The consecration of the Temple has ended a prolonged legal battle where faith was pitted against law, Hinduism against Islam and religious convictions against rationality. Retracing the century-old legal battle shows how the highly contentious and controversial issue finally arrived at a lawful conclusion
By Sanjay Raman Sinha
The outcome of one of the thorniest and longest-standing legal contests over a place of worship, which occupies a special place in the hearts of two religious communities, climaxed on August 5, 2020. Amidst sacred ceremonies, the chanting of mantras and performance of the bhoomi pujan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Ram Mandir shilanyas was finally solemnised in Ayodhya, UP. Modi said the wait of centuries had ended and that India was creating a golden chapter in Ayodhya.
For over 125 years, the 1,500-sq-yard plot had witnessed a prolonged legal tussle. Religious groups, devotees and even gods contested for ownership of the sacred spot. From a lower court to the highest court of the land, the case wound its way up. In the process, many Hindu and Muslim petitioners rallied along and the ensuing legal wrangle made the case increasingly complicated. Successive courts pronounced divergent verdicts on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case. Finally on November 9, 2019, the Supreme Court announced its verdict and awarded the disputed place to Hindus to build the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple. Muslims were given an alternative piece of land, away from the site, to build a mosque. The judgment led to an uneasy situation. Jubilation in one quarter, resignation in the other.
At the centre of the row was a 16th-century mosque, apparently built during the reign of Babur. The disputed site was revered by Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Rama. The Muslims held that they had worshipped in the mosque for generations, and hence, it rightfully belonged to them. They also held that there was no transfer of land ownership right.
The roots of the legal battle can be traced back to 1858 when the first legal record of the case was registered in Faizabad. On November 30, 1858, an FIR was filed against a group of Nihang Sikhs who had apparently installed their nishan (a blue flag) and written “Ram” inside the Babri mosque. The police recorded that on December 1, 1858, a chabutra (platform) was constructed by the Sikhs. This became the first documentary evidence that the Hindus were present not only in the outer courtyard but also in the inner one.
The case initially had three main contending parties—two Hindu groups and the Muslim Waqf Board. The Hindu litigants were the Hindu Mahasabha and the Nirmohi Akhara. In January 1885, Raghubar Das, the mahant of the Nirmohi Akhara, instituted a suit against the administration of Faizabad. The suit sought to restrain the administration from interfering in the construction of a temple over a chabutra in the outer courtyard of the Babri Masjid.
For several decades, the dispute was in a limbo till a group of Hindu activists illegally placed an idol of Ram in the disputed area in 1949. An FIR was filed and the gates locked the same day. Meanwhile, more parties joined the case in the 1950s.
Time passed and in 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) adopted a resolution demanding “liberation” of the site of the Babri Masjid. On January 2, 1986, a Faizabad district judge passed an order to open the locks of the main gate of the Babri Masjid. That was the turning point in the Ayodhya dispute. After the locks were opened, Muslim leaders met in Lucknow and the Babri Masjid Action Committee was formed to spearhead the fight for ownership of the mosque.
DEITY BECOMES PARTY
Interestingly, the deity also became a legal party. After the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, spearheaded by the VHP, gathered momentum in the late 1980s, a fifth suit was filed by the “deity” itself. Both the deity and the birthplace are represented by a “friend” in the title suits. Since the 1980s, there have been three such “friends” or sakhas of Ram. Two years later, in July 1989, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, filed a petition seeking to become the sakha or friend of the deity and its birthplace in the title suits.
The legal position is quite complicated. The deity is the owner of the land only in an ideal sense. The deity is considered a perpetual minor under law, which is why it requires a friend to run the case on its behalf. When the Allahabad High Court delivered its judgment in September 2010, it divided the disputed site in three ways, with one-third going to the deity and Ram Janmasthan.
THE LONG LEGAL ROUTE
On July 12, 1989, the Allahabad High Court passed an order transferring all the suits to a three-judge bench of the High Court. On September 25, 1990, BJP leader LK Advani started a rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya to stir up support for the construction of the Ram temple. This led to communal violence and bloodshed. This aggressive mobilisation finally resulted in the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
Thirteen years after the Allahabad High Court took up the case, in March 2002 a hearing began for the title suit of the dispute. In July 2003, the Allahabad High Court ordered excavation at the disputed site. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which led the excavation, concluded that “recoveries were suggestive of a structure of Hindu religion origin”. The ASI report, though important, was not the sole deciding factor in the judgment. The Supreme Court in its final judgment said that “a finding of title cannot be based in law on the archaeological findings which have been arrived at by ASI. Title to the land must be decided on settled legal principles and applying evidentiary standards which govern a civil trial”.
Taking the story further, on September 30, 2010, the three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court gave its judgment in the title suit. It divided the disputed land into three parts, giving one part each to Ram Lalla, the Nirmohi Akhada and the Sunni Waqf Board. All the parties appealed in the Supreme Court against the Allahabad High Court judgment.
On January 8, 2019, the apex court set up a five-judge bench to hear the title suit. Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi formed a Constitution bench headed by him. The other members were Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer.
ADVERSE POSSESSION LOGIC
One question that the bench had to answer was whether the Board had gained title to the Ayodhya land by adverse possession. The Muslim side argued that even if the mosque was built on temple ruins, as stated by the Hindu parties, they had adverse possession as the Babri Masjid had existed on the plot since the 16th century. However, the Court rejected the claim and concurred with the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 ruling, which stated that there was no adverse possession as it was an open space where “anybody could have built anything” for prayers.
The Court assessed the disputed site from the perspective of the outer courtyard, where the sites related to Ram are situated, and the inner courtyard, where the Babri Masjid stood. In its verdict, the bench noted that evidence from the Muslim side did not establish that the entire plot was used by Muslims for worship purposes. The Court cited the ASI report which stated that the structure underneath was “not an Islamic structure”, and the artefacts excavated from the site suggested the presence of a Hindu structure. One of the primary characteristics of a mosque is that it hosts prayers. The Court noted that the Muslim side had presented “no account” to show possession and “use or offer of namaz in the mosque between the date of construction and 1856-7”.
ARGUMENTS BY PARTIES
The Supreme Court bench was often witness to emotionally charged arguments between the Hindu and Muslim parties’ counsel. Sharp words were exchanged and the bench had to often intervene to maintain discipline in the courtroom. Ancient religious texts, ASI reports and piles of documentary evidence were used to bolster rival claims to the disputed site.
The Hindu parties’ strategy was to establish two vital points to claim possession of the disputed land. The first was that Ram Janmabhoomi—the land below the central dome of the disputed structure—was the birthplace of Lord Ram and was a juristic entity subject to law. Second, to support their arguments, there was the credibility accorded to the ASI report by the Allahabad High Court in its judgment in 2010. Hindu parties thus backed their arguments with the High Court judgment and raised points related to faith and divinity from a legal perspective before the Supreme Court. The deity, or Ram Lalla, was represented by veteran lawyers K Parasaran and CS Vaidyanathan. Parasaran made submissions on treating the land as a juristic entity, which is subject to law. “Everything belongs to the deity,” Parasaran declared in the Supreme Court. The Akhara’s case rested on adverse possession. Parasaran and Vaidyanathan used historical records and the ASI report to argue that there had been a temple under the mosque since the second century.
Muslims contested this argument and claimed that the place under the central dome of the Babri Masjid was not the birthplace of Lord Ram. They said that the report by ASI concluding that there was a temple at the site was inconclusive and riddled with inconsistencies. Travelogues by western gazetteers made over the years were mere stories, they said. Possession of Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi only gives Hindus the right to pray and not possession, said Muslim party lawyers. Hindus have only exercised prescriptive right (by offering prayers), but never the title. The Muslim side has not lost the title, they contended.
Represented by senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, the Sunni Waqf Board and other Muslim parties argued that the entire disputed land belonged to them as per the law, judgment of courts and records recognised by the British-era administration.
They stated that they had possession of the area since 1528 when the mosque was built and the land was never claimed by Hindus till 1989. “If they had possession, why was one dome of the Babri Masjid knocked down in the 1934 riots and trespassers installed the idols in 1949 if they already had the title,” Dhavan asked. The Muslim side said it had only sought title over the disputed area and not the land acquired by the government, and that it would allow Hindus to worship in the outer courtyard.
On March 8, 2019, the Supreme Court referred the Ayodhya dispute for mediation. The mediators were former Supreme Court judge FMI Kalifulla, religious leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu. On August 2, 2019, the mediation panel admitted failure in resolving differences between the contending parties. The Court then decided to conduct daily hearings from August 6. High drama was witnessed on the last day of the hearing when Dhavan, representing the Sunni Waqf Board, tore papers and maps handed over to him by the counsel of the All India Hindu Mahasabha in the Supreme Court. On October 16, 2019, after a 40-day marathon hearing, the Supreme Court reserved the Ayodhya verdict.
MOULDING OF RELIEF
On October 19, both sides jointly submitted their note of “moulding of relief” to the Supreme Court. The note addressed alternative relief that the Supreme Court could provide in case the title or ownership was not given. The Muslim side said in the note that since the judgment would have “far-reaching implications it is for the court to consider the consequences of its historic judgment by moulding the relief in a fashion that will reflect the constitutional values that this great nation espouses.” The Akhil Bharatiya Sri Ram Janam Bhoomi Punruddhar Samiti, in its moulding-the-relief statement, suggested a decree in favour of Ram Lalla after taking into consideration the mediation report.
JUDGMENT BROKE TRADITION
The unanimous Ayodhya judgment broke three long-held traditions of the Supreme Court: the verdict always bears the name of the author, the author reads it in open court and the main judgment isn’t accompanied by an “addenda”. Though CJI Gogoi read out the judgment, it did not carry the author’s name. Same went for the addenda. However, the judgment’s printed version bore the unmistakable imprint of Justice DY Chandrachud. This surmise was based on style and use of distinct fonts peculiar to Justice Chandrachud.
ROLE PLAYING BY JUDGES
The five judges of the bench played distinct roles during the hearing of the Ayodhya dispute. CJI Gogoi gave a free hand to the counsel to argue their case and set up a time frame wherein they were assigned time limits to complete their arguments. Justice SA Bobde asked probing questions on belief and faith as related to both parties. He handled high-pitched arguments with stoic calmness. Justice Chandrachud assessed the faith aspect from a legal perspective, and often tested both parties’ arguments on the touchstone of jurisprudence. He asked the most questions. He plainly told the Muslim parties that the ASI report was prepared by “studied minds, and can’t be summarily dismissed”. Justice Ashok Bhushan seemed well versed with the High Court judgment and asked pointed queries. He meticulously tracked the cross-examination of the witnesses. Justice SA Nazeer patiently heard the counsel and reprimanded the Muslim parties’ counsel on their comments about the ASI report.
UNDERPINNINGS OF THE JUDGMENT
The 1,045-page judgment was a legal treatise of sorts. It held that there was a non-Islamic structure underlying the Babri Masjid and that its demolition was a violation of the rule of law and this wrong must be remedied. The title to the land should be decided based on settled legal principles and not on faith or ASI findings. Muslims have no evidence to show possessory title, it said. While there is evidence on a preponderance of probabilities to establish worship by Hindus prior to 1857, there was no such evidence in favour of Muslims.
So the Hindu litigants were able to establish their case that they were in possession of the outer courtyard. It added up that the Muslim side was unable to prove their exclusive possession of the inner courtyard. Dividing the land would not secure lasting peace. Trifurcation of the disputed land by the High Court was legally unsustainable.
The mere presence of pujaris did not vest in them any right to be shebaits (thus nullifying the Akhara’s claim). The Supreme Court, in the exercise of its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution, must ensure that a wrong committed must be remedied. After establishing the underpinnings of the judgment, the Bench proceeded to deliver it.
The Supreme Court bench upheld the title rights of Ram Lalla Virajman over the disputed property, ordering the centre to develop a trust to oversee the construction of a Ram temple within three months from its ruling. The Court held that the Nirmohi Akhara was not a shebait (manager of the temple) or devotee of Ram Lalla and the Akhara’s suit was barred by limitation. It ordered the government to give an alternative five acres in another place to the Sunni Waqf Board for building a mosque.
Thus, the Ayodhya verdict broke new grounds in Indian jurisprudence. After more than a century of legal tussle, the Court cleared the nebulous fog over the dispute. The courtroom fight which led to the verdict was fierce and dramatic. The arguments were intense, emotional and loaded with reference from diverse sources. History, spirituality, faith, Hinduism, Islam, Sharia, law and the Constitution were invoked by the contesting parties to put across their points.
The Ayodhya issue was legally complicated. Probably for the first time, faith was pitted against law. Historical facts contended with mythological beliefs. It was a fight between religious convictions and rationality. Though the apex court initially approached the matter as a land dispute, as time went on, its social underpinnings were realised. To do complete justice, the top court invoked Article 142 of the Constitution. The decision gave primacy to “wisdom over cold legal logic’’ (former CJI MN Venkatachaliah). The verdict embraced a utilitarian philosophy which proclaims “the greatest good for the greatest number” as the summum bonum of social existence.
Lead picture: UNI