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With the Ayodhya verdict expected around November 17 and the parties involved hoping that it goes in their favour, there is also apprehension that it could create a political and communal flashpoint

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

Hearing in the contentious Ayodhya case ended on October 16 amid high drama. This included senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan shredding a map citing the exact location of Ram’s birthplace, claims of the Sunni Waqf Board withdrawing from the case and the Supreme Court-appointed mediation panel informing it of reaching a “ground-breaking settlement”.

At the end of the day, there were hopes of a settlement in the bitter feud that has gone on for about 70 years. Although it was only after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 that the title suit came to occupy centre-stage, it was in 1950 that one Gopal Singh Visharad filed a suit in the Faizabad district court for rights to worship the idols of Ram Lalla. The first petition filed by Mahant Raghubir Das in 1885 was dismissed by the court.

As the five-judge Constitution bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer sit down to write their respective judgments to decide the title suit in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi case after 40 days of a marathon hearing, both the parties are keeping their fingers crossed. The bench was formed on January 8 this year.

Hindus and Muslims are quietly hopeful of the judgment going in their favour. Mahant Dinendra of the Nirmohi Akhara told India Legal: “Hum logon ko safalta ki umeed hai (We are hopeful of success).” Asked if he expected the verdict to be in favour of Hindus, Dinendra replied: “Vishwas banaa lo to safalta apne aap milegi (If you have belief, then victory will be automatically yours).”

The Muslim side was cautious in its response. Convener of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board Zafaryab Jilani told India Legal: “We have the satisfaction that we were able to put across our point of view which the other side could not contradict.” Being a lawyer, Jilani did not want to speculate on the possible verdict.

Haji Mehboob, also a party to the case, is reported to have said that whatever the judgment, it will be good if the chapter is closed in the interest of peace and harmony.

As a gesture, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has decided to stall its planned distribution of tridents to about 10,000 youths before the Supreme Court judgment. The VHP started the exercise of distributing them and training youths in shastra use from September last year. The decision to stall the distribution was taken as the outfit did not want to create an atmosphere of fear.

As the verdict is expected around November 17, the Uttar Pradesh government has cancelled leave of police personnel and field officers till November 30. The likelihood of the judgment coming before November 17 is high as the CJI is due to retire on that date.

The present case was filed against the Allahabad High Court’s judgment in the title suit ordering a three-way equal distribution of the 2.77 acres of disputed land between Ram Lalla Virajman (the presiding deity), the Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni Waqf Board. The High Court gave the chabutara (platform), Sita Rasoi (kitchen) and the Bhandara to the Nirmohi Akhara, the land under the domes which were demolished to the Sunnis, while the area under the central dome went to the presiding deity. At present, the disputed Ayodhya land vests with the central government which acquired it after the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act was passed in April 1993.

During the course of the arguments, besides faith, the Hindu parties also relied heavily on the findings in Ayodhya by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which said that “a massive structure with features distinctive of a temple” was unearthed beneath the ground on which the Babri Masjid stood. Hindus also argued that Ram’s birthplace was also a juristic person and therefore had a legal claim to the land. The Allahabad High Court also held the view that the entire disputed site is a deity. In that case, they argued, the decision to divide the land between the three parties was “bad in law”.

Muslim parties have argued that the ASI report can at best be treated as an opinion and not as evidence; idols were surreptitiously placed in the Babri Masjid in 1949 to usurp the land. They also challenged the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas saying it had no locus standi in the case and it was using Ram Lalla Virajman as a
socio-political vehicle for its own benefit.

What caused a flutter on the closing day of the arguments was news of the Sunni Waqf Board purportedly withdrawing from the case. Board chairman Zufar Farooqi dismissed it as untrue. Jilani, who also represented the Muslim side, described it as false and stated that till 4 pm on October 16, no such submission was made before the Supreme Court. Asked where the news emanated from, Jilani said it must have something to do with the Waqf Board’s internal matter. Sources attributed the news to a rift between the Waqf Board members after the UP government recommended a CBI inquiry into alleged illegal land deals by it.

Equally significant was the Supreme Court-appointed mediation panel’s move on the closing day of arguments. The panel claimed that a settlement had been reached and a detailed outline of a “settlement” between some of those who were party to the case was presented to the Supreme Court bench.

The Supreme Court had referred the dispute for mediation for an out-of-co­urt settlement. A panel headed by former SC judge FMI Kalifulla was formed in March 2019. It appeared to have failed in resolving the vexed issue until the settlement proposal was placed before the bench.

The settlement plan does not have the backing of all the parties. The Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, the presiding deity and six Muslim parties do not support it. Those backing the proposals include the Sunni Waqf Board, Hindu Mahasabha, Akhil Bhartiya Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Punaruddhar Samiti and Mahant Rajendra Das of the Nirmohi Ani Akhara. Ani is the parent body of all Nirmohi akharas.

The proposal states that the Sunni Waqf Board would have “no-objection” if the 2.77-acre Babri Masjid land is acquired by the central government. In lieu of giving up the claim, the Waqf Board wants some select ASI mosques to be opened for namaz, repair of all Ayodhya mosques by the centre and permission to construct a mosque at an alternative site in the pilgrim city. Another important condition put up by the Waqf Board was that the Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991, which prohibits conversion of any place of worship and provides for maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, should be implemented in letter and spirit. This Act is not applicable to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute.

BJP leader Subramanian Swamy did not lose time in pouring cold water on this proposal. He was not ready to give too many concessions to the Muslims, especially on the repair of all Ayodhya mosques. Swami tweeted: “The only concession Virat Hindus can make for Muslims is permit existing 11 mosques in Ayodhya city limits, which presently have goats and bovine feeding there, to be renovated and namaz allowed. Muslims remember that no temples are allowed in most Islamic countries.” This tweet also precludes the possibility of a mosque at an alternative site in Ayodhya.

How important is the settlement proposal now that the judges may have started writing their respective judgments? Jilani said the dispute was about the ownership of the disputed land which the mediation panel was not mandated to decide. He called the settlement proposals “inconsequential” and said they may not have any bearing on the judgment.

There is no doubt that peace and harmony will be under threat even if the Supreme Court settles the issue in favour of Hindus. Like Subramanian Swamy, the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP) wants Muslims to give up claims on Kashi and Mathura mosques. Who’s going to stop the ABAP from belligerence if Muslims cite the Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991?

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