Ayodhya Land Dispute: Understanding the Issue through the 2010 Verdict

The legal history of the Ayodhya dispute is complex, with multiple suits and rulings that have covered a variety of religious, social and political issues. 

 

The Supreme Court has been hearing a title suit about the disputed land in Ayodhya since 6 August 2017. Hearings are taking place on a regular basis to ensure that a judgment is reached before 17 November 2019, when Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is expected to retire. The verdict will decide who can claim ownership of the land on which the Babri Masjid once stood. From the 1950s onwards, there were four such title suits filed. The last one was filed by the Sunni Waqf Board (which managed the Babri Masjid) soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, which the Allahabad High Court began to hear from 2002. Since then, by the Ayodhya Act of 1993, the centre has held the disputed land. 

The high court reached a verdict in 2010 in which it divided the 2.77 acre land between the other claimants, namely the Nimrohi Akhara, a sect that has been active in the Ram Janamabhoomi movement since its inception, and the Hindu Mahasabha on behalf of Ram Lalla (or the infant god Rama). One third of the land went to the Waqf Board. However, the verdict was challenged in Supreme Court by all three parties. 

In this reading list, we revisit the various perspectives on the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict to contextualise the hearings that are currently taking place in the Supreme Court. 

1) Previous Litigation

The history of the dispute over the Babri Masjid can be traced back to a case filed in 1885  by Mahant Raghubar Das, who sought permission to construct a temple over the Chabutra Janmasthan (a platform at the spot regarded as Ram’s birthplace), which was said to be an old and sacred place of worship. Das claimed to be the chief priest of this place of worship. Gautam Patel’s article discussing this case that talks about one Mohammed Asghar, who claimed to be the caretaker of the Babri Mosque, who was allowed to join this case as a defendant. The sub-judge who heard the case dismissed to suit saying that the relief claimed could not be granted in public interest. But an appeal was made to a district judge F E A Chamier, who concluded that the mosque was built by Babar, as Asghar claimed, as per an inscription on the structure. Chamier ruled in favour of maintaining a status-quo.

He also recorded that the object of the 1885 suit was to persuade a British court to remedy a perceived historical injustice by a Muslim emperor. A second appeal to the Judicial Commissioner, Oudh, also failed, and that order described the attempts of the original plaintiffs as “encroachments”. The matter would – and should – have rested at that, but for its revival on 30 September 2010 in a finding recorded by the high court in the Waqf Board suit.

In the same article, Patel discusses the Visharad and the Nimrohi Akhara suits. The first was filed on 14 January 1950  by Gopal Singh Visharad who asserted that his father was prohibited from entering the sanctum and “touching the deity” but the suit was opposed by the state government and the court held that the state government could impose reasonable restrictions in public interest. The second suit, filed in 1989, claimed that the Nimrohi Akhara sect had worshipped deities within the structure since “time immemorial” but this too was dismissed as the court held that they had not presented their case adequately. 

The Sunni Waqf Board’s suit was also filed in 1989, with Visharad being one of the defendants along with Paramhans Ramchandra Das (whose suit was withdrawn in 1990) and the Nirmohi Akhara and others.

The suit was first filed only for a declaration as to the existence of a mosque. In 1995, it was amended to include a prayer for possession. This was, therefore, a suit on title. Briefly stated, the Waqf Board contended that the mosque was built more than 400 years ago by Babar, who also made a cash grant from the royal treasury for its upkeep. It was damaged in the communal riots of 1934 and desecrated on 23 December 1949 when a large crowd of Hindus placed idols inside it. It is in this suit that the controversial report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was sought for and led in evidence. The defendants also argued that the structure was never a mosque, and could not ever have been one, because to call it so was against the tenets of Islam; and, further, that it was worshipped as the “birthplace” of the deity from “times immemorial”.  

Yet another suit was filed in 1989, Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman at Ayodhya and Ors vs Rajendra Singh and Others, which was the only suit to succeed. It was filed on behalf of the deities, and the site. It “sought an injunction restraining the defendants (including the Waqf Board) from interfering with the construction of a temple on the site.”

In finding for the plaintiffs, the high court held that the place of birth (not the structure, but the site) is a juristic entity. It then found that the Babri masjid was erected after demolition of this juristic entity; and that, overlapping the issues in the Waqf Board suit, the plaintiff had reacquired title by adverse possession. It also found that the idol in question had been installed in the early hours of 23 December 1949 and not on 6 December 1992. The court said, “The disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram. Place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity. It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as birth place of Lord Ram as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.” 

2)  Devasthana to Janmasthana 

The precedent set with considering the site as a juristic entity in the Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman suit was crucial to the Ayodhya dispute. This, G Arunima argues, gave the Allahabad High Court “legal cover for a subtle shift from devasthana (holy place) to janmasthana (birthplace),” through which a deity (Ram Lalla) was endowed with property rights based on the claim that the disputed land was the deity’s birthplace. The court held that “The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram. Place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity. It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as birthplace of Lord Rama as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”

Let us then begin with the problem of “proving” a birthplace for Lord Ram, as Ram Lalla, within modern law. The argument about the juridical character of Hindu deities is not unknown. Nor is the idea that as juridical entities they may possess property rights (through gifts, sales, mortgages or leases).2 However, what is worth considering is that in most instances where the deity has been treated as a legal person (with a trustee, a juridical person, representing the deity) the issue at stake appears to have dealt with “devasthana” property, of “gifts” to the deity, or to the temple. The significant issue here is that in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janma bhoomi dispute, the decision was meant to be made on “janmasthana” and not “devasthana”. Moreover, the decision was to be made on determining a “birthplace” and not simply proprietary rights, both of which are clearly distinct in a legal sense. 

3) Proving the Birthplace

One of the last witnesses to be examined before the 2010 judgment was former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, who insisted that a grand temple had existed on the site. In 2003, the ASI was ordered by the Allahabad High Court to see if such a temple had indeed existed. The report titled “Summary of Results” was submitted to the court in 2005 and Singh claimed that the report vindicated his stance, even though several other notable archaeologists have contested the report and had testified against it. The ASI report proved crucial in establishing the site, legally, as the birthplace of the deity Ram. Anupam Gupta who had questioned Singh at the time, had three questions on the ASI report, which he had recorded as suggestions in court. 

Question: I put it to you that the ASI report marks a grave departure from, and a brazen distortion of, the scientific basis, principles and methods of archaeology. 

Question: I put it to you that the analysis, interpretations, projections, inferences and conclusions made and given by the ASI on and from the miscellaneous, fragmentary evidence yielded by the excavation, in order to state or suggest that there existed a massive structure in the nature of a temple below the disputed structure, are all supremely imaginative and completely lacking in the restraint, the objectivity, and the rational and scientific rigour that must necessarily mark an appraisal of the results of any archaeological examination. 

Question: I put it to you that the report submitted by the ASI is the product of a mind or minds that were intellectually, ideologically and politically predetermined to create and construct evidence of a temple beneath the disputed structure, in order to stand history on its head and provide the “ultimate” justification for the demolition of the disputed structure.

4) Faith Over Reason? 

The public response to the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment was mixed. Lata Mani writes that some sections of the left-leaning liberals were disappointed that faith had ruled over reason, while others thought secularism was undermined and the Sangh parivar was given legitimacy. Those with a less pessimistic disposition suggested that by giving all litigants an equal share of the disputed area the majority opinion has tried to bring closure to a painful and violent period. 

Was the destruction of Babri masjid justified? Absolutely not. Was the judgment fair? If one thinks of history and law as the primary means of just recompense it was clearly not. If abstract principles of law are what are seen to be at stake, the judgment disappoints. If however one asks whether it may facilitate peace understood as negotiated compromise between people who have no choice but to live with each other and with all that binds them and all that threatens to separate them, things look more hopeful and less bleak.

 

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