THE SUPREME COURT VERDICT IN AYODHYA: THE SAGA CONTINUES

THE SUPREME COURT VERDICT IN AYODHYA: THE SAGA CONTINUES

There was no violence, protests from either party as all the sides had publicly committed to respecting the court verdict. This, of course shows how a mature democracy must behave but do you think the situation would be the same if the verdict was not in favour of Ram temple.

By Faheem Usmani Qasmi

Nearly three decades ago, a long-running dispute between Hindu outfits and Muslims over a religious site in the northern city of Ayodhya took a dramatic turn and changed the course of Indian politics forever. It also caused a seismic shock to the country's social equilibrium and communal harmony. Over the past three decades especially since the RSS-VHP led movement swept much of north India, Ayodhya became the centre-stage for communal politics and a tool for polarization before elections. The high-pitched events not only disrupted daily life and business, but also endangered communal harmony.

Babri Masjid was built in 1528 on a site in Ayodhya –a city and the administrative headquarters of Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, by Mir Baqi, on orders of the Mughal emperor Babar, where Hindus presently believe their god, lord Rama, was born and allege that it was a site of an earlier temple. The dispute started after 1855-57 when Hindu tried to build a temple and consequently they were allowed to worship in the outer courtyard of masjid in British rule. Muslims kept praying in side the masjid while Hindus offered their prayers on a raised platform known as “Ram Chabutara” in the outer courtyard.

The dispute broke out in the open in 1949 when Hindu activists associated with the Hindu Mahasabha surreptitiously placed idols of Rama inside the mosque. As a result, the government of India locked the building to avoid further disputes. Court cases were filed by both Hindus and Muslims asking for access over last several decades.

The day dawned on December 6, 1992 –around 11:15 am, and it was a dark day in Indian history when a rampaging mob of Hindu activists belonging to the Vishva Hindu Parishad and allied organizations brought down the mosque. What followed was even more terrifying. Religious riots erupted and thousands of people –both Muslims and Hindus were killed.

From starting of the beginning of  19th century, there were made several attempts to settle the disputes by the district courts and to come at a reasonable conclusion but all went in vain. Several parties were involved in the battle but mainly three parties are of much significance which played crucial roles. The Nirmohi Akhara –a Hindu religious denomination – has sought directions to build Ram temple on the disputed land and wanted the management rights of the premises to be given to it. Ram Lalla (or the infant Ram).

Another represented by the Hindu Mahasabha, wanted the entire land to be handed over to them, with no part going to Muslims parties or the Nirmohi Akhara. The third party was the Sunni Waqf Board, which looks after religious properties, demanded that the Babri Masjid be restored to the form that existed before it was razed in 1992.

In September  2010, the Allahabad High court tried to conclude the matter through its majority verdict of 2/1, and held that 2.77 acres land will be divided into a three where one-third for each party–Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and the party for the Ram Lalla.

The verdict of HC did not satisfy any of the concerned parties and they eventually moved to the Supreme Court in appeal. The SC stayed the HC judgment in 2011. Then the SC constituted a mediation panel with FM Kalifulla as the chairman and comprising spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu, to mediate in the land title dispute.

But finally, the SC commenced hearing in the matter before a five-judge Bench comprising of CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Justice, S A Bobde (CJI now) Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice S Abdul Nazeer and Justice Ashok Bhushan on August 2019 and continued on a day-to-day basis until mid-October. The judgment in the case was reserved on October 16 and pronounced at 10:30 am on November 9, 2019.

The SC judgment is of 1045 pages has many points to discuss here, but significantly SC ordered the land to be handed over to Ram Lalla through a trust to build the Hindu temple. It also ordered the government to give an alternative of 5 acres of land to the Sunni Waqf Board to construct a masjid. The court said in its verdict that the Nirmohi Akhara is not a shebiat or devotee of the deity Ram Lalla and the Akhara's suit was barred by limitation.

Now the verdict from the SC has legally closed one of the most divisive religious conflicts of our time and paved the way for a Hindu temple at the site. People across the world from different fields, sects and organizations figured out the judgment in different ways. Though the verdict was seen muted at the moment it was delivered, but now, after many legal experts went through the judgment and leaders observed it carefully, many questions are being raised and people are expressing dissatisfaction. Many analytical minds figured out that mute silence was either due to fatigue, a generational shift, as it reflected the asymmetry of power between Hindus and Muslims.

Eastern Crescent tried to approach some responsible figures of different organizations, journalists, and legal experts to know their response after the verdict and found mixed opinions. Many people expressed that the verdict of SC is highly respectable but not satisfactory.

Maulana Mahmood Daryabadi –famous Mumbai based social activist talked to EC and said, “We respect SC judgment but it is beyond our understanding. There are few things which are difficult to digest in the verdict.” Replying to a question he said that the Muslim community is upset all over the country and he suggested for a review petition. He also said that after the verdict, “the impression of a large group of people about the SC has become questionable.”

However, the judgement is of much significance in some aspects as it upholds many truths that Muslims have been speaking of, for decades. It has blown away the blatant falsification of history by so-called eminent historians who were shown to be the mere propagandist pamphleteers in the decades-long court proceedings. It is high time for realization that the falsification of history cannot lead to a peaceful future. Only closure of the old wounds can bring the people together.

Since the judgment was pronounced, almost all political parties of the country including the Congress, NCP, AAP, JDU, RJD, SP, BSP, SS etc. wholeheartedly welcomed the “landmark judgment” of the Hon. SC. Leaders from political parties also welcomed the verdict and urged the people to maintain peace and harmony in the country. They tried to convince the nation stating that it is a historical judgment and will lead to better relations between different communities.

It is a bit strange that even before the verdict was pronounced, most leaders and political parties called for calm and restraint to the Muslims. But why only to the Msulims? Is it because they knew that the judgment would be in favour of the majoritarian community?

Still I just wonder had their reactions be the same if the verdict would fall in Muslim's favour or they are just worried to curry favour with the majority community for their political gains rather than to satisfy the ends of justice by asking for the re-building of the masjid for the  Muslim community.

Barring a few exceptions among political commentators and jurists most have expressed their reservations or even criticism about the judgment when the country at large seems to have welcomed it. Few parties such as the Trinamool Congress ruling in West Bengal and the Biju Janta Dal in Odisah observed silence and restrained to react on the verdict.

The Communist Party of India (M) maintained that the issue should be resolved now but certain sections of the judgment are questionable. Also AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi raised serious objections and closed the matter saying that it was a “victory of belief over facts” and he was not satisfied with the ruling. “We were fighting for our legal right and we should reject this five-acre land offer. And SC is supreme but not infallible”, he argued.

There was no violence, protests from either party as all the sides had publicly committed to respecting the court verdict. This, of course shows how a mature democracy must behave but do you think the situation would be the same if the verdict was not in favour of Ram temple.

This time PM Modi addressed the nation after the verdict was pronounced and Union Home Minister Amit Shah in a series of tweets appealed to all communities and religions to accept the decision of the apex court with calm and remain committed to Ek Bharat-Shreshtha Bharat (One India, Great India).

They hailed the SC verdict on the Ayodhya but this is not a constant trend when it comes to reactions. Take the recent Sabarimala verdict which allowed women to enter Kerala's Sabarimala temple for example. It is not being followed by the BJP-led government.

Shah asked the SC to desist from giving judgments that break the faith of people and asked the state government and the courts to only issue orders that could be implemented. He warned Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan that he would have to pay a heavy price and BJP workers would not hesitate to pull down the government. He warned the state government against implementing the SC order and of more protests on the Sabarimala issue. What do you think if the Ayodhya verdict were in Muslim's favour, would they react in the same manner?

As for Muslim's reaction in this fray is highly laudable, as despite having mixed opinions, they maintained peace and harmony and did try not to disturb country's law and order as was disturbed in Sabarimala case.

There were many speculations about Muslims going to file review petition against SC verdict on Ayodhya or not but two leading Muslim organizations –the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (A) made crystal clear that they will continue the legal battle. AIMPLB decided to file a reconsideration petition and categorically refused to take five-acre land in Ayodhya in lieu of masjid because Islam is of the view that there cannot be any alternative to the masjid.

The Board thinks that the verdict is not comprehensively based on evidence presented by Muslim party. It issued a press release which carries more than 10 points from the verdict that are beyond comprehension for the Board. The Board stated, “It is clear that the state has no religion and secularism is basic feature of the Constitution Earlier the court's judgments have recorded that the State's actions were discriminatory against one religion favouring the other religion. In 19994, the SC has held that the Act of demolition of mosque in 1992 was a “national shame” and that it shook the faith of the minorities in the rule of law and the constitutional process.

It is further stated that this failure amounted to betrayal meted out to the Muslim community at large. Even in the present judgment the court has said that in the night between 22/23 December 1949 the mosque was desecrated by installation of Hindu idols. The ouster of Muslims on that occasion was not through lawful authority by through an act which was calculated to deprive them of their place of worship. The present records about the mosque were destroyed and it was a clear violation of rule of law.”

As the Board decided to seek a review, there have been headlines, media and social media outlets from Muslims and Hindus that suggest that the Muslim leading body is trying to disturb the peaceful environment of the country and misleading the masses. However they are going through the legal process without harming peace and harmony. They are not doing what BJP workers and Hindu extremists did in Sabarimala case in 2018.

Is it the first time in Indian history to go for a review? To be true, it happened many time in past when SC was sought for review and even it took back its decision in some cases. Some prominent cases which were reviewed are in following:

IPC 498a review-On 23 April, 2018 the SC heard arguments and reserved its judgment on a review petition, filed against an earlier order of the court which had outlawed immediate arrest under this provision of IPC 498a. But on 14 September 2018 it sat aside the earlier judgment and left it to the parliament to enact suitable guidelines.

Also there have been filed review petitions against other crucial cases such as 2G Spectrum Case, NEET Case, Vodafone-Hutchison Tax Case, Mayawati Disproportionate Assets Case, and most recent against Sabarimala case. So what is the problem if AIMPLB is doing the same.

Therefore, AIMPLB decided to go for a review because it firmly believes that there are some issues which are not understandable and fundamental values and spirit of the Constitution were not dealt in a balanced and satisfactory manner in the judgment.

Some Muslim figures too are objecting to the Board's decision for review and attributing it to wastage of time and money. So they must consider that it is not only a fight for a particular piece of land but also it is a fight for fundamental rights.

It has been observed for a couple of years that minority rights are constantly being attacked. If all minorities do not stand united against this trend, fascism will prevail everywhere and dominate India’s democratic values.  History suggests that whenever the fascist powers grew powerful in a nation they attacked fundamental rights at first.

The Supreme Court was on a legal trapeze and they did not want to deal with issue fairly as it would benefit the Muslim point of view. so the judgment was based on the faith of the majority. It would not be surprising if the CJI and other members who framed the decision are influenced for supporting the policy of Hindutva.

This has become clear when some BJP leaders have openly claimed that the judgment of the apex court was influenced by Modi and company.

Besides other aspects of the judgment like several jurists are finding the judgment problematic, there are some fundamental contradictions that simply do not allow Muslim community to accept the verdict. For example on page 215 of the verdict, the SC makes a crucial statement of logic, “It is true that in matter of faith and belief, the absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence.” But in its final finding, the SC contradicted this same logic when it placed the onus on Muslims alone to prove exclusive possession of the site and there was no similar expectation from the Hindu side. This leaves the impression that the Hindu belief in the site being the birthplace of Rama somehow took precedence over the Muslim claim.

Likewise the SC itself noted that forced placing of idols inside the mosque that took place one night in December 1949 was illegal and the mosque was thus desecrated. It also evidently acknowledged that the demolition of the mosque was unlawful. But the tragic irony is that it still ends up handing the disputed land to none other than the perpetrators who demolished the mosque and unleashed violence across India.

There was no statement about the legal recourse to bring the culprits of Babri Masjid demolition to face the music.

The famous journalist, Arfa Khanum Sherwani made her remark on the judgment writing, “The judgment is not just self-contradictory but tilts unmistakably towards one side. The Hindu plaintiffs were held to a lower burden of proof of possession than the Muslim plaintiffs. The court recognized that both parties had claims and worshipped at the disputed site but chose a majoritatrian conception of 'social peace' to give the land to one side rather than doing what was right or just.” (The Wire)

Some are saying that the judgment was an exercise aimed at justifying a chosen conclusion which had already been agreed for extra-legal consideration. Was it right for the court to declare the representative of the deity the representative of every Hindu? After all, the Ram Lalla Virajman became a party in the dispute as late as 1989 when late VHP vice-president Deoki Nandan Agrawala, former judge of the Allahabad HC, filed a civil suit number 5, on behalf of the deity Rama and stood as next friend of Ram Lallah. So what would be the judgment if it was delivered before 1989 or 1992 –the year of demolition?

Was the verdict “moulded” to prevent law and order disturbances? It can be argued that the court cannot function outside of socio-processes and must remain mindful of the impact of their words. But does this mean that either mobocracy or a majoritarian sentiment will dictate judicial pronouncements?

One more aspect of the judgment is that it unequivocally establishes that those who are responsible for demolition are criminals but no one raised any voice against them in media or debating rooms.

Many high-profile right wing personalities and BJP leaders are facing trial in this case, including former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani. But the byzantine twists and turns of a 27-year-old legal process, in which both witness and some of the accused have died or claimed amnesia, have made many cynical about the eventual outcome. So they all should be punished and a speedy trial should be started for them.

Here I want to clarify one thing that many in India argue that Muslims as minority are happier comparing with the poor state of minority rights in Pakistan. So they should accept whatever they get. But this benchmarking against Pakistan is redundant and factually debatable. Our countries are built on competing ideas of nationhood. India's first prime minster Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter written to Chief Ministers on October 15, 1947, reminded, “We have a Muslim minority who are so large in number that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. This is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic state.” (The Hindu July 23, 2013)

Writing in the Hindustan Times Abhinav Prakash summed up the verdict as, “It is unprecedented in world history that a religious community of one billion people waited for over five centuries and then left the fate of one of their most sacred sites to the wisdom of five judges. It is unprecedented that the religious community of 200 million accepted the verdict peacefully even if some among the community believe their claim was legitimate. With this, one more brick has been laid in the foundation of modern India.”

Furthermore, it is no more a moot question that India is a secular country and this is outlined emphatically in the constitution. Then what was the need for the apex court to give a ruling that the central government should take steps to form a trust that would oversee the setting up of a grand temple. This step blurs the lines between the secular and the religious.

In reality, the party that has openly advocated the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya has been given legal backing to do so. So has political polarization got legal legitimacy after the apex court judgment?

Note: This story has been published as cover story in the Easter Crescent, December, 2019

The writer is research excutive at MMERC, Mumbai