Varanasi: Sitting under a yellow-coloured tarpaulin tethered to a tree in a corner of the Varanasi district court, Sudhir Tripathi laid out the strategy to overwhelm India’s legal system so that Hindus can gain control over a 17th-century mosque along the banks of the Ganga in Hinduism’s holiest city.
There were, Article 14 pointed out to Tripathi—a middle-aged lawyer, sporting a thick moustache and streaks of turmeric powder and a large vermillion dot on his forehead—six more or less identical petitions, drafted by a Delhi-based advocate, Hari Shankar Jain, in which Tripathi was also a lawyer, claiming the Gyanvapi mosque for Hindus.
These six and two more have been admitted by Varanasi courts over the past year, even though such admission, said legal experts, violates a 31-year-old law, The Places of Worship Act, 1991, which forbids courts from entertaining suits that question the “religious character” of a place as it existed on 15 August 1947.
The strategy to file multiple petitions, said Tripathi, was “perfectly fine”, as long as the petitioners were different.
“The objective of all of them is the same,” said Tripathi. “How many petitions will they defeat?"
Speaking over the phone from Delhi, Jain, 68, who drafted the petitions, and whose son Vishnu Shankar Jain is appearing in the district court for four Hindu women petitioners who want to pray to a Hindu goddess inside the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi mosque complex, told us, “There is a legal strategy. There will be more coming.”
Jain’s intentions and politics are clear and publicly stated.
“Religion can be saved by any community only adopting fundamentalism,” Jain tweeted in 2017: “Tolerance is curse & antireligion. Rigidity is fundamental for survival.”
While a 1991 petition to demolish the Gyanvapi mosque, built after the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb is believed to have demolished the Shiv temple that once stood there in 1669, and reclaim the plot for Hindus, has been slowly winding its way through the court system for three decades, what has emerged over the last 15 months is a well-oiled litigation machine churning out one cut-copy-paste petition after another, in the name of different Hindu gods and petitioners.
Those petitioners include far-right “journalist” and editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, Suresh Chavhanke, four Hindu women from Varanasi (one Delhi-based petitioner has withdrawn) fronting for a former member of the Hindu-fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others from at least four states.
Their intention is clear: to overwhelm Muslim defendants, pressure the judiciary into placing faith over the law, and mobilise public opinion through frenzied media coverage, which is already evident (here and here).
Under a tin shed in another corner of the district court from where Tripathi sat, Mumtaz Ahmed, a lawyer for the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid committee (the Gyanvapi mosque committee), said, “One man, one team and one machine is behind all this.”
Ahmed did not take names but the reference was to Hari Shankar Jain. “One company is doing this and then putting the face of local lawyers,” he said.
Next to him, Ejaz Mohammed, the elderly caretaker of the Gyanvapi mosque alleged all these cases were priming India’s Hindu electorate for the 2024 general elections.
“How is it appropriate to file so many cases for one property?” said Mohammed. “The courts here are such that they are accepting all of them.”
Legal experts said in general it was difficult to stop multiple petitions, even though, as others pointed out, and as Article 14 reported on 19 May 2022, most should never be allowed because of the 1991 law reiterated by the Supreme Court in its 2019 Ayodhya verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, where it said: “In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”
A Well Oiled Litigation Machine
Examining the eight petitions filed against the Gyanvapi mosque since 2021, Article 14 found them to be more or less identical, with only a few changes in the wordings of the “prayer” in some of them, and different gods and people—“friend and devotee’ of the gods—named as petitioners.
Given the scrutiny around the spurt in petitions, a new strategy has been to file the same petition fronted by a Varanasi based-lawyer, as is the case with the eighth and latest petition that calls for a ban on the entry of Muslims into the mosque.
Even as the 1991 law bars altering the character of the religious place, representatives of the Hindu right are on a filing spree, not only against Muslim religious places but Islamic historical monuments nationwide.
In addition to the six petitions against the Gyanvapi mosque, Jain has also filed two against the Shahi Eidgah mosque next to the Lord Krishna temple in Mathura, one against the Qutub Minar in Delhi, one against the Taj Mahal in Agra, and one against the Kamal Maula mosque in Indore.
Similar campaigns against Islamic places of worship are now underway in other parts of the country, including the Teele Wali Masjid Lucknow, the Begum Sahiba mosque in Agra, both in Uttar Pradesh; the Malali mosque near Mangaluru, the Jamia Masjid in Srirangapatna and a dargah in Bidar, all three in Karnataka; two dargahs in Pune, Maharashtra; and the Ajmer Sharif dargah in Rajasthan.
Former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, Govind Mathur, said that "multiplicity of litigation needs to be deprecated" even if filed in a bonafide manner, especially when these petitions were being brought with a "communal intent" to the courts.
“Everywhere this kind of mischief is going on. These are malicious efforts with a communal intent,” said Justice Mathur. “The courts are neither helpless nor hapless. It is for the judges to take appropriate action.”
'The Woman Should Be A Housewife With Children’
It is not in dispute that Mughal ruler Aurangzeb and other Islamic rulers demolished Hindu temples during their centuries-long reign in India, but the modern-day political and legal campaign of the Hindu right to demolish the mosques constructed hundreds of years ago is in contravention of India’s existing laws.
The campaign has also been criticised for taking India back to the dark days of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, further marginalising India’s 200-million Muslim minority, making many claims that are fantasy—such as this by prominent Hindu extremist Yati Narsinghanand claiming that the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is of Hindu provenance—and ignoring the complications of history.
The efforts to bring down the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and Shahi Eidgah in Mathura, which were on a slow boil as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led movement to demolish the Babri Masjid took precedence, are quickly escalating two years before the 2024 general election. If the BJP wins again, it will be the third consecutive victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the right-wing ecosystem that supports him. On 29 May, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura are located, said, “After Ram Temple in Ayodhya , the Kashi, Mathura, Vrindavan, Vindhyavasini Dham and Naimish Dham appear to be waking up.”
“Hindus will win,” said Sohan Lal Arya, a former vice president of the VHP, who says he is the man behind the five Hindu women that have filed a writ petition to pray to “Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Hanuman, Lord Ganesh, and other visible and invisible deities inside the old temple complex”, which is the Gyanvapi mosque.
Laying out sepia-coloured images of the mosque, the 70-year-old activist recalled purchasing them from a photo studio in the 1970s, when the religious site was open and accessible before the Hindutva movement in the nineties began chipping away at the syncretic traditions of one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Arya, a father and grandfather, who grew up in the shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, told us about participating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, the brick he had brought back from its ruins in Ayodhya, and his three-decade-long struggle to get the Gyanvapi demolished, the latest chapter of which is litigation.
Arya said that he met with 35 women before deciding on the five Hindu litigants, including his own wife Laxmi Devi, a soft-spoken woman who smiled as her husband spoke animatedly about their son and daughter having PhDs in and teaching history and economics respectively.
“I spread the word that the woman should be a housewife with children, traditional and respect boundaries,” said Arya. “These women could barely speak, but now they are talking before the media of the whole country. I trained them. I wrote the lines they memorised. I wrote different lines for all of them.”
‘We Are Going Step By Step’
With four Hindu women who he is representing sitting close by, Tripathi said their petition to pray at the Shringar Gauri near the outer western wall of the mosque, had led to civil judge Ravi Kumar Diwakar allowing videography inside the Gyanvapi mosque, which in turn had brought the Hindu side one step closer to its objective of demolishing the mosque and getting a temple constructed.
The controversy around whether the court-appointed commissioners had indeed found a Shivling inside the "wazu khaana" (a well-like structure where Muslims wash before praying) or a fountain (as per the Muslim side) would compel any judge to order another survey in any of the other cases, Tripathi said.
“I'm saying shivling, they are saying fountain. How will it be proved? The only way is another survey,” he said. “We are going step by step.”
“Things Can Happen If They Are Brought Up Again & Again”
Denying the six petitions he filed were more or less identical, Hari Shankar Jain said only the “gist” was the same and there were a few changes in the pleas of the gods and the petitioners.
For instance, he said, the Hindu women petitioners want to routinely pray to Maa Shringar Gauri (they currently pray once a year on the fourth day of Navratri), Ma Ganga (the river) wants jalabhishek (washed with her water) for Lord Shiva, and Nandi (the bull of Lord Shiva) wants the god to emerge.
A seventh petition against the Gyanvapi mosque, filed by Lucknow-based advocate Shailendra Singh on behalf of Saadhvi Poornamba and others, borrows heavily from the previous petitions filed by Jain.
The eighth and most recent petition seeking a ban on Muslim entry into the Gyanvapi mosque, filed by Varanasi-based lawyer Mann Bahadur Singh on behalf of Adi Visheshwar (a god) and others —transferred to a senior civil judge of the fast track court, Mahendra Pandey, on 25 May—is almost identical.
Advocate Shailendra Singh told us that it was fine to cut-copy-paste from a previous petition on the same subject as long as the name of the petitioner was different. “Things can happen if they (petitions) are brought up again and again,” he said.
Advocate Mann Bahadur Singh told us that while he had changed the “prayer” slightly, the petition was drafted by Jain.
Jain, however, denied these contentions, saying that other lawyers were using his draft without his explicit permission, but he did not object to it since they all had the same objective.
‘Dangerous And Staged’: Experts
So far, civil judges in Varanasi have admitted all eight cases filed against the Gyanvapi mosque since 2021. The matter reached the Supreme Court after the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee appealed judge Diwakar’s decision.
While Justice Prakash Padia of the Allahabad High Court in September 2021 stayed a survey of the mosque premises by the Archaeological Survey of India, ordered by Varanasi senior civil judge Ashutosh Tiwari in April 2021, the Supreme Court did not put a stop to the videography conducted in May 2022.
That led to the results of the survey being leaked and prime time news debates on unverified claims of Hindu symbols and a shivling being found inside the mosque, which, even if true, is irrelevant as long as the Places of Worship Act exists.
Given that any citizen can move the court and there is no bar on multiple petitions in the same matter (courts tag them together with one lead case), legal experts said that it came down to examining the ethics and propriety of flooding overburdened courts with petitions, especially when they were seemingly aimed at pressuring the judiciary and causing social unrest.
Legal experts differed on how much and at what stage judges could put a stop to such litigation, given how easy it was to use different petitioners and lawyers.
Supreme Court senior advocate Salman Khurshid said there was nothing illegal about filing multiple petitions in the same matter by the same lawyer, even if they only changed the name of the petitioners, and this was done mostly for “public consumption”.
“When our courts are burdened with so much litigation, adding so many petitions with identical language is to put pressure on the judiciary and seek media attention,” said Faizan Mustafa, a constitutional law expert and vice-chancellor of the Hyderabad-based NALSAR (National Academy of Legal Studies and Research).
While it was for the courts to put a stop to it, Mustafa said judges in the lower courts rarely do.
BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy said that someone should object to the “unnecessary burdening” of the court, adding, "If you (media) stop covering it, it will stop."
Swamy, who has challenged the Places of Worship Act in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and void ab initio (void from the beginning), added: "Unless the Places of Worship Act is repealed, as far as removing a mosque for building a temple is concerned, all this legal activity is infructuous ."
Human rights activist Aakar Patel said the petitions were "dangerous and staged” and “designed to cause social tensions”. While it was the right of every citizen to file a petition, given the petitions were violating the Places of Worship Act, it was the responsibility of the judiciary to stop them, Patel said.
“For these cases to be going all the way up to the Supreme Court is very shameful,” said Patel.
'It Is Done To Totally Harass Us’
The eight petitions filed against the Gyanvapi mosque since 2021 are:
Goddess Ma Shrinagar Gauri and others versus Union of India and others (17 February 2021)
Satyam Tripathi and others versus Union of India and others (8 March 2021)
Ma Ganga and others versus Union of others (19 March 2021)
Shrimati Rakhi Singh and others versus State of Uttar Pradesh and others (16 August 2021)
Lal Shri Adi Visheshwar Jyotir Ling and others versus UP Central Waqf Board (September 2021)
Shri Nandiji Maharaj and others versus Sunni Central Waqf Board and others (September 2021)
Saadhvi Poornamba and others versus State of UP and others (September 2021)
Adi Visheshwar and others versus State of Uttar Pradesh and others (May 2022)
The petitioners, in the age range from the twenties to sixties, hail from different parts of the country including Lucknow, Varanasi, Noida, Delhi, Mahendragarh (Haryana), Patna, Gonda, and Kathua (Jammu and Kashmir).
Most sections in the eight petitions including the description of historical events (“period after 1669”), submissions on Article 13(1) and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, the validity of the Places of Worship Act, the sections on “if Waqf ever created,” and civil suit no 62 of 1936 (a mosque-related case which the plaintiffs cite), among others, mirror each other.
The “prayers”, with a few sentences worded differently in some 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.
Rais Ahmed Ansari, a lawyer for the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid committee, who is appearing in seven petitions against the mosque, said, “They are almost the same. They have just changed the names of the gods, Ganga, Gauri, Vishweshawar.”
“We have to prepare for and reply to all the cases. We have to look at each one in case they have changed something and so we have to look at the evidence accordingly,” he said. “It is done to totally harass us. They are looking for any opportunity, if we are lax in any case, to take advantage of it.”
Mounting Petitions Against The Places Of Worship Act
There are now six petitions challenging the Places of Worship Act, 1991 including by Swamy, former BJP spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay, who was briefly arrested in connection with a rally in Delhi where anti-Muslim slogans were raised in August 2021.
Other petitioners include the Lucknow-based Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh, Delhi-based advocate Chandra Shekhar, Varanasi resident Rudra Vikram Singh, and Mathura-resident Devkinandan Thakur (the last three in the month of May 2022).
Upadhyay’s petition was admitted by the Supreme Court in March 2021, and tagged with Swamy’s, but is yet to receive a response from the Modi government.
Noting what he called the delayed response of the government to the petitions, Swamy said that the alternative to the legal route, given that Modi was also a member of parliament from Varanasi, was for him to move Parliament to repeal the Act.
“The question is, what is Modi doing for Hindutva?” said Swamy. “Nothing.”
On the mounting petitions against Islamic religious sites in the country, and the Places of Worship Act, Upadhyay said that it was perfectly legal to do so, noting that hundreds of petitions were filed against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
Constitutional law expert Faizan Mustafa said that it would be surprising if the petitions filed against the CAA, a law that makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship, were identical, and “there was a difference in petitions filed in a constitutional matter from the entire country and a civil matter in a city”.
On the mounting petitions against mosques and Islamic structures, Mustafa said: “The recent spurt may be either due to recent victories in assembly elections or to divert people’s attention from economy, inflation and unemployment.”
Petitions In Violation Of The Places Of Worship Act
The first petition was filed against the Gyanvapi mosque in 1991 by Somnath Vyas, Ramrang Sharma, and Harihar Pandey, represented by Varanasi-based advocate VS Rastogi, and the subject of appeals and revision petitions by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid and the Sunni Waqf Board, is still winding its way through the courts.
They argued the Places of Worship Act did not apply because the mosque was built on remnants of the temple, some of which still exist.
Jain, who is behind six petitions against the Gyanvapi mosque, told us the same thing. “It is for lawyers to get under the skin of the law, find its weakness and interpret it to make our case,” he said.
On the argument that the 1991 Act did not apply because the mosque was constructed on the remnants of a temple, former chief justice of the Allahabad High Court Govind Mathur said, "That is incorrect. What is the living position of the religious body? It is a living mosque."
Where the Gyanvapi mosque stood was "irrelevant," senior Supreme Court advocate Salman Khurshid said, pointing out it was covered by the Act since it is not a protected monument, in which case there is no right to religious rituals, let alone changing them. The only exception in the Act is for ancient and historical monuments or archaeological sites.
Furthermore, Khurshid said that Gyanvapi was different from the Babri Masjid case because there was no question of "uninterrupted possession" not being with the Muslims.
“The court did not hear our matter for 28 years, but for Muslims, they will hear it immediately, they will have midnight hearings,” said advocate Rastogi, referring to the stay on a survey that Allahabad High Court put in September 2021, 30 years after he filed the first petition against the mosque. “I feel Hindus are second-class citizens and Muslims are first-class citizens.”
On the recent petitions against the mosque, Rastogi said, “These case filings are wrong. They are against the law,” but he did not explain why.
‘The Temple Is In Our Blood’
Following a hearing in Shrimati Rakhi Singh and others vs State of Uttar Pradesh on 24 May, the four Varanasi-based Hindu women petitioners and their husbands sat with advocate Sudhir Tripathi and spoke confidently about winning the case for Hindus all over the country.
Dissatisfied with only being able to pray once a year to Ma Shringar Gauri at the outer wall of the mosque, the women said they had the right to pray there every day.
Catapulted into the national limelight in May, the women said they were managing the publicity, the legal case, and their families.
“We have the passion and courage to do it (fight the case),” said Sita Sahu, who runs a small provisions store. “We knew there could be problems but together we are managing and our passion is only increasing.”
Manju Vyas, who runs a small beauty parlour, said they were “a little afraid” of speaking out but then got used to it. “Now,” she said, “It has become a hobby.”
Rekha Pathak told us that her father was a mahant (priest) who had been locked in a lifelong battle with Muslims over a temple of Lord Bhairav and a mazhar located in the same area in Varanasi.
“I'm not afraid,” she said. “I have seen my father fight with Muslims for Lord Bhairav. We have grown up between Muslims and the administration, but the administration has always been with us, and that is why we are not afraid. The temple is in our blood. That is why we will take it forward.”
(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)