Monday’s verdict of the Varanasi district judge on the petition of five Hindu women seeking to worship at the Gyanvapi mosque precincts marks the beginning of a long judicial process. What judge Ajay Krishna Vishvesha ordered is that the case filed by the women is maintainable. That means it has merit, and can be heard in detail with statements from witnesses and other evidence. In doing so, the court rejected the plea of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee that it is a waqf property and only the Waqf Tribunal can hear it. The committee has already announced its decision to challenge the verdict in the Allahabad High Court. Thus, the verdict is not the end of the matter. Rather, it is the beginning of a long trial, as had happened in the case of the Babri Masjid which was finally resolved when a group took the law into its own hands and demolished the centuries-old structure. It is a different matter that the demolition was given approval decades later by a Supreme Court verdict, which will be remembered more for its balancing act than for upholding the principles of either natural or judicial justice.
That verdict is one more reminder that a lower court can indeed hear cases which were frozen by an Act of Parliament. In fact, it was a still lower court that entertained the petition of the five women to worship at the mosque. They were seeking an extension of the right to worship Maa Shringar Gauri and other deities installed on the outer wall of the mosque complex once a year. Now, they want to worship every day. In other words, they want to convert the mosque wall into a regular Hindu place of worship. Earlier, the magistrate had entertained a plea to organise a videographic survey of the pond in the mosque the worshippers have used for generations to wash their hands and feet before offering namaz. An object discovered from the tank was claimed to be a Shivling, while the Muslims said it was part of the old fountain system. Whatever be the truth, it has given the women ammunition to demand regular worship inside the mosque. The judgement gives the two sides opportunities to prove their claims. What purpose this will ultimately serve is an altogether different proposition, except that it is sure to produce much rancour, as could be seen when one side celebrated Monday’s verdict.
It was to prevent such unnecessary litigation that Parliament enacted the Places of Worship Act when PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister. The Act froze the status of all temples and mosques that existed on August 15, 1947, the day of Independence, barring the Babri Masjid from its provision as it had already become a bone of contention. The status of all other places of worship, including those at Varanasi and Mathura, stood frozen. This was because there were disputes about the mosques situated adjacent to the Varanasi and Mathura temples. The litigation now underway at Varanasi clearly shows that the Central Act has failed to serve its purposes. Probably this aspect of the case has not received the due attention of the higher courts. What is clear is that through clever application of some loopholes in the system, a lower court can review a case that had already been decided by an Act of Parliament. It is also a fact that political changes tend to influence the way courts see and settle cases. There are umpteen instances to prove this point, though they do not prove the efficacy or fairness of the judicial system.
There are now two options for the warring parties. They can use all the judicial processes to get a verdict that satisfies them. There is no certainty when the court would be able to give a verdict, as the issues are complex and the evidences are too many, based on history, literature, faith and folklore. That is what had happened in the case of Ayodhya. Then there will be appeals and by the time a final verdict is obtained, considerable court time would have been wasted on a case that will at best allow a mosque to continue or grant a Hindu group a new place of worship. Another option they have is to hold discussions in a live-and-let-live atmosphere. This is possible if representatives of the two communities sit together and find an amicable settlement. The Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya was in many ways a compromise. The court did not repudiate the claims of the Muslims while conceding the whole plot of land to the Hindus to construct a “magnificent” temple; the Muslims were given an alternative plot to construct a mosque. A mutually acceptable solution will have a lot to commend itself for.