Babri Masjid Demolition: Revisiting The History In Courtrooms

Revisiting the legal journey of Babri Masjid Ram Janmabhoomi dispute helps us to understand the transition of perceived truth through ages.

Babri Masjid demolition, December 1992.

December 6, 2022 marks three decades to an event that sparked perhaps the most contentious property dispute that the nation ever witnessed- the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi case. This dispute went beyond the legal realm- it was fought not only in courtrooms but also in the social, cultural and religious spheres.

The roots of this dispute go further back in history, and the court proceedings were equally lengthy and twisted. Arguments on all sides touched upon the three aspects of faith (a strong belief that the spot was the birthplace of Lord Rama), violence (the demolition of the Babri Masjid), and trickery (placing idols inside the mosque complex deceitfully). Here is a reverse chronological sequence of events that show how the land ownership dispute reached its end:

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August 5, 2020: Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducts a Bhoomi Pujan for the Ram Temple at the Babri Masjid demolition site. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath were among those who attended the event, which was one of the most significant take aways for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led three decades long ‘mandir’ movement.

November 9, 2019: In a significant blow to the Muslim litigants as well as the Nirmohi Akhada’s contestations, the apex court delivered a unanimous verdict to allot the entire disputed land of 2.77 acres to the Hindu side, upholding Ram Lalla’s title rights. The court simultaneously ordered the establishment of a Temple Trust to overlook the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

While the court upheld that the demolition of the Babri Masjid and installation of idols within the complex exhibited a subversion of the rule of law, no penalties to that effect were imposed.

The Sunni Central Waqf Board, the largest Muslim party in the case, was allotted 5 acres of land at an alternative “prominent” location in Ayodhya to construct a mosque. The Akhada’s claims were dismissed.

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October 16, 2019: On the last day of hearing in the matter, Sunni Waqf Board, a key representative among the Muslim plaintiffs, offered to withdraw its appeals in the matter and demanded an assurance from the Centre that the religious character of all other Muslim places of worship in the country will be protected in the face of similar encroachments attempts.

Other Muslim parties however dissociated themselves from this offer. The main Hindu plaintiff, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad refused to accede to these demands and no such assurance came from the Centre.

October 14, 2019: Anticipating political upheaval and social tensions following the Supreme Court verdict, the district administration in Ayodhya imposed curfew under Section 144 of CrPC until December 10.

August 6, 2019: A five judge bench of the apex court headed by then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi began hearing the final arguments in the dispute beginning with the Nirmohi Akhada’s contestations, followed by Shri Ram Virajman and various other Hindu parties, and finally the Sunni Waqf Board. October 18 was fixed as the last day for hearing the matter.

July 2019: One of the litigants representing the Hindu side approached the apex court seeking a resumption of day-to-day hearings on the matter. He submitted that no progress had been seen in the mediation talks proposed by the court four months back.

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March 8, 2019: The Constitution bench directed an eight-weeks long court-monitored mediation on the ownership dispute. Initially, the deadline was set for May 2019 but was later extended until August 15.

January 8, 2019: CJI Gogoi assigned the case to a five judge bench, overturning a 2018 verdict that dismissed an appeal into the Ismail Faruqui judgment of 1994, which dealt with the government’s acquisition of the disputed land under the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act.

September 2, 2018: By a 2:1 split verdict, a Constitution bench upheld the Ismail Faruqui verdict and said that there is no need for a larger bench to revisit the judgment.

August 11, 2017: A three judge bench led by then CJI Dipak Mishra began hearing the litigants’ appeals against the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 verdict.

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March 2017: Former CJI Jagdish S Khehar suggests an out of court settlement among all parties.

2016: BJP MP Subramanian Swamy files plea in Supreme Court seeking the construction of a Ram temple at the Babri Masjid demolition site.

May 2011: The legal battle involving contradictory ownership claims over the land reaches the apex court after all three sides file an appeal against an Allahabad High Court order, which divided the land equally amongst the Nirmohi Akhada, Sunni Waqf Board, and Ram Lalla.

The Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s judgment calling it “strange.” A Division Bench of Justices Aftam Alam and R.M. Lodha observed that “a new dimension has been given by the High Court as the decree of partition was not sought by the parties. It was not prayed for by anyone. It has to be stayed. It’s a strange order. How can a decree for partition be passed when none of the parties had prayed for it?”

September 30, 2010: The Allahabad High Court delivers its verdict after eight years of hearings and orders a splitting of the disputed land into three equal halves amongst the three litigants.

The Lucknow bench ordered allotment of the dome of the demolished Babri Masjid, under which the makeshift temple stood, to the Hindu side. The Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi areas were granted to the Nirmohi Akhada. The Sunni Wakf Board’s one-third share comprised the outer courtyard of the disputed plot.

This division was deemed unacceptable by all the three parties in the dispute and subsequently all knocked at the apex court’s door seeking a review.

June 2009: The Liberhan Commission appointed in 1992 by then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao to enquire into the Masjid’s demolition submits its findings 17 years later. It was headed by retired High Court Justice M. S. Liberhan, and was originally instructed to submit a report within three months of its formation.

Although its report was never completely made public, sources revealed that it pinned several BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Uma Bharti and Vijayaraje Scindia, and VHP leaders like Giriraj Kishore and Ashok Singhal and Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and former RSS leader K. N. Govindacharya culpable in the plot to demolish the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

March 2003: Following a court order, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began excavations at the disputed site. In August 2003, the ASI submitted a report claiming to have found remnants of a 10th century Hindu Temple beneath the mosque.

Historians, archaeologists and the Muslim litigants refute the findings of the report submitted in Allahabad High Court.

2002: Lucknow bench of the High Court begins hearings in the title dispute and orders ASI-led excavations. The court directs an ASI survey on the demolition site.

Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee instates an ‘Ayodhya Cell’ under the PMO and designates senior officials for holding mediation talks with Hindu and Muslim litigants.

1994: The Supreme Court in Ismail Faruqui case upholds the constitutional validity of the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act by a 3:2 split verdict, noting that every religious immovable property is liable to be acquired in public interest by the government.

This controversial judgment of former CJI J.S. Verma also upheld that offering namaz in mosques is not an ‘essential religious practice’ in Islam unless that mosque had any particular significance in Islam. This verdict drew flak from the Muslim community for questioning the sanctity of Islamic places of worship but no review petition was filed.

Parallely, the apex court also held former UP CM Kalyan Singh guilty in the December 6 demolition and sentenced him to token imprisonment of one day with a fine of Rs 20,000.

January 7, 1993: The Central government led by PM Narsimha Rao passes the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act and acquires 67.7 acres of land in and around the Babri Masjid complex.

December 16, 1992: 10 days after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, PM Narsimha Rao appoints the Liberhan Commission to probe into the demolition and the communal riots in its aftermath.

1989: All pending titular disputes in lower courts are transferred to Allahabad High Court, which orders a status quo around the Babri Masjid site.

A fresh suit is filed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad member and former HC judge Deoki Nandan Agarwal, claiming his capacity as the “sakha” or friend of the deity and its birthplace in the title suits.

Earlier on November 9 the same year, then PM Rajiv Gandhi permitted VHP to perform Shilanayas (laying of foundation stone) at the disputed site.

February 1, 1986: The title dispute however goes way back before the 1992 demolition of the mosque. In 1986, a petitioner and lawyer UC Pandey approached the Faizabad Session Court, seeking opening of the Babri Masjid’s inner gates for worshippers.

In his plea, Pandey contended that in 1950, the Faizabad district administration, and not a court of law, ordered an inadvertent closure of the inner gates.

1981: Sunni Central Waqf Board approaches Faizabad Sessions Court seeking possession of the Babri Masjid site.

1961: Following three petitions by the Hindu side, Sunni Waqf Board files a fourth petition in Faizabad Sessions Court, demanding that Muslims be allowed to pray in the mosque. The Board also seeks court’s intervention to remove the Ram idols from the mosque premises.

1959: Nirmohi Akhara representative Mahant Bhaskar Das files suit in the Sessions Court claiming ownership over the disputed land. The plea also sought permission to conduct pujas on the disputed site.

1950: Hindu plaintiffs Gopal Simla Viharad and Paramhansa Ramachandra Das file the first two land title suits in the Faizabad Sessions Court seeking permissions to conduct Hindu pujas to Ram Lalla.

The Sessions Court granted the Hindu litigants permission to hold pujas and allowed a pujari to enter the premises but stressed that the inner courtyard of the Masjid complex must remain locked.

December 22, 1949: Idols of Lord Rama appear inside the mosque. While some opine that this is a divine revelation, others level accusations that the idols were illegally smuggled and strategically placed by Hindu Mahasabha members inside the complex.

District Magistrate K.K. Nayar refuses to remove the idols citing possibility of communal riots. Soon after, the government declared the site a “disputed area” and locked all entrance gates.

1947: A local court rules that the Sunni Waqf Board, and not the Shia Waqf Board holds sway over the Babri Masjid.

1934: After communal clashes occur at the site between Hindus and Muslims, the British Indian government seizes control over the damaged mosque and orders restoration and rebuilding efforts.

1885: The courtroom battle around the site began more than a century ago when Mahant Raghubir Das filed a nascent suit seeking permission to build a temple on the land adjoining the Babri Masjid, constructed in 1529 by Mughal emperor Babur’s General, Mir Baqi. Both Faizabad District Magistrate and Faizabad Court rejected Das’ plea.

1859: The site had turned into a hotbed for communal tensions even during British rule, and in the 1850s the belief that it’s the birthplace of Lord Rama started gaining currency. Anticipating socio-religious upheavals, the British government ordered fencing around Babri Masjid and permitted Hindus to worship only in the outer courtyard.

This centuries-long battle was fuelled by the Hindu side’s trump card of faith which demanded the construction of a temple dedicated to Lord Rama at the site where the mosque once stood. Today, as we observe the 30th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, this multipronged title dispute will remind India and Indians of the decades-long polarization and exhaustion that it accompanied.