The Sunday profile: father, son and “sacred costumes”

On May 17, Vishnu Shankar Jain, the lawyer 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 indisposed. Although a battery of seasoned lawyers – from Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta to Ranjit Kumar and CS Vaidyanathan – appeared against the mosque, none had the full case. 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 an investigation into the Gyanvapi mosque, as ordered by a court in Varanasi, announcing to the media that a shivling had been found in the wuzu khana of the mosque.

The father-son law duo of Hari Shankar Jain, 68, and Vishnu Shankar Jain, 36, are now at the center of at least six ongoing cases involving claims to ancient temple ruins in mosques – from Teele Wali Masjid in Lucknow at Bhojshala in Dhar, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutub Minar in Delhi, the Shahi Idgah in Mathura and the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi. The cases brought by Jains sparked a series of similar claims across the country and led to challenges to certain provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991.

In 2021 alone, Jains have filed seven cases on the Gyanvapi Mosque issue, including those in the name of 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 in TV 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 the doors of the masjid to be opened for Hindus to worship there.

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

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

Members of the bar believe the elevation sent a message to the lower judiciary. “The whole process was as political as it gets. To the lower court judges, the case sent the message that it is the petitioners who will support you,” said an Allahabad High Court judge who took his retirement in 2019.

Those who knew the elder Hari Shankar speak of his relentlessness in pursuing his opponents.

In 1993, Hari Shankar contested an Amethi election against Congresswoman Sonia Gandhi, but lost. He then filed a petition in the High Court of Allahabad challenging Gandhi’s election on the grounds that she is an Italian and not an Indian citizen. As a backup, in case this argument fails, Jain also challenged the “validity of the respondent’s marriage to 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 by registration. In 2000, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the motions which “suffered from pleadings but were also outrageous”.

In recent weeks, the six cases the Jains had been pursuing for more than 30 years – from Gyanvapi to the Taj Mahal – have all been suddenly revived, with judges accepting their pleas and issuing preliminary orders.

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

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

Based in Lucknow, the practice of Hari Shankar Jain began in the High Court of Allahabad and largely revolved around religion. Vishnu Shankar, a graduate of Balaji Law College in Pune, also hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and represent clients as his “conscience permits”. A registered lawyer, licensed to practice before the Supreme Court, he regularly recruits from the Chanderprabhu Jain College of Law in Narela, Delhi.

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

Apart from the Hindu Justice Front, Jains are linked to the Hindu Mahasabha, the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha, the Bhagwa Raksha Vahini and the Hind Samrajya party. In 2019, the Sanatan Sanstha commended Hari Shankar Jain for being a “Dharmayoddha who unceasingly works for the establishment of Hindu Rashtra”. The organization has been linked to the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh in a 9,000-page indictment filed by a special investigation team.

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“We are often invited to Sanatan Sanstha to speak and I organize a few conferences there. It is 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 matter required a “more experienced hand”, the order did not record the arguments made by the Muslim party that the civil judge’s orders were biased because they were based entirely on the petitioner’s version and were even adopted ex parte without hearing the mosque.

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