The Supreme Court has done well to instruct the Varanasi District Magistrate that the area in the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex where a “Shivling” was found should be protected without impeding the right of Muslims to enter and worship. On Monday, a Varanasi court had ordered that the spot be sealed and that “only 20 Muslims should be allowed to pray at the mosque and they should not be allowed to perform wuzu (ablution)”. The SC’s directive has come in a plea filed by the Committee of Management of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, Varanasi, challenging a videography survey of the Shringar Gauri Sthal in the complex ordered by the Varanasi court. The Committee has contended that the survey violates the provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991.
The Places of Worship Act was legislated by Parliament at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The BJP, which had 120 MPs and was the political face of the movement, opposed the Bill in the House. The Act “prohibits conversion of any place of worship” and seeks “to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. It states that the religious character of a place of worship “shall continue to be the same as it existed” on August 15, 1947. The Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case was excluded from the ambit of the Act. Significantly, the Act covered all other sites to which Hindu groups had raised a claim, including in Mathura and Varanasi. A year later, on December 6, the Babri Masjid was destroyed by a mob, an action that the Supreme Court described as a criminal act in its 2019 order that gave the site where the mosque stood to the Hindu petitioners. In its order, the SC made a detailed reference to the Places of Worship Act, 1991. It said that “the State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution”. The Court concluded that the Places of Worship Act “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution”. And that the Act is a “a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution”.
This will now be contested on the ground — a plea similar to Gyanvapi comes up in Mathura on Thursday. As per the Act, any attempt to alter the character of the Gyanvapi mosque is a violation of the letter and spirit of the law of the land. Of course, the BJP has the numbers to amend this Act. But such a move will be nothing short of a challenge to the post-1947 Indian nation-state, where a multitude and different religions have co-existed by respecting each other’s space and rights and embracing an identity defined by Constitutional values rather than claims made on behalf of faith or numerical strength. On Ayodhya, despite calls from within, the Government took a call to wait for the highest court to rule. What it does with the Places of Worship Act and how it responds to the current campaign being fought in courts but framed by majoritarian politics in terms of culture and faith, will shape how a democratic India looks at its history and its future. The stakes couldn’t be higher, all need to tread with caution — and the Constitution.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on May 18, 2022 under the title ‘Caution, Constitution’.