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Constitution bench to hear Ayodhya title suit, Rafale review petition, Article 35A pleas also in Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s court

The Supreme Court is, on Tuesday (February 26), expected to witness some dramatic proceedings as three politically sensitive cases, each with far-reaching ramifications, have been listed for hearing.

The apex court is expected to resume its proceedings on a clutch of petitions filed in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi title suit, popularly referred to as the Ayodhya case. The petitions will be heard by a constitution bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer.

The long-pending case emanates from a challenge to the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 verdict which had decreed equal division of the 2.70 acres of disputed land at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid between the three parties – including Ram Lalla or the infant Lord Ram – that have been claiming ownership of the plot.

It is not yet clear whether the constitution bench will also entertain arguments from the Centre on an application it had filed last month seeking return of the undisputed, but acquired, land in Ayodhya to its original owners. The Centre has, through an application filed with the Supreme Court registry on January 28, urged the top court to dilute its earlier orders that had directed the Union government – the receiver of the 67.703 acres of acquired land in Ayodhya – to maintain status quo at the site. The Centre wants the Court to allow transfer of a major chunk of the land – except the 0.313 acres on which the Babri Masjid stood – to the original owners, including the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, one of the parties in the title suit which is leading the campaign for construction of the Ram Mandir.

The other crucial matter before the top court, on Tuesday, is a petition filed by former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha seeking review of the top court’s verdict that had dismissed the demands for an SIT probe into the controversial Rafale deal between India and France’s Dassault Aviation, which has as its offset partner, Anil Ambani’s Reliance defence.

The Rafale verdict given by the top court on December 14 had rejected demands for a probe into the deal for purchase of the multi-billion-rupee fighter jets on two key grounds – that the Comptroller and Auditor General had not found any irregularities in the deal and, that allegations of undue involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his office in finalizing the deal, with Ambani’s Reliance defence as an offset partner, were found to be untrue after the Union government gave a written submission claiming that the negotiations with Dassault Aviation and the French government were carried out by the Indian Negotiating Team (INT) of the Union Ministry of Defence. However, both these grounds were found to be misleading as the C&AG report on Rafale was not final at the time of the verdict and was tabled in Parliament’s recently concluded winter session – over a month after the top court’s verdict. Similarly, documents have come in the public domain over the past month that reveal the PMO’s direct involvement in the negotiations, despite objections from members of the INT and the defence ministry.

Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had, last week, said in open court that the review petition will be taken up soon.

The top court is also scheduled to hear a clutch of petitions that seek abolition of Article 35A and 370 of the Constitution of India vis-à-vis the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Articles give the J&K a special status and grant its legislative assembly powers to identify “permanent residents” of the State and bestow upon them a slew of special rights. The Supreme Court Cause List states that the petitions challenging constitutional validity of Articles 35A and 370 will be up for arguments between February 26 and 28. The strife-torn northern state which is currently under President’s Rule and has been on the edge ever since the February 14 Pulwama terror attack had requested the Supreme Court to defer its hearing on these petitions. The two key regional parties of J&K, Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP and Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference have also demanded that the petitions be deferred and assembly elections be conducted in the State first to enable an elected State government to put forth its defence of the contentious Articles of the Constitution before the apex court.

With all three cases expected to witness long and legally complicated arguments, it remains to be seen whether the top court’s decision to list all these matters for hearing on the same day proves to be too ambitious as besides these petitions several other cases too will be listed for proceedings before the court.

—India Legal Bureau

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