Above: CJI Ranjan Gogoi/Photo: Anil Shakya
By Inderjit Badhwar
We are entering the last lap of what will be one of the most historic and complex cases ever handled by the Indian judiciary. By putting an October 18 deadline for conclusion of hearings in what is officially called the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land title dispute, it is clear that the final verdict by the apex court, whichever way it goes, will be Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s swan song as well as his legacy. Gogoi is heading the five-judge Constitution bench hearing the case and is due to demit office on November 17. If no judgment is delivered before he retires, the bench will have to be reconstituted and the case itself will have to start all over again.
There have been other cases of national significance and importance, but none has come with the additional pressure of being so politically and communally sensitive. More significantly, the verdict will come at a time when Hindu pride and nationalism are at a peak and the RSS-inspired Hindutva agenda is showing rapid movement, as evidenced by the abolition of Article 370 and the renewed push for a Uniform Civil Code. Construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, considered the birthplace of Lord Ram, has also been part of the BJP’s election promises. Since the matter is in court, the BJP has been constrained from passing any executive decisions relating to the dispute, despite having a full majority in Parliament. If the parties involved in the dispute abide by the schedule, it gives the bench a full month to draft the judgment and pronounce the verdict, bringing the curtain down on a case that has remained unresolved for over 25 years.
The bench, comprising Chief Justice Gogoi and Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer, passed an order on September 18 saying if “the parties desire to settle the matter(s), including, by resorting to mediation by the earlier constituted mediation panel, they may do so and place the settlement before the Court, if reached”. The Court order said the mediation details need to be confidential but clarified that it would proceed “simultaneously along with the hearing”. The bench said the day-to-day proceedings in the land dispute case have reached “an advanced stage” and will continue without interruption. On August 6, the Supreme Court had begun day-to-day hearings in the Ayodhya land dispute case, noting that more than four months of efforts to mediate between rival Hindu and Muslim claimants had failed. “Mediation didn’t result in any kind of settlement,” Chief Justice Gogoi had said at the time.
He has been chief justice for a mere 11 months, and this will be a true test of his judicial acumen and neutrality. Once the verdict is handed down, the credit, or discredit, will be attributed to Chief Justice Gogoi as head of the Constitution Bench. Three of the last chief justices of India retired with judgments that have been seen as their legacy. Justice TS Thakur is best remembered for setting up the Justice Lodha Committee to crack down on the Board of Control for Cricket in India and bringing pollution matters into judicial consciousness. His successor, Justice JS Khehar, will always be remembered for making the right to privacy a fundamental right and declaring instant triple talaq unconstitutional. His successor, Justice Dipak Misra, will be known for his courageous verdict that opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple for women of all age-groups. Justice Gogoi took over from him and has had a mixed and muted tenure which needs one glorious crowning moment. That will only be known in the third week of November when the curtain is scheduled to fall on a case that could well define the idea of India.