Vishnu Shankar Jain and Hari Shankar Jain (Photo: Getty Images)
IN A LIVING ROOM turned into an office, wearing a muffler around his head and a long vermilion teeka on his forehead, Supreme Court advocate Hari Shankar Jain dictates to a young lawyer from the Code of Civil Procedure. He is working on his next case to ‘reclaim’ a demolished temple.
On one shelf are models of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. On the other wall, glass-covered shelves are lined with books on Indian history and law. “What is it you want to know? Everything is in the public domain,” he says, turning around to give an interview.
The advocate, 69, and his lawyer son Vishnu Shankar Jain, 38, have been in the spotlight ever since a civil court ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque premises in Varanasi. Hari Shankar, who filed six cases relating to it, decided after the fifth case that Hindu women should be involved in seeking worshipping rights to goddess Shringar Gauri. His search for the plaintiffs led to five women, who in their complaint in the Varanasi trial court on August 16, 2021, sought restoration of their right to perform puja and rituals within the Gyanvapi mosque complex, arguing that it held carvings of Hindu deities Shringar Gauri, Ganesha, Hanuman, and other visible and invisible deities. “I felt there was a need for nari shakti (woman power) to fight for darshan of Maa Shringar Gauri. I prepared the case and searched for suitable women to be plaintiffs.”
The other five suits seek right to worship the five Hindu deities, including Adi Vishweshwar (Shiva). In May 2022, when a court-appointed advocate commissioner along with others went to the complex for a survey to ascertain the presence of Hindu deities, Hari Shankar accompanied the team. “On May 15, as the proceedings were about to be completed, I requested that they continue the survey the following day as there was a pond that needed to be surveyed. The Muslims resisted, but on the next day the water of the pond had to be reduced, and thereafter the shivlingam came to light.” While the Hindu petitioners claimed that the oval object in the wazu khana (the reservoir used for ablutions before prayers at the mosque) was a shivling, members of the mosque management committee said it was part of a fountain in the tank. The Varanasi court, however, ordered that the wazu khana be sealed.
Recently, the Varanasi district court allowed the Hindu side to offer prayers in the Vyas ka Tehkhana, a sealed cellar inside the Gyanvapi complex, reversing a 1993 state administration order barricading it and barring worship there. Vishnu Shankar Jain has argued that the site was a temple until 1993, two years after the enactment of the Places of Worship Act in 1991, making it ineligible for alteration. He also argued that the Places of Worship Act was unconstitutional along the same lines as J Sai Deepak, lawyer and author of India that is Bharat. In a recent article in Open (‘Places of Worship or Prisoners of War’, February 5, 2024), Sai Deepak wrote that because the Act would not apply in its entirety to Ram Janmabhoomi, legal proceedings in relation to the ownership of the site were allowed to continue even after it came into force: “The question that then arises is: Why was such an exemption made only in relation to Ayodhya while denuding the claimants of other occupied Dharmic sites, not just Kashi and Mathura, of the basic legal remedy to seek reclamation through a peaceful and evidence-based judicial process? How can owners of property, especially religious property, be deprived of their rights to seek redress through courts?”
When Hari Shankar decided to become counsel for the Hindu Mahasabha in the Ayodhya case in 1989, it looked like a far-fetched pursuit. It was on a low-key note that he began his crusade to reclaim temples, a mission he had set his heart on since he was a child. Born prematurely, he was physically weak and educated at home by his mother till he turned 10. “She had read a lot about India’s history and was a staunch Hindu, and told me to work towards getting back all the temples demolished over the years. Since she was the one who educated me, I also became a radical Hindu and decided to do something for the community,” he says.
His “secular” father wanted him to take the civil services examination but his mother wanted him to become a lawyer to pursue the reclamation of temples. He followed his mother’s advice. He waited for the right time. It came in 1989, a decade after he had become an advocate. The Allahabad High Court passed on all Ayodhya suits pending in the civil court to the high court. Hari Shankar started looking for a copy of the civil court’s order, but nobody could make it available to him. He then asked Zafaryab Jilani, counsel for the Sunni Central Waqf Board, one of the plaintiffs in the case, with whom he had good relations, and got a copy of the order within two days. “Somebody came to me and requested me to become advocate for the Muslim side. I was offered a bungalow, lakhs of rupees and other benefits. That person said take up our case and you need not worry about anything. It was astonishing to me that a Muslim was thinking I would fight for their side,” he recalls.
Hari Shankar, 69, and his son Vishnu Shankar, 38, have been in the spotlight since a civil court ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi. Father and son do argue but only about the approach to be taken to strengthen a case, not over which case should be taken up
Share this on
BY THEN HARI SHANKAR had been active in the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the socio-religious wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He got in touch with the Hindu Mahasabha and from then on till 2019 was its counsel, as part of the legal team that fought the case for over three decades. Vishnu Shankar joined his father in 2010 after finishing his law studies. After passing the test to become a Supreme Court attorney in 2016, he made his first appearance in the court in the Ram Janmabhoomi case.
“He has also taken a vow to work for Hindutva without fear, or getting lured by anybody,” says Hari Shankar. Sporting a beard, like his father, often seen with a vermilion teeka, he has followed in Hari Shankar’s footsteps, taking his Hindutva line to his profession, chasing his ideological goals in court. His Facebook tagline says “dear friends I am Vishnu Shankar Jain practising at the SC of India. I am proudly a Hindu”. On X, he describes himself as “Lawyer (AOR) Supreme Court of India. Politically Right. I want restoration of Kashi and Mathura”. A spokesperson for the Hindu Front for Justice, Vishnu Shankar, together with his father, is fighting around 120 cases representing Hindus.
As Hari Shankar narrates the story of his life, pausing only to take calls, each of which he answers personally, disconnecting onlythepre-recordedones, hehas the dates of each case and event at his fingertips. He goes chronologically—the cases against the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in the 1990s, filing for darshan in the makeshift temple after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, challenging the Hajj subsidy and imposition of president’s rule in Uttar Pradesh in 1996. “The Mulayam government was livid with me and many times offered me posts in government. I refused,” he says.
His diehard stance made him a pariah among his friends and relatives. “I had to face a lot of humiliation. I was known as a sampradayik vyakti (communal person). My friends and relatives avoided me.” This did not deter Hari Shankar, a dyed-in-the-wool believer in Hindu supremacy.
His fight against the Samajwadi Party continued after Mulayam Singh’s son Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister in 2012. He challenged the Akhilesh government’s order to release the accused of the 2006 serial bomb blasts in Varanasi; in 2013 he filed a case seeking a survey of the Tile Wali Masjid in Lucknow; and in 2015 filed a case questioning the ownership of the Taj Mahal built by 17th-century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Hari Shankar claims it was ‘Tejo Mahalay’, a Sanskrit term signifying a temple with a shivling, built by Raja Paramardi Dev of Jaipur. In 2019, the year the Supreme Court ordered the disputed land to be handed over to a trust to build the Ram temple, he filed a suit claiming title over the land where the Shahi Eidgah stands, adjacent to the Shri Krishna temple complex in Mathura. A plaintiff in the Qutub Minar case, he has claimed that the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque located on the monument site was built in place of a temple complex.
As he winds up, Vishnu Shankar enters the office, taking a few moments off his busy schedule between hearings on the Gyanvapi case. Too preoccupied with the case, he is in no frame of mind to take questions. “We pursue a case when we get the facts. We do our research. There are glaring facts and history. The challenge is before you take up a case, not once it’s filed,” he says. Father and son do get into intense arguments, but these are about the approach to be taken to strengthen a case, not over which case should be taken up. At the end of the day, for Vishnu, his father is his guru.
Hari Shankar says they are taking up cases where temples have been demolished and mosques built in their place. How many cases of temples are they targeting? Hari Shankar smiles: “Wherever we find one, we will fight for it. There’s no limit.”