The issue of the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi has now become live and is likely remain with us for years, if not decades, just as Ayodhya did. What should we anticipate? In an interview with journalist Barkha Dutt, the vice-chancellor of Hyderabad’s National University of Law, Faizan Mustafa, spoke about the legal issues at hand.
The core belief is that the Places of Worship Act 1991, which was passed by Parliament during the heat of the Babri Masjid campaign, will protect the mosque in Kashi. Prof. Mustafa said that this was not necessarily so. First, the Supreme Court could strike down the law because it does not permit judicial review. This means judges were barred from adjudicating on any dispute on whether a place of worship was really a mosque, temple, gurdwara or church, instead of what it was currently. This barring of judicial review went against what is called the “basic structure” doctrine, and on those grounds the Places of Worship Act could be struck down. And from there, the Kashi dispute would go into the same direction as the Ayodhya one did.
Second, Parliament has the right to repeal the Places of Worship Act, and indeed some people in the BJP have been asking for this to happen. Given the current numbers in Parliament, this is entirely possible. Prof. Mustafa then said that there was no real legal cover for Muslims and they should instead try for reconciliation with Hindus, meaning that they should voluntarily give up some mosques so as to end the issue once and for all.
Something similar, though on a different subject, was suggested by the journalist Saeed Naqvi, with whom I had a discussion a few days ago at the Bangalore International Centre. Mr Naqvi felt that Hindus were upset that while Pakistan got an Islamic state, India remained secular. If India were to be made a Hindu Rashtra formally, then that sense of grievance in Hindus would vanish. He said that it might even be better for India, and pointed to the United Kingdom which officially is a kingdom with an Anglican ruler, but where figures like Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid could aspire to high office, unlike India.
Both Prof. Mustafa and Mr Naqvi are well-meaning, knowledgable and experienced. It would not be appropriate to dismiss what they are saying and we would do well to contemplate the meaning of their words. I wanted to look at the other aspect here. Is the assumption that Hindus feel grievance against their own Constitution? And second, is the historical sense of grievance behind what is happening in Kashi and what had happened in Ayodhya?
Perhaps it is, and for the purpose of trying to understand events, let us assume that this is the case. What follows from here is that we have to see what else has been going around us and connect it to this fresh dispute in the court. Since 2014, but especially since 2019, we have seen a slew of State actions from the BJP that address Muslims. The criminalisation of Muslim divorce, the gutting of Kashmir’s democracy and autonomy, the criminalisation of the possession of beef, the ban on hijab, the ban on namaz in designated spaces, the ban on Muslims vending near temples, the blaming of Muslims for the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of bulldozers against mostly Muslim homes and shops. These are the things that have kept this nation busy and are what have made the news headlines in the last 36 months.
For us to engage with what Prof. Mustafa and Mr Naqvi are saying, we have to assume that all of the above are also the product of Hindu resentment that they have been stuck with a secular State, and the product of their historical grievance against the Mughals.
Is this the case? I do not want to answer this here but it would be interesting for us to each ask ourselves what the core issue is, if there is a core issue.
The other thing to ask ourselves is whether, if we were to change the name of our country officially, and become a Hindu Rashtra, if the treatment of Muslims and their inclusion in political power change. We accept that at the moment no Muslim in India can aspire to be Prime Minister of India as Mr Sunak or Mr Javid can in the UK. Does changing the name of the country also change the reality of this exclusion? Again, something for us to think about.
Of course, there is also the problem of reducing everyone to their religious identity and seeing society as Hindus and Muslims. Collective identity is the sign of primitive societies. In democracy, the most important unit is the individual, who has rights that the State must respect. An individual is defined as a single human being distinct from a group. Fundamental rights are addressed to the individual. In our Constitution, equality cannot be denied to “any person” (Article 14), and the State cannot discriminate against “any citizen” (Article 15).
These are the issues that are on the table. We have two well-meaning men put forward what they think should be done in conciliatory terms. It would be good for the BJP, since it is in government and has been at the forefront of all the campaigns and laws and policies described here, to articulate what it wants. What is it that will put an end to the hostility and resentment and violence? It would be good to know.