Guest Contributors Prannv Dhawan and Parth Maniktalaare are law students at NLSIU Bengaluru and Campus Law Centre, Delhi respectively. Prannv is the founding editor of the Law School Policy Review and Parth is an editor of the online journal, Polemics and Pedantics.
A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in India has unanimously held that the possession of the most-contested piece of land in Indian political history—the 2.77 acres where the Babri Masjid Mosque once stood—should in fact be exclusively given to the Hindu claimants of the case. At the same time, the Court invoked its special power to do ‘complete justice’ under Article 142 to restitute the damage caused by ‘egregiously illegal’ idol installation (1949) and Masjid demolition (1992). Hence, it ordered the government to allot an alternate plot of 5 acres to the Sunni Muslim Waqf Board at a ‘prominent place’ in Ayodhya for the construction of a new mosque.
A few words have become an indispensable part of the vocabulary describing this judgment. Politicians and legal commentators alike are calling it a “win-win situation,” BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli calls it an “inclusive judgment,” and Prime Minister Modi calls it “a golden chapter in the history of the Indian judiciary.” On the other hand, even as the judicial outcome has come to represent a vindication of the ideological Hindutva, many have stated that the Hindu majoritarian context and atmosphere has cast its shadow on the Court’s narrow and technical reasoning to hold that on the balance of probabilities, Hindu parties have a better claim to adverse possession of the site. Be that as it may, across the board there seems to be a concealed satisfaction, as if by upholding the claims of the Hindu-majority, the court has averted a crisis. However, the finer aspects of the rule of law seem to have been compromised or diluted in order to satiate the faith and belief of a community.
Rule of law requires that people be governed in a manner that is equal, just, and non-arbitrary. Considering the highly religious nature of the property dispute, the court corrected emphasized the importance of equality amongst religions. It cites SR Bommai v UOI to emphasize that secularism and fraternity are basic features of the Indian Constitution (see paragraphs 82 and 83). The Court goes on to strongly affirm both the constitutional value and significance of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. The Act, legislated in the context of deep communal divisions in the country by a legislature concerned about national integrity, provides for criminal punishment for converting the places of worship of any religious denomination. The court emphasizes the principle of non-retrogression of pre-constitution era disputes to further the legislative intent behind the Act, states: “The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component. The Places of Worship Act is thus a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.” Hence, the Court raises this statute to the pedestal of a constitutional statute whose importance has been highlighted by various secular and progressive activists considering the likelihood of similar communal disputes being raised in other places of worship in Mathura and Varanasi. This is an important signaling from the Court that any derogation from judicious application of the Act would certainly violate the Court’s reasoning.
The court remarks in the Ayodhya Judgment: “[land] title cannot be established on the basis of faith and belief alone (para 788).” And yet, the court proceeds to say “Once the witnesses have been deposed to the basis of the belief and there is nothing to doubt its genuineness, it is not open to the court to question the basis of the belief”; “Whether a belief is justified lies beyond the ken of judicial inquiry (para 555).” Analyzing this language, Professor of law, Faizan Mustafa notes, “The court while pronouncing the judgment did try its best to strike a balance between law and faith. But clearly faith has the last laugh here.”
While it is undisputed that a significant section of the Hindu population believes Ayodhya to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Rama, it is unclear whether such belief can be grounds for legal adjudication in what is essentially a title dispute. Furthermore, such deference to religious beliefs also stands in opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. State of Kerala) case, wherein the court explicitly favoured constitutional morality over any personal/religious beliefs. “In the public law conversations between religion and morality, it is the overarching sense of constitutional morality which has to prevail.” (para 189). It remains to be seen what the Ayodhya ruling’s jurisprudence bears for the review petition in the Sabarimala case, in which an order is expected next week.
Another instance of the court deferring in favour of the beliefs of Hindu devotees in the judgment is where it disregards the longstanding bifurcation of the disputed site between an inner and outer courtyard. The ruling states, “Despite the setting up of the grill-brick wall in 1857, the Hindus never accepted the division of the inner and the outer courtyard. For the Hindus, the entire complex as a whole was of religious significance. A demarcation by the British for the purposes of maintaining law and order did not obliterate their belief in the relevance of the “Garbh-Grih” being the birth-place of Lord Ram (para 773).”
The court uses this logic to treat the entire disputed land as one unified territory—which it then proceeds to grant to the Hindu claimants. Again, this is a problematic deference to the belief of one community in disregard of the factual matrix (wherein Hindu devotees had initially only staked claims to the Ram chabutra, located in the outer courtyard). The suit that Mahant Raghubar Das had filed on January 19, 1885, sought permission to build a temple on the chabutra. The District Judge, in his judgment dated March 26, 1886, said: “This chabutra is said to indicate the birthplace of Ramchander.”
The consequences that follow from the court ignoring such distinction between inner and outer courtyards (and treating them as a composite whole) are of paramount importance. The court made two important conclusions that underpin its final orders:
- “The Hindus have been in exclusive and unimpeded possession of the outer courtyard where they have continued worship.”
- “The inner courtyard has been a contested site with conflicting claims of the Hindus and Muslims.” (para 788, clause XVIII)
Therefore, as opposed to granting the Hindu representatives possession to the outer-courtyard, and then proceeding with a balancing act with respect to the possessory title for the inner courtyard, the court eventually concluded that “on a balance of probabilities, the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims… (para 800).” Hence, the court ordered that the “possession of the inner and outer courtyards shall be handed over to the Board of Trustees of the Trust or to the body so constituted.” The trustees, including the parties representing Lord Rama, shall have the powers for the construction of a temple and all necessary incidental and supplemental matters.
It is also important to note that in reaching the conclusion that Muslims were not in exclusive possession of the inner courtyard, the court heavily relies on evidence of attempts by Hindus to disrupt the possession of the Muslims: “Even after the construction of the dividing wall by the British, the Hindus continued to assert their right to pray below the central dome. This emerges from the evidentiary record indicating acts of individuals in trying to set up idols and perform puja both within and outside the precincts of the inner courtyard (para 788, clause VII).”
In his essay ‘A Historical Overview’ published in the book ‘Anatomy of a Confrontation’ (1992), K.N. Panikkar records one such assertion by Hindus, “On 30th November 1858, Maulvi Muhammad Asghar, khatib and muezzin of the Babri Masjid, submitted a petition to the magistrate complaining that the Bairagis had built a chabutra close to the mosque and that they had written ‘Rama, Rama’ on the walls of the mosque.”
In a far more problematic way, the court uses the illegal acts of violence on part of Hindus to justify its conclusions about Muslims lacking exclusive possession: “The riots of 1934 and the events which led up to 22/23 December 1949 indicate that possession over the inner courtyard was a matter of serious contestation often leading to violence by both parties and the Muslims did not have exclusive possession over the inner courtyard (para 781).”
It seems manifestly unfair for the court to allow the Hindu claimants to benefit from brazenly unruly acts which sought to interfere with the possession of the Muslims. In retrospect, Muslims amicably respecting the rights of Hindus to worship in Ram chabutra and Sita ki rasoi has in fact turned out to be counterproductive. Perhaps had they too sought to violently disrupt the religious proceedings of Hindus, the court would’ve applied the same “conflicting claims” yardstick to the outer courtyard too—and found against the exclusive possession of the Hindus.
Nevertheless, it is important to not lose sight of a greater crisis that has been averted in Indian jurisprudence. In a context where large scale mass-mobilization for temple construction was threatened and it was declared that Ram Mandir was an issue of faith and the Supreme Court must not delay its adjudication, the Court has successfully engendered unanimous support for legal process. The court takes due notice of the unruly demolition of the Babri Masjid. “The damage to the mosque in 1934, its desecration in 1949 leading to the ouster of the Muslims and the eventual destruction on 6 December 1992 constituted a serious violation of the rule of law (para 788, clause XVIII).” And yet the court refrains from restituting the Muslim community by restoring the mosque. The judgment seeks to establish a judicial precedent wherein minorities are simply compensated for violations of rule of law, as opposed to restituting them to their original positions with due respect for their rights and dignity. It is also worrisome because the same perpetrators continue to enjoy to impunity and gave self-congratulatory statements on the verdict. AG Noorani’s critique of the Allahabad High Court’s judgement is equally applicable to that of the Supreme Court: “The Allahabad High Court had, in effect, sanctified the criminal conversion of the historic Babri Masjid, built in 1528, into a Hindu temple in 1949.”
The political ramifications of this judgment will not be immediately discernible. As far back as 2001, historian Mukul Kesavan had written in his book Secular Common Sense, “The construction of the Ram Mandir where the Sangh Parivar wants it built won’t lead to apocalypse. The world will look the same the morning after, but the common sense of the Republic will have shifted. It will begin to seem reasonable to us and our children that those counted in the majority have a right to have their sensibilities respected, to have their beliefs deferred to by others. Invisibly we shall have become some other country.”
The Supreme Court has averted an immediate crisis, insofar as there has been no outbreak of violence, nor any reports of bloodshed in the aftermath of the verdict. But perhaps the greater crisis that the court has involuntarily invited is that of minorities losing their faith in the institution of the judiciary. In an environment where the legislature and executive are turning unashamedly majoritarian, vulnerable minorities have nowhere to go than repose their faith in the courts. Even as the parties representing the Muslims have decided to file a review of this judgement to contest its conceptual flaws and inconsistencies, one can only hope the judiciary would give them a fair hearing and foster institutional faith in the efficacy of justice delivery. Moreover, as argued elsewhere the court should seriously consider passing directions to ensure an expeditious day to day trial in the languishing Babri Masjid demolition cases. This could be a concrete first step in the long way for the legal system to bridge the scales of justice.