The Sunday Profile: Father, son and ‘holy suits’

On May 17, Vishnu Shankar Jain, the counsel appearing on behalf of the petitioners seeking the right to worship in the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, told the Supreme Court that the hearing will have to be postponed since his father and fellow lawyer Hari Shankar Jain was unwell. Though a battery of senior lawyers — from Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, to Ranjit Kumar and C.S. Vaidyanathan — had appeared against the mosque, none had the full case file. Only Hari Shankar Jain had it. The hearing had to be postponed.

A day earlier, Vishnu Shankar was seen flanked by members of the team that carried out a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque, as ordered by a Varanasi court, announcing to the media that a shivling was allegedly found in the wuzu khana of the mosque.

The father-son advocate duo of Hari Shankar Jain, 68, and Vishnu Shankar Jain, 36, are now at the center of at least six ongoing cases that involve claims of ancient temple ruins in mosques — from the Teele Wali Masjid in Lucknow to the Bhojshala in Dhar, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutub Minar in Delhi, the Shahi Idgah in Mathura and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. The cases filed by the Jains have triggered a string of similar claims across the country and led to a challenge of certain provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

In 2021 alone, the Jains filed seven cases on the Gyanvapi mosque issue, including those on behalf of the river Ganga and deities Nandi and Maa Shringar Gauri.

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With his flowing beard and a prominent black tika on his forehead, father Hari Shankar was a familiar face on television debates on the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi issue until the 2019 Supreme Court verdict in the case. For the senior Jain, it had started with the Ayodhya case in 1993 — it was on his plea that district judge Krishna Mohan Pandey ordered that the gates of the masjid be opened for Hindus to worship there.

“Hari Shankar was an independent lawyer then. One day, he went to court and told the judge that the deity had gone hungry for the last eight days… The judge allowed us worship and that irreversibly changed the course of the case,” Champat Rai, Vice President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and General Secretary of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra, the temple trust in Ayodhya, told The Sunday Express, adding that following the 1993 win, Hari Shankar became “a part of the team”.

Later, when then Uttar Pradesh CM Mulayam Singh Yadav expressed reservations about appointing Judge Pandey to the Allahabad High Court, Jain filed another petition and backed the judge. Jain won the case and Justice Pandey was eventually appointed to the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

Those in the Bar that this elevation sent a message to the lower judiciary. “The whole process was as political as it could get. To the lower court judges, the case sent a message that these are the petitioners who will back you,” said a judge of the Allahabad High Court who retired in 2019.

Those who have known the senior Hari Shankar talk about his doggedness in going after his opponents.

In 1993, Hari Shankar contested an election from Amethi against Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but lost. He then filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court challenging Gandhi’s election on the grounds that she is an Italian citizen and not Indian. As a back-up, in case that argument failed, Jain also challenged the “validity of marriage of respondent with Rajiv Gandhi”. And, as Plan C, he challenged the legality of Section 5(1)(c) of the Citizenship Act, 1955, under which Sonia acquired her Indian citizenship through registration. In 2000, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions that “suffered from deficiency in pleadings but is also scandalous.”

Over the last few weeks, the six cases the Jains had been pursuing for over 30 years — from Gyanvapi to Taj Mahal — have been all suddenly revived with judges accepting their pleas and passing preliminary orders.

“Wherever there is such a case, we will fight it,” says Vishnu Shankar, who assists his father in these cases. The father-son duo list out 102 cases filed for their larger cause of “Hindu revolution by legal awareness”. These range from taking on bans on firecrackers to challenge the registration of the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) as a political party, to challenge the Waqf Act.

Even as several of these cases have been dismissed, Vishnu Shankar says the “goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra will be realised” as people will at least become aware of the issues.

Based in Lucknow, Hari Shankar Jain’s practice began from the Allahabad High Court and has largely revolved around religion. Vishnu Shankar, who graduated from Balaji Law College in Pune, also hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and represent clients that his “conscience allows”. An Advocate-On-Record, licensed to practice before the Supreme Court, he recruits regularly from the Chanderprabhu Jain College of Law in Delhi’s Narela.

Vishnu Shankar is also the official spokesperson for the Hindu Front for Justice, the organization that filed a public interest litigation on May 2 the challenging ASI’s 2003 order, imposing restriction on Hindus to worship at Bhojshala in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district. Bhojshala is an ASI-protected 11th Century monument, where the Kamal Maula Mosque is alleged to have been built over a temple of Goddess Vagdevi.

Apart from the Hindu Front for Justice, the Jains are linked to the Hindu Mahasabha, the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha, Bhagwa Raksha Vahini and Hind Samrajya Party. In 2019, the Sanatan Sanstha felicitated Hari Shankar Jain for being a “Dharmayoddha who is incessantly working for the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra”. The organization has been linked to the killings of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh in a 9,000-page chargesheet filed by a Special Investigation Team.

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“We are often invited to Sanatan Sanstha to speak and I organise some conferences there. They are a dharmic organization and we will be part of such places anywhere,” Vishnu Shankar Jain told The Sunday Express.

In the recent Gyanvapi case, although the SC transferred the case from the senior civil judge in Varanasi to the district judge, arguing that the issue needed a more “seasoned hand”, the order did not record the arguments made by the Muslim side that the civil judge’s orders were biased as they relied entirely on the petition’s version and were even passed ex-parte without hearing the mosque.

The Jains, however, see these as small triumphs in their larger fight. “Whether we succeed now or later, this will inspire many others to fight similar battles,” Vishnu Shankar says.

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