Controversies, legal battles around Gyanvapi Mosque, Mathura’s Eidgah evoke memories of Babri Case: Dr. SQR Ilyas

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By Anwarulhaq Baig

NEW DELHI—All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) spokesperson Dr. Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas has expressed concerns about the unfolding events and ongoing legal battles surrounding the historic Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and Mathura’s Eidgah.

 In a speech delivered at the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind headquarters here on ‘Survey of Kashi and Mathura mosques – an analysis,” Dr. Ilyas drew parallels between the ongoing legal disputes surrounding the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and Mathura’s Eidgah, and the Babri Masjid case. He noted that the cases are being filed in the same way, with similar arguments being made by both sides. He also pointed out that the Supreme Court has refused to stay the proceedings in both the cases, despite the fact that the 1991 Places of Worship Act prohibits the alteration of the status of religious places as they existed on August 15, 1947.

Giving a striking resemblance to the current cases of Mathura’s Eidgah and Kashi’s Gyanvapi Mosque with the Babri Masjid case, Dr. Ilyas said, “The way cases are filed in lower courts, the grounds on which they are built, then they are challenged in the High Court, and then the Supreme Court, where reference to the 1991 Places of Worship Act is made. Yet, the Supreme Court refuses to grant a stay on it, claiming it’s merely attempting to ascertain the earlier status of the mosques. The court argues that the current status of the mosque or temple isn’t being altered.”

Dr. Ilyas expresses concern that the ongoing cases are being used to revive the same Hindutva agenda that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. He pointed out that in the Babri Masjid case, similar to the current disputes, the question of what existed at the disputed site before the mosque was raised during the early stages of legal proceedings. He said, “In the Babri case while the Muslim side argued that only land and revenue records should be considered as the case is related to the land title, the court allowed this question to be included in the framing of issues. The court responded by saying, ‘Let the issue be framed because one thing has also come to the fore that there was a temple before at the place, so keep it to the extent of framing the issue, we will see later when the opportunity comes whether there is a need to discuss it or not.”

Drawing attention to the Babri Masjid case, which originated in 1834 with a claim that Ram was born on the site, Dr. Ilyas detailed how the controversy evolved over time, including incidents such as the installation of idols and sealing of the mosque in 1949. The opening of the lock in 1986 during the Congress government further intensified the dispute nationwide.

Giving the historical background, he said, “The Babri mosque issue first came up in 1834 when it was claimed that Ram, considered God by Hindus, was born there. Back then, the Awadh Nawabs were ruling, so to brush the issue aside, they allowed a chabutra to be built in the outer courtyard of the mosque, and idols of Ram Lalla were placed over there. Then, in 1857, a plea was filed in the Faizabad court stating that devotees come from all over the country for Ram’s darshan, and they face a lot of difficulty due to heat, cold, and rain, so allow us to build a shade there. A Hindu Pundit magistrate dismissed this plea, saying that the Babri mosque is situated right next to it where namaz is offered five times, and if bhajan, kirtan starts at the chabutra, it will cause disturbance to the namaz. After this, the case went to the district court and got dismissed there too; however, a British judge at the district court wrote in his remarks that anyway, the Hindu claim is also strong that Lord Ram was born here.”

After independence, Dr. Ilyas said, “When Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and Govind Vallabh Pant was the Chief Minister of UP – both from the Congress – some miscreants climbed the mosque wall after Muslims finished their Isha namaz on the night of 22 December 1949 and kept the idols that were installed at the chabutra inside the Babri mosque, and the next morning, they sparked the concocted controversy. Muslims were not allowed to offer the Fajr namaz, and the mosque was sealed. When the central government asked the UP CM to remove the idols and hand over the mosque back to Muslims, the local officials replied that since a dispute has arisen now and the matter has reached the court, so the seal cannot be opened. The role played by the then Faizabad District Manager KK Nayar was very mischievous. But strangely, a Hindu constable wrote an FIR stating that namaz used to be offered in Babri mosque five times, Muslims left after finishing their Isha prayer, some anti-social people placed the idols in the night to desecrate the mosque. After that, the commissioner there also submitted an affidavit in court confirming what was stated in the FIR.”

DR. Ilyas said, “On February 1, 1986, when there was a Congress government at the Centre led by PM Rajiv Gandhi and also a Congress government in UP, in a completely planned manner, the lock at Babri mosque door was opened. A petition was filed in court, no notice was issued to the Muslim side. Immediately after a brief hearing, the verdict was announced allowing the opening of the seal and permission for darshan. At that time, a Doordarshan team was already present there who promptly broadcast this news across the country that the seal has been opened at Babri mosque and Ram Lalla’s darshan can be performed.”

Regarding the current disputes in Mathura and Varanasi, Dr. Ilyas expressed concerns about the surveys being conducted and potential manipulations of findings. He noted the similarities in arguments and propaganda, drawing parallels with the Babri mosque case. The similarities between the three cases are indeed striking. In all three cases, Hindu petitioners have filed suits claiming that the disputed sites were originally Hindu temples that were destroyed by Muslim invaders. The Muslim side has argued that the sites are legally registered as mosques and that their status should not be changed.

Drawing attention to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavations in the Babri mosque case, Dr. Ilyas highlighted contradictions between the findings and the ASI report. Emphasizing the manipulation of evidence and the challenges faced by the Muslim side in presenting their cases, he said, “The excavation findings proved that there was a Muslim population inhabiting the site of Babri Masjid, as cattle bones were found in large numbers indicating they were meat eaters. Additionally, 2-3 graves were also found there which were claimed to be of Rishis and Munis (sages), but the grave styles clearly established them as belonging to Muslims. However, all the excavation findings would support the Muslim side’s claim, but still, the ASI report submitted was manipulated. In response, a report signed by 10 famous archaeologists and historians from across India on behalf of the Muslim side challenged these ASI claims. As such, no discussions or arguments happened over this ASI excavation report and related evidence when the case came up for hearing in the Lucknow High Court. Perhaps it lacked any credible substance. The Supreme Court simply remarked in its 2019 verdict that whatever remnants were found, they date back to 400 years before Babri Masjid was constructed.”

Dr. Ilyas expressed concerns about the ongoing surveys at Gyanvapi Mosque and Mathura Eidgah, citing the potential for controversies based on imaginative interpretations of findings. He anticipates similar arguments and controversies to those seen in the Babri mosque case, including claims of pre-existing temples based on ambiguous signs or symbols. Recalling the Babri Masjid case where claims surrounding “pillar bases” fueled controversy despite findings potentially supportive of the Muslim claim, Dr. Ilyas fears a repeat of such tactics.

Highlighting the pre-emptive claims and the potential for imaginative interpretations of findings, he fears these could fuel another controversy, similar to the narrative that these sites were ancient temples forcibly converted into mosques by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, ultimately vitiating the national atmosphere with inflammatory propaganda that serves a specific agenda.

Dr. Ilyas debunked the baseless claim that large-scale temple demolitions occurred during Muslim rule, emphasizing that there was no shortage of vacant land for mosque construction during their times. Dr. Ilyas said, “People in Varanasi, however, dismiss such stories, claiming no temple ever existed here nor was demolished for the present-day Gyanvapi Mosque, which they say was constructed much earlier during Akbar’s era. They showed me some Persian documents in support of this claim. Notably, BN Pandey, a former Governor of Odisha and senior government official, wrote a book listing over a hundred prominent temples across India granted land endowments (jaagirs) by Aurangzeb. Former MP Syed Shahabuddin and I once visited Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya, where the priest unwrapped copper plate documents written in Persian, recording land documents granted from Aurangzeb’s era.”

Expressing disappointment over the judiciary’s handling of these cases, Dr. Ilyas said, “The current handling of these court cases and the courts’ attitude are surprising. In the November 9, 2019 Supreme Court verdict about the Babri Masjid case, the court emphasized the 1991 Act as the final word, aiming to prevent future disputes. Yet, the same Supreme Court and Chief Justice, who authored the 2019 verdict, remain silent despite the potential for similar controversies. It seems these cases are progressing on a similar trajectory, perhaps emboldening certain political or fanatic groups to adopt this divisive pattern for other mosques beyond Gyanvapi and Mathura. This pattern suggests an orchestrated plan to stoke nationwide controversies against the mosque.”

Addressing the challenges faced by Muslim litigants, particularly in Mathura, Dr. Ilyas mentioned the pressure, intimidation, and aggression they endure. He highlighted the plea from Mathura’s mosque management committee for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to intervene more prominently in the dispute. Dr. Ilyas said, “It is undeniable that the Babri Masjid case, stretching from 1949 to the 2019 verdict, despite evidence presented from our side, resulted in the loss of the mosque. Now, amidst similar anxieties surrounding the Gyanvapi and Mathura mosques, concerns are mounting about undue pressure and intimidation faced by Muslim litigants. The heavy police presence and limitations on religious practices at these mosques exacerbate these anxieties. Understandably, the Mathura mosque management committee feels overwhelmed and seeks greater support from the Personal Law Board. However, in the current legal climate, solely relying on courtroom battles, may seem insufficient.”

Raising concerns about the efficacy of continuing legal battles, Dr. Ilyas said “As the legal battles unfold, the Muslim community faces a challenging environment, raising doubts about the efficacy of relying solely on court proceedings.”

Dr. Ilyas underscored the dual importance of legal action and active interfaith engagement for the Muslim community. He advocated for pursuing legal recourse while simultaneously fostering strong relationships with other communities in the country. Dr. Ilyas emphasized the values of maintaining amity, harmony, and brotherhood, along with building trust with the wider civil society. He further highlighted the need for open communication to address misconceptions about Muslim rulers and Islam among other communities. Finally, Dr. Ilyas urged Muslims to convey to their fellow citizens that engaging in controversies surrounding places of worship ultimately benefits none.

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