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“Uncle! Are we safe and secure in this land of our birth?” asked the young entrepreneur son of a late Muslim friend, voice trembling and face despondent. I could only respond with an enigmatic “hmmm”. This was two months ago, amidst the turmoil around developments in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the pending citizenship amendment bill and periodic proclamations by home minister Amit Shah about extending the National Register of Citizens to the whole country. Now the Supreme Court’s “unanimous” judgment of November 9 on the Ayodhya dispute has left me completely bewildered. As a citizen of India, I will find it difficult to muster enough strength to give any optimistic assurance to my friend’s son.
The 1,045-page judgment has almost pooh-poohed the 2010 judgment of the Allahabad High Court, saying the order to trifurcate the disputed 2.77-acre site, and allocate two-thirds to the Hindus and one-third to the Muslim plaintiffs “defied logic” and was “legally unsustainable”. But, I am afraid, the award of the entire disputed site to the entity (Ram Lalla Virajman, declared a juristic person) fictitiously created by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) as recently as 1989 is no more logical. While the 2010 judgment was brazenly based on “faith”, the recent one has only camouflaged it with lofty pronouncements of some constitutional maxims about secularism, primacy of the rule of law, and all forms of belief, worship and prayer being equal. The imprint of contemporary Indian politics on both the judgments is equally striking.
If Team India of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami was astute enough to strategise upon the fact that Pakistan has never won against India in a World Cup match, the team of Justices S.A. Bobde, Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer, led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, must have assessed the ground reality and even the body language of major plaintiffs and the religious communities they claimed to represent. The aggressive mindset of those functioning in the name of “Hindu interest” (recall “jo Hindu hita ki baat karega...”), and consequent total marginalisation and even ghettoisation of Muslims, especially since the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, mark today’s Indian political scene. The threat of majoritarian rule looms large.
The Calcutta-based architect proposes an alternative at Ayodhya that “addresses contemporary issues such as the flailing environment, poor quality of life, and lack of cleanliness, breathable air, safety and harmony.” He envisages “a land united with the motherland, where nature is abundant, children and future generations take priority, and people coexist and embrace social justice.”
Almost three decades ago, film-maker Anand Patwardhan had to fight a long legal battle to get his documentary exposing the politics behind the Ram Janmabhumi movement screened. Recently, students of the Presidency University in Calcutta and the University of Hyderabad were denied permission to watch that documentary. The university authorities in Hyderabad even called the police and got six students arrested. Given a U certificate by the censor board, the film, titled Ram ke Naam, had also won the national award for ‘best investigative documentary’ and several other international awards. Denial of its screening was thoroughly illegal.
In an interview to a news channel, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar—one of the three mediators appointed by the Supreme Court to explore possibilities of an out-of-court settlement among the contending parties in the Ayodhya dispute—had openly hinted at dire consequences if the verdict of the court went against the interests of Hindus. Did such a threat perception weigh on Team Ranjan Gogoi’s mind? The apparent peace and calm following the judgment of November 9 is perhaps not because political leaders across party lines, including the PM, made fervent appeals for peace, but because the final verdict went the whole hog with the faith underlying the Hindu hita (Hindu interest).
The call of “mandir wahin banaayenge” reverberated in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, culminating in the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. “Wahin” stood for the exact spot of a few square feet under the central dome of the three-domed mosque where Lord Ram was said to be born in the mythical Treta Yug. The main contention of the Hindu groups has been that a temple existed at this birthplace (janmasthan) until it was destroyed by the invading armies of the first Mughal emperor Babur, who also got a mosque built in its place and with its material in 1528. Since the mid-19th century, the site saw several conflagrations among rival religious communities. The British intervened in the post-1857 decades, often to foment religious divides between Hindus and Muslims. The legal dispute over the site acquired political overtones immediately after India’s independence. On the night of December 22-23, 1949, Ram idols were surreptitiously installed at the “exact spot” and the then administrative authorities barred Muslims from offering prayers in the mosque, which was also locked. The “liberation” of this locked Ram became a movement in the 1980s.
How has the Supreme Court judgment served the cause of the proponents of “mandir wahin banaayenge”? Following the advice of the then PM P.V. Narasimha Rao immediately after the demolition of the mosque, the President had referred to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion under Article 143(1) of the Constitution, on “whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ramjanmabhumi-Babri Masjid (including the premises of the inner and outer courtyards of such structure) in the area on which the structure stood”. Professional historians and archaeologists were aghast at this reference—the Indian History Congress passed a strong resolution against it in February 1993—and legal luminaries also underlined its irrelevance and futility. The seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court that heard the reference was unanimous on the point that the issue was unfair and irrelevant. The prior existence of a temple and its destruction by those who built the mosque, even if true, cannot in law affect the title suits before the high court.
Despite this, and in complete violation of the apex court’s opinion, on March 5, 2003, the Allahabad High Court ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to carry out excavations at the disputed site to determine “whether there was any temple/structure which was demolished and mosque was constructed on the disputed site”. Much was written against the methods and findings of Ayodhya: 2002-03: Excavations at the Disputed Site (2003). Astute legal mind A.G. Noorani had called the exercise of linking the ASI report with the Ayodhya imbroglio “a monumental mistake and nullity in law”. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s latest judgment devotes almost 10 per cent of its space (pp.507-99; 905-14) to this flawed report, and another 20 per cent (pp.84-104; 599-706 and addenda of 116 pages) to deal with “evidence” provided by inscriptions, photographs, travelogues and gazetteers showing “polestar of faith and belief ” (especially in the addenda).
There is just no evidence in the judgment that can be accepted without any caveats. Every genre of “evidence” presented by all plaintiffs needs to be assessed with circumspection. The court is very clear that “a finding of title cannot be based in law on the archaeological findings which have been arrived at by ASI”. In sum, the court reached the following conclusions.
- The mosque has existed continuously for more than 450 years from 1528 to the date of its wilful destruction in 1992.
- Though the mosque was not built on a vacant plot, the ASI excavations have not been able to show that it was built by destroying the “structure” found under its debris. In fact, there was a “time gap of about four centuries between the date of the underlying structure and the construction of the mosque. No evidence is available to explain what transpired in the course of the intervening period of nearly four centuries.” Further, “The ASI report does not conclude that the remnants of the pre-existing structure were used for the purpose of constructing the mosque...” This crucial conclusion takes away the fundamental premise of the Hindu groups.
- Muslims were ousted from the 1,500 square yards of the mosque through acts of damage during communal riots in 1934; desecration in 1949, when idols were placed inside the mosque illegally; and finally, the demolition of the mosque in 1992—an act that was an “egregious violation of the rule of law” and “a calculated act of destroying a place of public worship”.
If no party to the dispute was able to produce evidence of exclusive proprietory rights over the disputed land, its award exclusively to an entity (Ram Lalla Virajman) that was fabricated merely 30 years ago by the body involved in that “egregious violation of the rule of law” and that, too, on a twisted logic of “balance of probabilities” is a clear case of the bully being rewarded. And the contention that Muslims have not been able to show exclusive use (for prayers) of the mosque between its establishment in 1528 and prior to 1857 sounds rather amusing. What function was it performing? Surely, it could not have been a rang-mandap (pavilion or platform for dance performances), which has been and continues to be an integral part of Hindu temples of the post-10th century CE!
Allotting a “prominent and suitable” five-acre plot for Muslims to construct a mosque in Ayodhya appears like a khairaat (charity) and an act of wiping out tears. Invoking Article 142 of the Constitution for this could have been better utilised if the court had ordered the central government to create some public institution such as a hospital or a grand museum to display the multi-cultural identity of Ayodhya on the disputed site. But, through this mediation-like settlement rather than a judgment, the court has created a new mythology and established an interesting historical fact. Instead of the entire city of Ayodhya being the janmasthan of Lord Ram, now a tiny spot—that “wahin”—has become a new sacred site. Secondly, while Babur’s alleged villainous act of destroying a Ram temple to build a mosque has clearly been shown to be a myth, the so-called tolerant Hindus will now have to live with the kalank (blot) of building their grand Ram mandir after destroying a 450-year-old masjid.
(The writer is a former professor of history, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)