Varanasi Court orders ASI probe into Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque dispute

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A Varanasi court has given its go-ahead to an archaeological survey of the Gyanvapi mosque site, adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, heeding the demand of the Hindu side which had sought a survey to prove that the mosque was built by demolishing a temple in the 17th century during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

It said the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a “neutral and secular instrumentality of the central government” is most suited to tell the truth in the case in dispute and the survey – to be funded by the agency, which comes under the Union ministry of culture – irrespective of its findings, may go on to help not only the Hindu side but also the Muslim side, if their version is indeed true.

The case has been listed for May 31 for further orders.

The court asked the director general (DG) of the ASI to form a five-member committee of archaeological experts, two of which should preferably belong to the minority community. It said an “observer” should also be appointed by the DG, again an archaeological expert, to whom the committee will report about the survey work so carried out.

“The prime purpose of the archaeological survey shall be to find out as to whether the religious structure standing at present at the disputed site is a superimposition, alteration or addition, or there is structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any other religious structure,” the court said in an order on Thursday. “If so, then what exactly is the age, size, monumental and architectural design or style of the religious structure standing at present at the disputed site and what materials has been used for building the same.”

The court further said, “The committee shall also trace as to whether any temple belonging to the Hindu community ever existed before the mosque in question was built or superimposed or added upon it at the disputed site. If so, then what exactly is the age, size, monumental and architectural design or style of the same, and also as to which Hindu deity or deities the same was devoted to.”

It also said that while the survey work is carried out, Muslims coming to the disputed site to offer namaz should not be prevented from doing so and if the work does not facilitate the activity, then the committee should give them an alternative site within the precincts of the Gyanvapi mosque.

The court especially called for the committee so formed to be aware of the “sensitivity of the matter” and hence ensure that stakeholders in the case belonging to both religions are equally respected and no one is treated in a “partisan or preferential” way.

It said the survey should be done in a “camouflaged” manner without any access to the public or media who will also never be briefed by the committee about the progress, that the committee will be entitled to security so that neither party is able to tamper with the work and that the district administration will ensure that the peace and tranquillity of the area is maintained throughout.

The petition was filed in 2019 by a local lawyer, Vijay Shankar Rastogi, who claimed that the temple of Swayambhu Lord Vishweshwar – one of the 12 jyotirlingas – stood at the disputed site since time immemorial and was reconstructed 2,050 years ago by Raja Vikramaditya and was ordered to be torn down by Aurangzeb in 1669. While the linga remains inside the mosque and the devotees worship it through circumambulation, they are unable to “offer jal” to the linga. The Anjuman Intejamiya Masjid (management committee of the mosque) and the Sunni Central Waqf Board had opposed the plea.

Meanwhile, a case is being separately heard by the high court in which the Muslim side had said that the Places of Worship Act applies to the disputed site and bars any alteration to a place of worship as it was on August 15, 1947. If the high court, which is expected to pronounce its order next month, rules in favour of the Muslim side, then the current order regarding the survey will be annulled. However, Vishnu Jain, an advocate who has filed another suit for the cause of freeing the Kashi Vishwanath temple, said the Hindu side will challenge an adverse order by the high court in the Supreme Court.

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