Near identical petitions in the Gyanvapi case follow the pattern of Ayodhya suits

Policemen stand guard near the Gyanvapi mosque during Friday noon prayers in Varanasi on 20 May 2022. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
28 September, 2022

If there is one message that emanates from the almost identically-worded suits filed against Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque, it is this: little has changed in the Hindu Right’s modus operandi since 1950, when the first suit was filed in Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid case. The two cases may be separated by over seven decades, but the petitions filed against the two mosques seem to originate from the same script designed to achieve the same objective.

Recently, Article 14 reported on how eight Hindu petitions claiming the right to pray inside the Gyanvapi mosque have a clear intention—to overwhelm Muslim defendants and force the court to give faith a priority over law. It pointed out that all of them are cut-and-paste suits with minor differences, filed in the name of different petitioners. The petitioners, the report states, include the far-right editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, Suresh Chavhanke, and four Hindu women from Varanasi “fronting for a former member of the Hindu fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad.”

The petitions “call for decrees for Hindus to pray inside the mosque and injunctions against Muslims from interfering with the construction of a new temple, destroying deities, and from using the complex.” On 12 September, a Varanasi court upheld the maintainability of these petitions. This can rekindle the debate on the consequences of changing the character of a religious place after 15 August 1947, which had received some closure in the Ayodhya judgment of 2019.

The petitions in the Gyanvapi mosque case follow a similar pattern I had witnessed while reporting on the Babri Masjid case. After an idol of the Hindu deity Ram was planted under the central dome of Babri Masjid in December 1949, a slew of suits and affidavits were filed by Hindu parties to claim a right over the land on which the mosque stood. Until then, no one had sought the right to pray inside the mosque. One suit had previously sought permission to construct a temple at Ram Chabutara, a raised platform in the outer courtyard close to the mosque, calling it the birth place of Ram. Planting the idol, however, changed the game, marking the beginning of a long-drawn legal battle over the control of the mosque.

The first suit was filed on 16 January 1950 by Gopal Singh Visharad, a local Hindu Mahasabha leader. As I reported for my co-authored book Ayodhya: The Dark Night, Visharad claimed in his suit that when he went to offer his prayers at the “janma bhumi,” after recovering from an illness on 14 January that year, the provincial government and its employees stopped him “from entering the place where the idols of Shri Bhagwan Ram Chandra and other gods” were placed.  According to the suit, this was tantamount to depriving Hindus of their “legitimate rights of worship” and that the provincial government was “exercising undue pressure on Hindus through its employees” to remove the idols from their present places. The suit included a prayer that Visharad be “entitled to worship and visit without obstruction or disturbance Shri Bhagwan Ram Chandra and others” and that “a perpetual injunction restraining the defendants from removing the idols” be issued.

Among the eight defendants listed in the suit, five were local Muslims, including one Zahoor Ahmad, and the rest were state government officials. On the same day, a Faizabad court issued a notice to the defendants and granted the request for an interim injunction.

An almost identically worded second suit in the case was filed before the Faizabad court on 5 December that year by Paramhans Ramchandra Das, an Ayodhya-based sadhu and the city president of the Hindu Mahasabha. In a September 2010 judgment regarding the dispute, the Allahabad High Court made a note of this suit, which was also filed against Ahmad and seven others. “The plaint was almost in verbatim reproduction of the plaint of Suit No. 1,” the court stated. “Valuation was also same and reliefs claimed were also same. Boundaries of the property in dispute at the bottom of the plaint were also same.” This suit was withdrawn in 1990.

Apart from the civil case, the pattern was repeated even in the criminal case that ran parallel to the title suit. In an August 2016 report  for the, I pointed to the similarity of content in 19 affidavits that Muslim residents of Ayodhya filed separately in February 1950, relinquishing all their claims over Babri Masjid and making a plea to hand over the mosque to Hindus. Anyone could guess that it was part of a larger strategy to use the vulnerability of local Muslims to strengthen the case for converting the mosque into a Hindu temple.

These affidavits, totaling 19 in number, were filed in the court of the city magistrate of Faizabad between 8 February and 24 February 1950. Eight of these affidavits were filed within a few hours on 16 February that year. And all of them made similar claims—that “Babri Masjid was built after destroying Janma Bhumi temple”, that “Muslims stopped going to Babri Masjid for Namaj after the riots of 1934”, that “Hindus were regularly offering Pooja” since then and that “the petitioner would have no objection if government handed over the mosque to Hindus” … Hindu parties on various occasions have been using these affidavits as proof that Babri Masjid had been a temple since 1934.

The fact remains that it was only after a group of Hindu fanatics led by Abhiram Das, a sadhu and a Hindu Mahasabha activist, planted the idol that Hindus took control of the Babri Masjid and stopped Muslims from offering namaz in its precincts.

The role of Hindu Mahasabha leaders in planting the idol in Babri Masjid and exerting pressure on local Muslims in filing the affidavits was never probed. The criminal case eventually got submerged under the civil suits that had been filed by Visharad and Paramhans. In July 1953, Faizabad’s city magistrate issued an order stopping the further hearings in the criminal case till the title suits were decided. A local Hindi weekly, Virakta, in its issue of 18 August 1953, reported: “The honourable judge … has ordered that the case be closed for the lack of evidence and Baba Abhiram Das [the main accused] be acquitted of the charges [of planting the idol in the mosque and desecrating it].”

Over seven decades and a long judicial journey later, the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi is once again witnessing the kind of pressure tactics that marked the beginning of the legal dispute in Ayodhya.