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The longest and most contentious suit in Indian judicial history finally gets closure with a structured judgment from the Constitution bench, but questions remain about the future course of the sensitive dispute

By Atul Chandra

In a landmark and unanimous verdict last Saturday, a five-judge Supreme Court bench cleared the way for the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. The 164-year-old contentious Ayodhya title suit has dominated India’s political and social landscape with a volatile mixture of communal tensions, bitterness and angst. The Supreme Court brought down the curtains on the festering issue by giving possession of the 2.77 acre disputed land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas with the judges agreeing that Ram Lalla Virajman (the presiding deity) was a juristic entity having right to ownership of land. Nyas was representing the presiding deity.

The Sunni Waqf Board will be given an alternate site of five acres for the construction of a mosque. The judgment said: “Simultaneously, with the handing over of the disputed property to the Trust or body…a suitable plot of land measuring 5 acres shall be handed over to the Sunni Central Waqf Board… The land shall be allotted either by: (a) The Central Government out of the land acquired under the Ayodhya Act 1993, or (b) by the State government at suitable prominent place in Ayodhya. The Central Government and the State shall act in consultation with each other to effectuate the above allotment in the period stipulated.” The land will remain vested in the statutory receiver (central government) till a trust is formed to manage it. The government has three months’ time to form the trust. Nirmohi Akhara, whose petition for management of land was dismissed, will have its representative as a trustee, ruled the bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. Regarding Nirmohi Akhara, the judgment said that it was not a shebait (devotee) and hence its suit was barred by limitation.

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.

Justice Gogoi took 30 minutes to read the operating parts of the judgment. Others on the bench included Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer.

Senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan, who was representing Ram lalla in the case, welcomed the judgment. “It is a very balanced judgment and a victory of the people,” he said. Though it respected the verdict, the Sunni Waqf Board said it was dissatisfied with parts of the judgement, especially with the land of the mosque being handed over to the Hindus. Board’s lawyer and convener of All-India Muslim Personal Law Board Zafaryab Jilani did not rule out filing of a review petition against the judgment. He did not see any merit in the allotment of an alternate site. “The verdict holds no value for us. It has a lot of contradictions,” Jilani told the media. Jilani and Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangimahli of Lucknow’s Aishbagh Eidgah called for peace and restraint.

Kamal Farooqui of the Personal law Board was unhappy with judgment. “Iske badle hamey 100 acre zameen bhee den to koi faayda nahee hai. Hamaaree 67 acre zameen to already acquire kee hui hai to humko daan me kya de rahe hain vo? Hamaaree 67 acre leney ke baad five acre de rahe hain. Ye kahaan ka insaaf hai? (Even if they gave us 100 acres of land, it is of no use. Our 67 acres of land is already acquired, so what are they giving us as charity? After taking 67 acres from us, they are giving five acres. What kind of justice is this?)

A long journey

1528: During the reign of Mughal Emperor Babur, a mosque, the Babri Masjid was built in Ayodhya on a site which many Hindus consider the place of birth of Lord Rama. The Babri Masjid was named after Babur.

1853: First recorded violent clashes broke out at the religious site.

1859: The colonial British administration  created fences to separate worship places; Muslims were allowed to use the inner court while the Hindus used the outer court.

1949: Idols of Ram Lalla are placed surreptitiously under the central dome. The government proclaimed the site a disputed area and locked  the gate.

1950: Gopal Simla Visharad filed the first suit in a Faizabad civil court for rights to perform puja of Ram Lalla. Paramhansa Ramachandra Das also filed a suit for continuation of puja and keeping idols in the structure.

1959: Nirmohi Akhara filed third suit.

1961: UP Sunni Central Wakf Board filed fourth suit.

1989: The newly-elected Rajiv Gandhi government allowed the VHP to perform shilanyas for the Ram Temple on the disputed land. The VHP laid the foundation to build a Ram temple adjacent to the disputed mosque site.

Dec 6, 1992: The Babri Mosque was demolished by a gathering of near 200,000 kar sevaks. Communal riots across India followed.

1993: The government took over 67 acres of land around the area, sought the SC’s opinion on whether there existed a Hindu place of worship before the structure was built.

Apr 2002: The Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court of three judges began hearings in the case.

Jan 2003: Archaeologists started a court-ordered survey to find out if a Ram Temple existed on the site.

Aug 2003: The survey found evidence of a temple beneath the mosque. However, Muslim groups disagreed with the findings.  

Sept 2010: Allahabad High Court’s ruling gave one-third possession of the site each to Muslims, Hindus and the Nirmohi Akhara. By a 2-1 majority verdict (in the bench of Justice SU Khan, Justice Sudhir Agarwal and Justice DV Sharma), plaintiffs representing Lord Rama, the Nirmohi Akhara and the Wakf Board were declared joint title-holders of the property.

Dec 2010: The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and Sunni Wakf Board moved the Supreme Court, challenging part of the Allahabad High Court’s verdict.

May 9, 2011: The Supreme Court stayed the High Court order splitting the disputed site in three parts; remarked that the HC verdict was surprising as no party wanted a division of the site.

Feb 8, 2018: The SC starts hearing the appeals in the title suit.

Apr 6: Sr Adv Rajeev Dhavan files a plea in the SC to refer the issue of reconsideration of the observations in its Ismail Faruqui judgment of 1994—mosque isn’t integral to Islam—to a larger bench.

Sept 27: SC declines to refer the Ismail Faruqui verdict to a larger Constitution bench; says title suit proceedings can commence on October 29.

Feb 8, 2018: SC starts hearing the civil appeals.

Mar 14: SC rejects all interim pleas, including Swamy’s, seeking to intervene as parties in the case.

Apr 6: Sr Adv Rajeev Dhavan files plea in SC to refer the issue of reconsideration of the observations in its 1994 judgement to a larger bench.

Sep 27: SC declines to refer the case to a five-judge Constitution bench. Case to be heard by a newly constituted three-judge bench on October 29.

Jan 8: SC sets up a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear the case headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana, UU Lalit and DY Chandrachud.

Jan 25: SC reconstitutes five-member Constitution bench to hear the case. The new bench comprises CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and SA Nazeer.

Jan 29: Centre moves SC seeking permission to return the 67-acre acquired land around the disputed site to original owners.

Mar 6: SC reserves order on whether the land dispute can be settled through mediation.

Nov 9: Verdict delivered.

The most dramatic fallout of the verdict lay in the fact that it was greeted without any overt violence or communal tension. BJP politicians led by the prime minister called for calm and peace while hailing the judgement. Jilani and Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangimahli of Lucknow’s Aishbagh Eidgah also called for peace and restraint.

The apex court relied heavily on the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) excavations at the disputed site for its judgment. The ASI found that a temple existed at the site. Going by the ASI report, the Court concluded that the mosque was not constructed on vacant land. The ASI report stated that “a massive structure with features distinctive of a temple” was unearthed beneath the ground on which stood the Babri Masjid. Reading the judgment, Justice Gogoi said historical records indicated that Ayodhya was, as believed by the Hindus, the birthplace of Lord Ram but title suits cannot be decided on faith and belief. The Hindus, he said, presented evidence that they used to offer prayers outside the sanctum sanctorum.

The judgment said that there was evidence to suggest that the Hindus had been worshipping Ram Chabutara and Sita Rasoi before the British came to India. Along with this, Justice Gogoi said that there was evidence to show that the outer court of the disputed site was in the possession of the Hindus. These points together with the Ram Lalla Virajman being accepted as a juristic entity and ASI’s findings tilted the judgment in favour of the Hindus.

Significantly, the Supreme Court said that placing of idols in the mosque in 1949 was “illegal”. It also said that the razing of Babri Masjid by a frenzied mob in 1992 was a violation of law. Veteran BJP leader LK Advani is one of the accused in the demolition conspiracy case. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition filed by the Shia Waqf Board challenging an order of the Faizabad court on its ownership claim to the land.

The judgment came on cross-appeals filed by both the Hindu and Muslim parties against the Allahabad High Court’s order of September 2010 dividing the disputed land equally between Ram Lalla, 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 went to Sunnis, while the area under the central dome went to the presiding deity.

The Supreme Court has now demolished the Sunnis’ claim to land in the absence of any archaeological or historical evidence.

The judgment came after 40 days of marathon hearing, said to be second longest in the Court’s history, by the Constitution bench which was formed on January 8 this year to resolve the knotted and longest title suit in India’s judicial history. During the course of the arguments, besides faith, the Hindu parties had cited archaeological evidence to buttress their claim. Hindus also argued that Ram’s birthplace was also a juristic person and, therefore, has a legal claim to land. The Allahabad High Court also held the view that the entire disputed site is deity. In that case, they argued, that the decision to divide the land between the three parties was “bad in law”.

The Muslim parties 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 Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas as having any locus standi in the case and argued that it was using Ram Lalla Virajman as socio-political vehicle for the benefit of Nyas. The protracted feud had 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 Gopal Singh Visharad filed a suit in Faizabad district court for rights to worship the idols of the Ram Lalla. The first petition filed by Mahant Raghubir Das in 1885 was dismissed by the court.

The country, UP in particular, saw deep communal polarisation after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. Burning to death of kar sevaks, subsequent Gujarat riots of 2002 and a series of terror attacks, including the one in Mumbai in 2011, were said to be the fallout of the Babri demolition. In a guarded criticism of the judgment, the CPM said that certain premises of the judgment were questionable. “The Court judgment has itself stated that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 was a violation of the law. This was a criminal act and an assault on secular principle,” the party said.

With the painful chapter coming to an end, peace and harmony will hopefully thrive in the country. Some BJP leaders may not remain contented with this legal victory as they have spoken about Kashi and Mathura mosques being their next targets. Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the mosque adjoining Krishna Janmabhoomi have been described as “eyesore”. Muslims are apprehensive of another round of Hindu assertion being unleashed on them. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat did not categorically say at a press conference that the issue of the two mosques will not be raked up. For the moment, however, the entire country breathed a sigh of relief at the closure of such a long running judicial dispute and the fact that all sides, regardless of their political affiliations, have accepted the verdict with maturity and in keeping with India’s secular traditions.

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