The judiciary must act firmly to enforce the law on places of worship in order to preserve the secular fabric of the country

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Can we undo all the historic injustices alleged or perceived to have been perpetrated against religious institutions centuries ago? Can we verify exactly what happened during the alleged destruction or desecration of religious institutions? How to break the vicious circle of vengeful destruction?

These are thorny questions that haunt the minds of right-thinking citizens of this country in light of issues such as the Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque (Banaras), Shahi Idgah Masjid (Mathura) and a host of similar issues cropping up in different parts of the country.

Attempts to right alleged historical wrongs in other parts of the world demonstrate that the exercise is internal and an endless loop to destroy nations.

A classic example in this regard is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, also known as Al-Haram Al Sharif or Al-Aqsa compound in the Muslim world. It has historical and religious significance for the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times by contemporary rulers over two thousand years, with colossal bloodshed and human suffering. Every destruction and reconstruction was done in the name of righting historical injustice or restoring what was perceived to be right.

Are we heading in the same direction? Shouldn’t we learn a lesson from history that tells us that this path to righting alleged historical injustices is endless and will only bring perpetual human suffering?

It is a fact that Gyanvapi Mosque has been a religious site for Muslims for hundreds of years. Now, a lawsuit in a civil court in Varanasi seeks a perpetual injunction against the Muslim management committee of said mosque to raise any objections to the removal of existing buildings and the construction of a new temple on the site.

The whole lawsuit is based on an alleged historical injustice that an older temple was demolished so that a mosque could be built there.

According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 3.01 million places of worship in India. Ours is also a country of religious diversity. Realizing the scale of the religiously motivated invasion, demolition and desecration of historically contested religious sites, and at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi conflict, the PV Narasimha Rao government had enacted the 1991 Law on the Places of worship.

This law prohibits the conversion of any place of worship and provides for the maintenance of the status quo as to the religious character of all places of worship as they existed on the 15and of August 1947. The conversion of any place of worship of one religious denomination or section into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious sect or of a separate religious denomination is punishable under the article 6 of the law.

However, the law does not apply to the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya as a complex litigation was already pending at that time.

Drawing lessons from the Ayodhya conflict, the government of the time sought to end the vicious circle of repeated hegemonic and religious claims on places of worship, which could lead to conflicts causing loss of life and property by the through this law.

This law, coming from a solid secular consideration, is a pursuit of peace, which aims to freeze the religious character of places of worship as they existed when India gained independence.

With emerging affirmations from the right wing Hindu section of society that India should be a “Hindu Rashtra”, there is an outright attack on all existing “non-Hindu” aspects of the country, be it the names of the roads, railway stations, towns or the religious character of existing non-Hindu places of worship.

After the Supreme Court ruling in the Ayodhya case, right-wing workers seem to be accused of hoping to Hinduize the nation. Slogans like “Ayodhya down jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai” are clear demonstrations of their plans to launch endless and factually unverifiable historical debates over the religious character of the sites, which has been sought to be put to rest by the Places of Worship Act.

Another lawsuit seeking the removal of a mosque in Mathura allegedly built on the “Krishna Janmabhoomi” has been allowed to go to court in Uttar Pradesh.

It must be understood that once these floodgates are opened, there is no end to this endless loop of such claims by revenge groups and the resulting unrest.

Enforcing the law in places of worship in its true spirit is the only option to salvage the disintegration of our secular fabric.

In a democracy, politicians rarely say things that are not popular with the majority. The religious sentiments of the majority in these regions matter the most even if they are in contradiction to ‘law’ and ‘law and order’.

The only hope comes from the judiciary, which must act quickly and sternly before emotions get out of hand.

(The author is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India. Opinions are personal)

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