After the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in December 1992, Hindutva activists adopted a new slogan: “Ayodhya to sirf jhanki hai, Kashi aur Mathura baaki hai.” Ayodhya is just a teaser. Kashi and Mathura are left.

After the Supreme Court in November allowed Hindus to begin constructing a Ram temple on the site on which the Babri Masjid had stood, many feared that this would embolden the calls for similar campaigns against mosques in Kashi and Mathura.

Last week, as if on cue, a civil suit was filed in a Mathura court seeking to reclaim a site that was described as the birthplace of Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The plaint alleges that the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb destroyed part of the temple that marked the Krishna janmasthan. The Idgah mosque now stands there.

It wants the mosque, which stands next to the Krishna Janmasthan temple, to be removed.

The suit has been instituted by six devotees led by lawyer Ranjana Agnihotri, who claim to be “friends” of the deity and of his place of birth or janmasthan.

The suit maintains that a compromise reached between the Hindus and Muslims regarding the disputed site in 1968 was not legally valid as it was obtained through false submissions.

The suit is eerily similar to the narrative used by Hindutva supporters to claim the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. In that case, they alleged that the mosque had been built on the very spot where the god Ram had been born after the Mughals demolished a temple that had stood there. Even the evidence that is being submitted to the court in the Mathura suit has taken a line similar to the Ayodhya case.

The Mathura court will take up the suit on September 30, the same day that a criminal court in Uttar Pradesh will deliver the verdict on the Babri Masjid demolition case in which Bharatiya Janata Party veterans such as LK Advani are accused.

Will this fresh suit in Mathura lead to another protracted religious and political battle or will the court dismiss the plaint?

A picture of Krishna janmabhoomi taken in 1988, with the Idgah mosque next door. Credit: Bhadani at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

Krishna janmasthan

Mathura, Hindus believe, is the birthplace of Krishna. According to belief, Kamsa, the evil ruler of the Vrishni kingdom, had confined his sister Devaki and brother-in-law Vasudeva to a prison in Mathura because of a prophecy that their eight son would end the king’s life. Kamsa killed six of Devaki’s children before divine intervention protected her seventh and eight children – Balarama and Krishna.

Balarama, according to belief, was transferred from one womb to another by divine grace. Krishna was born in a jail in Mathura and was transported to Gokula by Vasudeva. There, he was rasied as the son of Yasodha and Nanda.

Echoing the claim made in the Ayodhya dispute that the Ram janmasthan is holy, the suit in the Mathura case contends that the believed Krishna janmasthan has a sacred place in the Hindu tradition and has been made one of the parties.

The area of the janmasthan in Mathura is called Katra Keshav Dev. It allegedly covers 13.37 acres, according to the plaint.

Aurangazeb and Mathura

In Ayodhya, the claim was that the first Mughal emperor Babur destroyed a grand temple and built the Babri Masjid over it in the 16th century. Based on archaeological findings, the Supreme Court accepted that there was a structure beneath the mosque. But the court made it clear that there was no evidence on record to suggest that the temple had been demolished for the purpose of the building a mosque. In fact, the court pointed out that there was a gap of four centuries between the date of the alleged temple beneath the mosque and the construction of the Babri Masjid.

In the case of Mathura, the plaint has alleged that it was Aurangazeb, a descendant of Babur, who destroyed part of a temple to construct the Idgah mosque.

The plaint alleged:

“That it is matter of fact and history that Aurangzeb ruled over the country from 31.07.1658  to 3.03.1707 AD and he being staunch follower of Islam had issued orders for demolition of large number of Hindu religious places and temples including the temple standing at the birth place of Lord Shree Krishna at Katra Keshav Dev, Mathura in the year 1669-70 AD. The army of Aurangzeb partly succeeded to demolish Keshav Dev Temple and a construction was forcibly raised showing the might of power and said construction was named as Idgah Mosque.” 

The plaint goes on to say that there are official records from the Mughal administration from 1670 that establish this claim. Further, as in the case of the Ayodhya dispute, the plaint also places as evidence for the destruction of the temple records of European travelers, like the Italian Niccola Manucci who wrote about the Mughal court in his book Storia do Mogar and is claimed to have described the demolition of the temple by Aurangazeb.

The Idgah mosque in 1949. Credit: Photo Division, government of India

Current dispute

According to the plaint, in 1770, the Marathas defeated the Mughals and drove them out of Mathura. The mosque was removed and the temple was restored, the plaint claims.

However, by 1803, the British defeated the Marathas and took over the region. According to the plaint, the 13.37 acres of land constituting the Krishnajanmasthan was put up for auction by the East India Company in 1815 and was sold to Raja Patni Maal of Benaras. In subsequent years, the plaint said there were disputes over the ownership of the plot, with Muslims taking the matter up in courts.

But, the plaint argued, the courts, including the Allahabad High Court in 1932, consistently ruled in favour of the descendants of Raja Patni Maal.

In 1944, the legal heirs of Raja Patni Maal transferred the title of the land for a consideration of Rs 13,400 to Hindu Mahasabha members Madan Mohan Malviya, Goswami Ganesh Dutt and Bhikhen Lalji Aattrey. The sum was paid by Jugal Kishore Birla, an industrialist from the famous Birla family.

In 1951, Birla created the Shree Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust and the deed for the land was transferred to it. According to the plaint, Birla had intended to build a temple for Krishna on the site considered his birthplace.

However, the plaint claims that despite Birla’s clear motive, the trust failed in its duty. It became defunct in 1958.

In May 1958, another society called the Shree Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh was formed. In the 1970s, it became the Shree Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan. This society managed the trust land.

After several rounds of litigation, in which Muslims had claimed ownership for parts of the plot, a settlement was reached in 1968. It was decreed by the court in 1974. The compromise divided the land and asked the Seva Sangh and the management of the Shahi Masjid Idgah to stay away from each other’s sections.

The plaint alleged that there was no mosque structure on the disputed land until 1915. Only a dilapidated building stood there, the plaint claims. But a superstructure has been built on the land by the Muslims with a claim that it is a mosque, though this could not be so as the land was not wafq property or land given in the name of god, the plaint says.

This is in tune with the arguments in the Ayodhya case as well, in which the Hindu side raised questions about whether the Babri Masjid was actually a mosque. The Hindu parties claimed that mosque that had been constructed after allegedly demolishing a temple was against the tenets of Islam. They also claimed that no prayers had taken place in the structure for a long time.

Questioning the settlement

At the heart of the fresh suit filed last week is the contention that the Seva Sangh had no locus standi to enter into an agreement with the management of the mosque. It was the Shree Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust and the deity that owned the land, the plaint says, and the suit of 1967 was not filed on behalf of the trust.

The plaint said:

“That it is relevant to mention that Shree Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh has no proprietary or ownership right in the property of Katra Keshavdev which stood vested in the deity and the Trust. The suit No. 43  of 1967  was filed by Shri Bhagwan Dass Bhargava the Joint Secretary of the Society namely Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sangh and the said suit had not been filed by or on behalf of Shree Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust. The compromise dated 12.10.1968 was made between Shree Krishna Janmasthan Sewa Sangh and Trust Alleged Shahi Masjid Idgah. Shree Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust was not a party to the aforesaid compromise dated 12.10.1968.” 

The plaint claimed that the prison in which Krishna was born lies beneath the disputed site and this fact will be established if an excavation is conducted. It said that the Janmabhoomi trust was duty-bound by the the trust deed entered into when it was established in 1951, which made it clear that the land was only to be used for the construction of a temple.

The entrance to the Krishna Janmabhoomi and Keshav Deo temple. Credit: Shahnoor Habib Munmun / CC BY

Legal questions

It remains to be seen whether the Mathura court will accept a suit instituted decades after the matter was considered to have been settled.

But this is not the first time the matter has gone to court.

In 1993, a suit was filed against the Seva Sansthan claiming that it had acted against the purpose of the Janmabhoomi trust and an order was sought to remove the trustees from office. However, the suit was dismissed both by the civil court and the Allahabad High Court on appeal over questions of maintainability as the proper trustees were not included in the plaint as defendants.

However, according to the suit filed last week, the High Court had reiterated in its judgement in the 1993 suit that the Seva Sansthan and the Janmabhoomi trust are different entities. The Seva Sansthan was formed by the 15 trustees of the Janmabhoomi trust but also included other persons. The Seva Sansthan had no legal basis to enter into an agreement with the Muslim side as it had no legal right over the land, the plaint claims

For a civil suit to be sustained, there should be a cause of action. The plaintiffs claim in the suit that they visited the Krishna Janmasthan in January and was “shocked” to find the mosque structure. Apparently, they met the mosque management and asked them to hand over the entire site to the temple. The claim in the suit was that part of the land that belongs to the trust and the deity is being illegally occupied by the mosque. Therefore, the cause of action, the plaint said, is accruing everyday.

In Indian law, a deity is considered a legal entity, though a minor. The person or body responsible for the management of its properties is called a “shebait”.

In the Ayodhya verdict, the Supreme Court said a third person/devotee could file a suit as a friend of the deity only if it could be established that the shebait had acted against the interests of the deity. In the case of the Ayodhya deity, the Supreme Court ruled that Ram Lalla had not been represented properly for decades in the dispute. Hence the suit filed by members of the Sangh Parivar in the capacity of a friend of the deity was sustainable.

In the Mathura case, the same strategy has been used. The plaint said that the trust became defunct after 1958 and the Seva Sansthan failed to protect the interests of the deity and his properties. Therefore, the intervention of devotees as friends of the deity was required.

This, however, will not be an easy task as the Seva Sansthan is bound to argue that they are the real shebait. They are likely to note that they have not acted against the interest of the deity, for whom a temple has already been built by 1982.

In addition, there is the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to be considered. Passed in 1991, the Act says that the religious character of any place of worship must be maintained as it existed on August 15, 1947. The conversion of any place of worship to something else is prohibited. The only exception from the Act was Ayodhya, since that dispute was in the Allahabad High Court at that time. The plaint in the Mathura suit claims that the Act does not apply to this dispute, but fails to explain why.

By 1947, Muslims had both religiously and legally laid claim over part of the site in Mathura that had the mosque.

In the Ayodhya case, the suit by the friends of the deity was filed in 1989. The Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindutva supporters on December 6, 1992, a crucial event that many feel led to the Supreme Court give its judgement in November handing over the site to the Hindus since there was no need to order the removal of a mosque. But in the case of Mathura, the mosque exists. The suit has urged the court to order the removal of the structure.

Hindutva supporters demolish the Babri Masjid in December 1991. Credit: Douglas E. Curran/AFP