As Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi is set to retire on November 15, the nation’s eyes have shifted to the Supreme Court, which was hearing the Ayodhya land dispute case.
The verdict in the matter is expected to be announced on or before November 14, and when it is announced, the judgment will change the face of India’s socio-political character, maybe even making space for itself in history books.
The verdict will hopefully complete the circle, rather break the spiral that the case has found itself embroiled in for over 130 years.
Adequate measures are being taken by the Centre and security is being beefed up in Ayodhya, as well across Uttar Pradesh ahead of the top court’s ruling on the matter. The Ministry of Home Affairs has granted 15 companies of paramilitary forces – BSF, RAF, CISF, ITBP and SSP – to Uttar Pradesh. They will be stationed in sensitive areas such as Kanpur, Aligarh, Lucknow, Azamgarh, etc.
Security has been stepped up in Mumbai as well, the city which felt the tremors of Babri Masjid demolition back in 1992. Police officials have told media persons that "no celebration or mourning by any community or group will be allowed” in Mumbai and that the city police's social media monitoring cell and cyber cell will monitor activities on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and other such platforms."Strict action will be taken against those who post objectionable content, hurting sentiments of any community," officials said.
Besides, the ruling BJP has advised its cadre to “act responsibly” and follow the code of conduct issued by the party’s top brass. “None of the leaders should comment on it. From the government’s side, the Prime Minister will make a statement after the order comes, and ministers should wait for it to get the direction. From the party side, the BJP president will come out with his comment first,” a senior member of the party told The Indian Express.
BJP’s ideological parent RSS has asked its leaders to maintain calm and refrain from making emotive or inflammatory statements in the wake of the verdict. A similar decree has been issued by Muslim organizations as well.
With security preparations in place, the nation now waits with bated breath for the verdict, which will be a watershed moment, no matter what. Let’s take a closer look at what has made the case that it is
The current matter before the Supreme Court is an appeal against the verdict delivered by the Allahabad High Court in 2010. The bench had, in the absence of a title, divided the 2.77 acre land at Ayodhya equally between the three primary parties – Bhagwan Ramlalla Virajman, Nirmohi Akhara and Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board.
It is important to note that the Allahabad High Court had not demarcated the land and left it to the parties to do that themselves, as none of them was able to prove its claim over the property.
Now, in a 40-day marathon daily hearing on the matter, all parties have presented their arguments to a Supreme Court Constitutional Bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices SA Bobde (CJI elect), DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer. The arguments were heard by the bench, which reserved its order on October 16, after Rajeev Dhavan, a senior counsel for the Muslim parties, tore a pictorial map provided by the Hindu Mahasabha purportedly showing the exact birth place of Ram in Ayodhya.The three parties claiming title to the land are – 1. Sunni Waqf Board, which manages all mosques in Uttar Pradesh, and claims that they have been managing Babri Masjid since the 1930s; 2. Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu sect claiming managerial rights to the temple; 3. A party representing Ramlalla Virajman, that claims that the disputed land is the birth place of Lord Ram and should be in exclusive and sole possession of the deity himself.
The first point of dispute was the claim to the central dome of the Babri Masjid, where idols of the deity ‘appeared’ in 1949. While Hindu parties have claimed that they existed previously, Muslim parties have alleged that they were placed surreptitiously on the intervening night of December 22-23, 1949 in a planned attack and trespass.
However, the Muslim parties have agreed that there were idols of Hindu deities in the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi (outer courtyard) before 1949, but they have argued that the Hindus did not hold the title over the place and only had the right to pray.
The other major point of contention is the origin of the mosque and its validity. The Muslim parties have argued that there has been a mosque at the disputed site since 1528, and that it was built by Mir Baqi on the instructions of Mughal emperor Babur. They said since Muslims have been praying at the mosque since 1528, they have possession of the land. On the other hand, the Hindu parties have argued that it is not a valid mosque as it was built on the ruins of a Hindu temple – which either existed or Mir Baqi razed a temple – against the tenets of Islam. Hence, Hindu parties allege that the land belongs to them.
Both sides have used archaeological evidence to prove their point. The Hindu parties rely on reports from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which found inscriptions in Devanagari script on the pillars of the mosque, found in the rubble after the mosque was demolished. The report also points to the existence of a sanctum sanctorum inside, which it says, could have been a Vishnu temple. Similarly, the Muslim parties look at inscriptions when Mir Baqi built the mosque and points to a graveyard which has graves of the people who died in a battle.
This is a crucial piece of information as it will help the court decide who had the possession of the land since the beginning of time till the claim to the property was made.
In the current hearing before the Supreme Court, the Sunni Waqf Board has demanded the possession of the 2.77 acres and restoration of the Babri Masjid. On the other hand, the Hindu parties, besides the 2.77 acres, want the land that was acquired by the government in 1993. Interestingly, both parties have said that the Nirmohi Akhara should not be given possession of the land.
In 2010, a three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court pronounced an unusual verdict in the matter – unusual in that the three-member bench divided the land into three, treating it like a civil title suit. The ruling said that the three parties will have joint ownership of the land, and that the parties will determine which portion goes to whom.
The ruling suggested that the Muslim parties should get a piece of land in the disputed site and somewhere around the outer courtyard. Besides, the central dome of where the Babri Masjid stood would belong to the Ramlalla Virajman, and the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi, which fall within the outer courtyard, will be under the control of the Nirmohi Akhara. However, the demarcation has been left to the parties involved. The actual dispute is over the central dome, where the idols of the deity ‘appeared’ in 1949. How did the bench – Justices Sibghat Ullah Khan, Sudhir Agarwal and Dharam Veer Sharma – come to agree on a three-way partition? Here goes:
Justice Agarwal agreed that it was a mosque and a valid mosque citing the title suits filed earlier, wherein Hindu parties have agreed to the same. He however, says the inner dome belongs to neither party, but the outer courtyard belongs to the Hindu parties.
Justice Sharma pointed to 265 inscriptions in Devanagari script found on the pillars and infers that even though the structure is a mosque, it was built against the tenets of Islam. He adds that the inscriptions meant that there was access to other religions into the inner and outer courtyard. He goes on to cite Waqf records to infer that neither the inner nor the outer courtyard belongs to the Muslims.
Justice Khan, however, does not buy into any of the aforementioned evidence, and says it is a valid mosque, but it belongs neither to the Muslims nor to the Hindus. He adds that there is no evidence that Hindus have possession of the outer courtyard (not) before 1885, when the first title suit was filed.
The differing interpretations of judges over evidence and records vis-à-vis possession of land claimed by the plaintiffs led the case to become a title suit, and a consequent three-way partition.
Another unusual aspect to the Ayodhya title dispute is that a party is representing Lord Ram, the deity, who is being treated as a person with legal rights. Not only this, the janmasthan or the birthplace is also being considered as a legal entity. This affects the case because if the birthplace is a legal entity, then nobody can encroach the property.
A legal entity or legal character is assigned to a non-living object – say a company or a trust – so as to give them certain legal rights. In pre-Independence India, kingdoms were often ruled in the name of deities, and that’s how land came to become associated with them. Hence, the deity had to have a legal character, when claims to his property are being made and a trust can manage that land in the name of the deity.
If the Hindu parties can establish the existence of the birthplace, it will strengthen their claim to the disputed land.
It is said that when religion and politics ride in the same cart, a whirlwind follows. And, that’s precisely what happened in post-Independence India. The years 1949, 1986, 1990 and 1992 are milestones in the yearbook of this case, when the issue was intensified depending on the political exigencies of the moment.
On December 6, 1992, a frenzied mob of over 1.5 lakh karsevaks breached barricades and razed the Babri Mosque to the ground in a matter of six hours with their pickaxes. The impassioned cries of “Mandir yahin banayenge” reverberated in the complex. These karsevaks are believed to belong to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, the BJP and other allied Hindu outfits.
The demolition unleashed a cruel mania across India, with over 2,000 people falling into the deep chasm which surfaced between the Hindus and the Muslims. The incident birthed fanatics, who weren’t shy of evil.
There was carnage, more pronounced in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where 500 people were killed in riots. At this time, Mumbai witnessed an orgy of unreason, which was assiduously greased by Bal Thackeray’s inflammatory speeches.
In 1990, the BJP was working towards expanding their national footprint. LK Advani, who was made the party president in 1989, undertook a Rath Yatra to mobilize people on the issue of Ram Mandir, and began in Somnath, Gujarat.
During the course of his yatra (journey), Advani delivered impassioned speeches on the Ayodhya movement, from a rath (an air-conditioned van refashioned to look like a chariot). Although the Yatra was supposed to culminate in Ayodhya, it was intercepted in Samastipur by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who had Advani arrested and the yatra stopped on gounds of creating communal disharmony.
Nevertheless, the BJP crossed the 100-mark in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections as the Ayodhya movement gained momentum. On December 6, 1992, Advani was among the BJP leaders who were delivering speeches to karsevaks in Ayodhya. Another firebrand leader who owes her rise to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is Uma Bharti. She was indicted by the Liberhan Commission for inciting a mob to violence.
In 2017, the Supreme Court had booked BJP veteran leaders Advani, Bharti, Murli Manohar Joshi, Vinay Katiyar and Sadhvi Ritambara for criminal conspiracy, almost 25 years after the Babri Masjid was demolished.
Rebuking the Central Bureau of investigation (CBI) for the delay in bringing the accused to the book, the apex court had noted, "The accused persons have not been brought to book largely because of the conduct of the CBI in not pursuing the prosecution of the aforesaid alleged offenders in a joint trial, and because of technical defects which were easily curable, but which were not cured by the State Government."
Earlier this year, the top court urged that the verdict in the case be delivered within the next nine months. Three other high-profile accused Giriraj Kishore, and VHP chief Ashok Singhal (popularly referred to as the architect of the Ram Mandir movement) and Vishnu Hari Dalmia died during trial.
The demolition happened in the rule of then prime minister PV Narsimha Rao, who is often accused of not doing enough to control the wildfire. The incident marked the rise of the BJP in north India and the decay of the Congress’ political and electoral prospects in the heartland.
On the social front, the concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ started to emerge – a large section of Hindus started embracing it, while Muslims felt insecure and began to question the secular architecture of the polity and their own place in it.
However, it would be unfair to only point fingers at the saffron party for getting political gains out of the Mandir movement. It was in 1986, when Rajiv Gandhi, in an attempt to revive his sagging political gains, persuaded then Uttar Pradesh chief minister to open the lock and allow religious rites to take place inside the disputed site.
This had triggered a mass movement by the VHP, which launched an agitation to break free the idols of Lord Rama and Sita from “captivity”. “Sacred stones” were carried from all over the country to lay foundation of the temple, and in light of this, massive riots occurred all across north India, particularly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The pronouncement of the verdict in the Ayodhya title case next week will put an end to a long chapter in the history of India – a chapter that has, time and again, tested the nation’s resilience as a secular constitutional democracy.