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25 March 2013 Last updated at 06:52 GMT

The Indian court case that started in 1878

Disputed graveyard site in VaranasiThe litigation over the disputed graveyard in Varanasi has been going on since 1878

A court case about a piece of land in Doshipura, Varanasi, first started when India was under British rule and Lord Lytton was its governor-general, Rutherford Hayes was the 19th president of the US and the Wright brothers were still 25 years away from flying their first aeroplane.

Millions of cases are pending in courts throughout India, a state of affairs which has led to the creation of fast-track courts, most recently in the Delhi gang-rape case. Some trials have lasted for decades, and sometimes for more than a century. BBC Hindi reports on one such long-running case.

Today, President Barack Obama is the 44th US president, Pranab Mukherjee is the 13th president of independent India, and a man landing on the moon is old news.

Yet, the Doshipura court case, which has been pitting Shia Muslims against Sunnis over two acres of land (87,000 sq ft) for more than a century, is one of the oldest in India.

It began in 1878 - long before India became an independent country in 1947 - and until now, no settlement has been reached.

Jaffar Imam is a Shia Muslim.

His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and their fathers before them fought this case: "They had to, so now we have to fight," he says.

Khalilur RahmanKhalilur Rahman holds the Shia community in Varanasi responsible for the dispute

The other party in the case is Khalilur Rahman, an 80-year-old Sunni Muslim.

He says: "We don't want to contest this, but if someone comes at you, what do you do?"

No solution

It is believed that the maharaja of Benares (as Varanasi was then known) was the original owner of the land.

The Shias say the maharaja gave them the land as a gift out of religious duty; the Sunnis say the plot is actually an old cemetery and the Shias have no religious authority over it.

The Sunnis says the plot contains the uncemented graves of two Sunnis.

The case has been through dozens of courts, but no effective solution has ever been found.

In most courts, the Shia claim has been accepted, while the Sunni claim has been rejected.

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India's fast-track courts

  • Some 1,200 fast-track courts were operating in India as of March 2012
  • In Delhi, six fast-track courts were ordered for the trial of cases related to crimes against women, especially rape. Some other states such as Punjab and Maharashtra are also setting up fast-track courts for this purpose
  • In 2000, central government started a scheme for more than 1,700 fast-track courts to try to clear the backlog of cases clogging up the judicial system, partly related to a shortage of judges
  • Funding is an issue because the central government said it could no longer fund them after March 2011, leaving future funding decisions to individual states

In 1976, the Sunnis took the case to India's Supreme Court. On 3 November 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Shias.

The Supreme Court directed the administration in Varanasi to construct a boundary wall around the plot and relocate the two graves elsewhere.

But the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, told the court that removing the graves could lead to violence and so far, nothing has been done.


The Supreme Court has now asked the state government why the ruling of the highest court in the land has been left hanging for 32 years. It seems to want to settle the matter through negotiations.

Mr Imam says each time the Sunnis lose, the court says the land should be given to the Shias. But the Sunnis say the graves cannot be destroyed.

The Shias say that Mughal emperor Shah Jahan first buried his wife Mumtaz Mahal in Burhanpur, and later shifted her grave to the Taj Mahal in Agra. If her tomb could be removed, they ask, then why can't these be relocated?

But Mr Rahman says: "From the beginning, the courts were angry about this case. We are ready to have both Sunnis and Shias use this land for religious purposes."

Mr Imam counters by saying: "Even the highest court of the land is not being respected here. We are not going to allow Sunnis to carry out religious rituals on this piece of land.

"We are a minuscule minority and there are hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in this area; that's why nobody listens to us. But we have full faith in the judiciary," he adds.

And so, the battle continues...