv lingam to be protected and for the area to be sealed. One of their petitioners’ prayers further sought that only 40 Muslims should be allowed at the wazukhana at a time, in order to protect the lingam

While expressing concerns about his personal safety, the Judge granted the petitioners’ prayers on May 16th, 2022. He only specifically stated, however, that the shiv lingam should be protected. 

Senior Advocate Ahmadi: Civil Court’s Survey Violates Places of Worship Act 

In May 2022, the matter reached the Supreme Court. The Gyanvapi mosque’s Management Committee—Ajnuman Intezamia Masjid Varanasi—challenged the Civil Judge’s Orders authorising the survey and then restricting namaz for Muslim devotees. Senior Advocate Hufeza Ahmadi, appearing for the mosque’s Management Committee, first argued against the namaz restriction in today’s proceedings. 

Mr. Ahmadi stated that the Order restricting namaz was delivered without notice to the Committee, who are the respondents at the Civil court. Given that the commissioner advocate’s report was yet to be filed, the Civil Judge based his decision solely on the petitioners’ claims. He further argued that the status quo, as it existed before the cases were filed, must be maintained. That is, Muslims must be allowed to continue offering namaz at the Gyanvapi mosque. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the State of Uttar Pradesh, argued that the shiv lingam must be protected. The structure had been found in the wazukhana, which is different from the prayer hall in which namaz is offered. So, sealing the wazukhana would not hinder devotees. Mr. Ahmadi clarified that the wazukhana is used to cleanse oneself before offering namaz. Effectively, one cannot offer namaz without first visiting the wazukhana to perform these ablutions.

The Bench stated that it was essential to balance the interests of both parties. Chandrachud J noted that the relief granted today should only be interpreted as protecting the presence of the alleged shiv lingam. The petitioners’ prayers seeking restrictions on namaz had not been granted by the Civil Judge, Chandrachud J clarified.

In relation to the initial Order allowing the survey, Mr. Ahmadi argued that the Civil Judge had violated the stay Order issued by the Allahabad High Court in September 2021. He further stated that the survey violates both Section 3 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, and the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict. 

The Court issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh government and the five women devotees. The matter will be next heard on May 19th, 2022.