Days after the Mathura District Court agreed to hear an appeal against an order dismissing the plea to ‘remove’ the Shahi Idgah adjacent to the Shri Krishna temple complex in the city, the legal and political developments over the issue now evoke a sense of déjà vu.
Earlier on September 30, a civil court had dismissed the suit.
Ever since the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in the Ayodhya land dispute case on November 9 last year, events in Mathura (and Varanasi to a limited extent) are following the successful template created by the Sangh Parivar for building a Ram temple at Ayodhya in place of the 16th-century Babri Masjid. The situation arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown put a temporary halt to developments but these have again picked up pace since the last week of July.
In a virtual replication of the strategy deployed to secure 'liberation' of the 'Ram Janmabhoomi' in Ayodhya, a large number of the Hindu religious leaders are beginning to float new organisations while others are simultaneously assembling under existing ones. In July, a group of Mathura-based seers floated the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Mukti Andolan Trust. Weeks later, the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, that has close working relations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), held a meeting in Allahabad to voice a similar demand.
Firstly, these groups have committed these acts with the purpose of being recognised as 'leading lights' of the impending movement. Secondly, their objective is to enable eventual formal association of the RSS and its affiliates with the movement. The RSS had joined the Ayodhya movement subsequent to its launch by elements that are part of the Hindu nationalistic ecosystem without formally being members of the Sangh.
Being identified as significant leaders of the agitation would, like in Ayodhya, pave the pathway to achieving positions of power and resources if the script in Mathura follows Ayodhya to a similar denouement. The eventual goal of the current protagonists threatening agitation is the demolition of the Shahi Idgah mosque and the construction of a 'resplendent' Shri Krishna Janamasthan Temple on the scale of the ongoing Ayodhya Ram temple project.
Beside these political developments, the evolving legal narrative too is following the course of the Ayodhya playbook. The most obvious step was filing the plea that was admitted by the Mathura court and scheduled for hearing on November 18 after it was rejected by the civil judge. Similarly, in July 1989, a hitherto new party had impleaded himself in the Ayodhya title suit before a Faizabad court as the "next best friend" of Ram Lalla Virajman.
The only difference between the two suits is the petitioners. The petitioner in the Ayodhya case was Deokinandan Agarwal, vice president of the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a former judge of the Allahabad High Court. In Mathura, it is a group of as yet nondescript 'devotees' of Shri Krishna and is led by advocate Ranjana Agnihotri, who is also the 'samrajya adhyashk' of Hindu Samrajya Parishad. While not formally parts of the Sangh Parivar, organisations like the Parishad articulate the same Hindu majoritarian viewpoint.
In their verdict, judges of the Supreme Court accepted maintainability of the suit filed by Agarwal despite it being barred by limitation--as it should have been since the suit was not filed within stipulated 12 years of the conspiratorial installation of the Ram Lalla idol inside the Babri Masjid in December 1949. The apex court adjudicated that the suit was maintainable because the deity's "interests and concerns were not being adequately protected in the earlier suits including those instituted by the Hindu parties."
Peculiarly, the Mathura District Court based its judgement on the Supreme Court's Ayodhya judgement. The SC, while awarding the disputed land in its entirety to Hindu parties last year, was expected to protect other shrines being claimed by the RSS-VHP combine. The Civil Judge, in her order rejecting the plea filed on behalf of Bhagwan Srikrishna Virajman through Ranjana Agnihotri, Shree Krishna Janmabhoomi and six devotees, cited the Places of Worship Act enacted in 1991, which stipulated that all shrines except the disputed one in Ayodhya have to be maintained in the condition they were on August 15, 1947.
The apex court was emphatic in its conclusion: "The law speaks to our history and to the future of the nation. Cognizant as we are of our history and of the need for the nation to confront it, Independence was a watershed moment to heal the wounds of the past. Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands. In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future."
Instead of being guided by this final ruling of the Supreme Court on all shrines save in Ayodhya, the District Judge chose to pick the precedent of allowing Ram Lalla Virajman to be represented by Agarwal (subsequent to him by other VHP functionaries). In the process, the Pandora's Box has been opened and there is a strong likelihood of the Mathura court re-examining the 1969 agreement between the representative parties of Hindus and Muslims.
All of a sudden, the demand for 13.37 acres of land situated within the area of the temple now has potential to become a tricky matter decades after its closure. As in the Ayodhya case, the Sunni Central Waqf Board and committee of management of Shahi Idgah Masjid Trust are listed as defendants in the case. It has been demanded that the 1968 agreement, which permitted a new temple to be constructed while retaining the 17th century Shahi Idgah mosque built during Aurangzeb's reign, be declared as 'illegal'.
As in Ayodhya when the Nirmohi Akhara and other Hindu parties were sidelined in the case, the present petition has asserted that the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan, which is the governing body of the temple complex (and which also entered into the Agreement with the Shahi Idgah Trust), has worked against the interest of the deity and devotees and had conceded considerable portion of property belonging to the deity and the trust.
By admitting the appeal against the civil judge's ruling, the District Court appears to have opened the possibility of re-examining a matter that was settled for more than four and a half decades.
A legal long haul is certainly a possibility, and in the political arena, the effort would be made be towards scrapping the Places of Worship Act after building sufficient public pressure. In any case, a plea is also pending in Supreme Court since June this year, challenging the constitutional validity of this Act. The demand for the 'removal' of the Shahi Idgah will certainly act as a slow-burning conflict as India stares towards the endgame of sorts.
(The writer is a journalist and an author. His last book is The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. He is currently working on his next book on the Ayodhya issue and how it altered Indian politics. He Tweets @NilanjanUdwin