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Above: People at a “Dharma Sabha” organised by the VHP in Ayodhya for the Ram temple/Photo: UNI

As the centre moves a plea seeking transfer of land near the disputed site to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, leaving aside 0.313 acres on which the Babri Masjid stood, all eyes are now on the top court

By India Legal Bureau

The government has moved the Supreme Court seeking dilution of its earlier Ayodhya order which had said that the centre must maintain status quo on the 67.703 acres of land it had acquired at the site back in 1993. This comes amidst growing clamour from the Hindu-right to begin construction of the Ram Mandir with just three months to go before the Lok Sabha polls.

The Supreme Court is still undecided on when it will begin hearing the petitions challenging the Allahabad High Court’s verdict of 2010 that had ordered transfer of the disputed site in three parts to the three competing claimants. However, 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 Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, one of the parties in the title suit which is leading the campaign for construction of the Ram Mandir.

“It is respectfully submitted that the acquisition took place in the year 1993 and 25 years have passed, the original landowners whose land, which were not in dispute but were still acquired, are entitled to get it back and the Central government is duty bound to restore/revert/hand over the same land,” read the centre’s application that was filed with the apex court registry on January 28.

The application reads: “Permit the central government to restore/revert/hand over back superfluous/excess vacant land (other than the disputed land measuring 0.313 acres) to the owners/occupiers from whom the respective lands were acquired under the Act of 1993.”

It may be recalled that the 67.703 acres of land at the site and its vicinity were acquired by the centre in 1993 through the controversial Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act.

On three occasions since—in the 1994 Ismail Faruqui verdict, in 2003 and then again in 2011—the Supreme Court has directed the centre, the statutory receiver of the acquired land under the Act, to maintain status quo at the site. The top court’s stand on the land has consistently been that the plots acquired by the centre under the Act are “intrinsically connected” and cannot be separated until the title suit is adjudicated. For, if the land is transferred under Section 6 of the Act, during the pendency of the hearing, “further complications may arise.”

In 2003, a five-judge constitution bench of the Court had said: “…status quo has been maintained from 1992 onwards…. When for a long time, a particular state of affairs has prevailed—as in the present case for over a decade—and when the adjudication of the disputes which are pending before the High Court are reaching final stages, it will not be appropriate to disturb that state of affairs.”

The bench had also reiterated, perhaps with almost prophetic foresight, an observation made by the Court earlier in Ismail Faruqui that said: “…in the event of the Muslims succeeding in the adjudication of the dispute requiring the disputed structure to be handed over to the Muslim community, their success should not be thwarted by denial of pro­per access to, and enjoyment of rights in, the disputed area by exercise of rights of ownership of Hindu owners of the adjacent properties.”

The application by the centre now comes at a time when the RSS and its ideological allies, such as the VHP and Bajrang Dal, have been demanding that the Modi government bypass the legal proceedings in the pending Ayodhya title suit and bring in an ordinance to enable construction of the Ram Mandir at the disputed site. Expectedly then, the VHP’s international working president,  Alok Kumar, welcomed the centre’s application, calling it a “step in the right direction”.

The Muslim parties in the title suit have, predictably, slammed the centre’s move. The Sunni Central Waqf Board has also disputed the claim that the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas owns 42 acres of the supposedly “undisputed” land that the centre wants to return to the trust. Zafaryab Jilani, counsel for the Sunni Central Waqf Board, told mediapersons that the Nyas was a lessee and projecting it as an original owner in a legal application was misleading.

“We will challenge the centre’s move if the Supreme Court admits its application. The centre’s claim that the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas is the owner of a major part of the land is legally wrong. This land (around 42 acres) was given to the Nyas, a wing of the VHP, in 1991 on lease. But this lease was cancelled by the 1993 Act,” Jilani said.

Legally speaking, Jilani may be right in his assumption that the Nyas lost its ownership right to the land once it was acquired by the centre in 1993 because land given on lease does not fall in the free-hold category and so the leaseholder cannot assert the claim of being an owner.

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in a recent interview, claimed that his government would wait for a resolution of the dispute by the Supreme Court, his colleagues in the government did not seem to share the same view. The application comes days after Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad nearly commanded the Supreme Court to rule favourably for construction of the Ram Mandir. Prasad had said: “The Ayodhya case has been pending for the last 70 years. The Allahabad High Court order was in favour of the temple (in 2010), but then it is on hold in the Supreme Court now. This matter should be cleared soon.”

It is premature to state whether the top court will rule favourably on the centre’s application given the sensitive nature of the title suit. However, in the unlikely scenario of the Court granting the centre’s request, the decks will be cleared for the government to hand over a large chunk of the acquired land to its owners—a majority of them affiliated with the votaries of building the Ram Mandir.

In such an event, preliminary ground­work for construction of the Mandir may commence before the Lok Sabha polls, giving the BJP a massive advantage at the hustings. The party can then reach out to the majority Hindu electorate and state that it was finally fulfilling its long-stated poll promise of ensuring that a massive Ram Mandir is built at the Babri Masjid site.

Not surprising, then, that the grandstanding of the Hindu-right has already begun. Even though it isn’t clear yet whether the apex court will even entertain the centre’s application, Hindu seers who attended the Param Dharam Sansad in Allahabad on January 30 gave a clarion call for starting the construction of the Ram Mandir from February 21. Urging “all Hindus” to be ready to “face bullets for the construction of the Ram Mandir”, Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati told the congregation that Hindus must march for Ayodhya with bricks for the shilanyas and reach the site by February 21.

The build-up is reminiscent of frenzy that preceded December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished and the nation burned in the fires from the consequent Hindu-Muslim riots. The embers from that conflagration have not gone cold in the 26 years since. The Supreme Court can stop them from flaring up into an inferno. Will it?

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