Allahabad HC dismisses Gyanvapi mosque committee’s plea against puja in cellar

Decision by then U.P. govt. in 1993 to stop the prayers was illegal, says HC

February 26, 2024 10:19 am | Updated 10:18 pm IST - New Delhi

Police personnel keep vigil at the Gyanvapi Mosque Complex during the Friday Prayers, in Varanasi. File

Police personnel keep vigil at the Gyanvapi Mosque Complex during the Friday Prayers, in Varanasi. File | Photo Credit: ANI

Puja will continue in the southern cellar of the Varanasi-based Gyanvapi mosque as the Allahabad High Court on Monday dismissed the plea filed by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee challenging a district court’s order to allow prayers.

The High Court also observed that the 1993 decision by the then Uttar Pradesh government [headed by the Samajwadi Party] to stop the worship inside the cellar was “illegal”.

The Varanasi district court on January 31 allowed prayers inside the ‘Vyas Ka Tehkhana’ (then sealed basement) area of the Gyanvapi mosque complex, adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Also Read | A sense of disquiet in Varanasi

The district court’s order came on a plea filed by one Shailendra Kumar Pathak ‘Vyas’ seeking worship rights inside the cellar. He also claimed to be the owner of the disputed site. The district court had directed the administration to make arrangements to start the puja within seven days. The District Magistrate (DM) complied with the court’s orders within hours and the puja began soon after.

The counsel representing the Vyas family submitted in the court that for over two centuries and till 1993, the family had been performing prayers at the site. The family also added that the worship was stopped at the site in 1993 on the orders of then Samajwadi Party government.

The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which is in charge of the mosque, had approached the Supreme Court challenging the order of the district court but was asked to move the Allahabad High Court. On February 2, the High Court asked the mosque committee to amend its plea.

Vyas family’s stance

In the judgment on Monday, the Bench of Justice Rohit Ranjan Agarwal noted that prima facie, the act of the State government since 1993 restraining the Vyas family as well as the devotees from performing worship and rituals was a “wrong being perpetuated”.

The court further noted that Article 25 of the Constitution grants freedom of religion to every person, and the Vyas family, which continued worship and rituals in the cellar, could not be denied access by an oral order. A citizen right guaranteed under Article 25 cannot be taken away by arbitrary action of the State,” the HC observed.

Watch | ASI report on Gyanvapi | What are the political and legal implications?

‘Prima facie proof’

After multiple hearings in the matter between February 2 and 15, the court maintained that the mosque committee failed to establish prima facie the right over the disputed property, while the plaintiff, the Vyas family, had succeeded in building up a strong prima facie case negating the stand of the appellant.

The court added that the existence of Vyas tehkhana (cellar) owned by Vyas family in 1937 is prima facie proof of the possession claimed by the plaintiff till 1993.

Responding to the challenge of the mosque committee against the court’s appointment of the District Magistrate as Receiver to ensure that puja is performed in the cellar, the HC said that being an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees under the Temple Act, 1983, there is no conflict in the function of Varanasi DM while performing the duty as Receiver.

The functions to be performed by the Receiver, the District Magistrate, are consistent with the duties of the Board of Trustees under Section 13 and 14 of the Temple Act, 1983, the court added.

Also Read | There existed a Hindu temple prior to construction of Gyanvapi mosque: ASI

ASI survey

In December 2023, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) submitted a scientific survey report of the Gyanvapi mosque in the court in which it maintained that there existed a large Hindu temple beneath the mosque.

The ASI conducted the survey in accordance with the July 2023 order of the Varanasi District judge to determine if the mosque was constructed over a pre-existing structure of a Hindu temple. The ASI survey was ordered as part of the main suit of Gyanvapi mosque and Shri Adi Vishweshwar Virajmaan (a form of Shiva).

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