God as a Litigant: Examining the Contradictions and Biases of the Ayodhya Verdict

The Supreme Court of India’s judgment on the Ayodhya dispute enables the triumph of a majoritarian claim—backed by a long, venomous communal campaign—over minority rights. The fact that the majority Hindu community managed to successfully claim a minority religion's sacred place purely based on faith and belief comes out luridly in the judgment. While the god or deity as a juridical person may have legal validity, filing a suit in god’s name and projecting god as a litigant has the potential to bring in biases and conflicts.

 

The popular adage jiski lathi uski bhains (might is right) aptly captures the essence of the Supreme Court of India’s (SC) judgment on the Ayodhya dispute delivered on 9 November 2019. Even a layperson’s reading suggests that the ruling has enabled the triumph of a majoritarian claim—backed by a long, venomous communal campaign—over minority rights. The eagerly awaited ruling was a let down in upholding the principles of justice and equity in more ways than one. Proponents of the judgment felt it was balanced and had the capacity to pave the way for peace and harmony. Critics felt that many of its biased averments bode ill for the secular fabric of the country and even for rational thinking.   

The fact that the majority Hindu community managed to successfully claim a minority religion's sacred place purely based on faith and belief comes out luridly in the judgment. The High Court of Allahabad in 2010 and the SC in 2020 had decreed the suit filed in the name of “Bhagwan Sri Rama Virajman” by a “next friend.” When the judgment was passed, Sri Rama was represented in the Court by Triloki Nath Pandey, a member of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (IANS 2019). The Hindu parties filed the suit in the name of Sri Rama in 1989 after litigation efforts using names of individuals proved ineffective. While the god or deity as a juridical person may have legal validity, filing a suit in god’s name and projecting god as a litigant has the potential to bring in biases and conflicts. It may not be effortless for any judge or lawyer who may be an ardent devotee to objectively contest the claims filed in the name of god, not to mention the dilemma of any atheist in treating god as a litigant. God as a juridical person turns out to be a convenient ploy to manipulate ownership of property, and as a possible way to arouse the sentiments of people involved in the litigation process. From a purely rational perspective, this aspect of the Ayodhya litigation cannot be overlooked, especially because the deity of Sri Rama was surreptitiously installed under the central dome of the masjid.    

Glaring Contradictions

In addition, the judgment embodies glaring contradictions. Having premised that a title dispute should be settled not based on faith or belief, but on the availability of evidentiary proof, the Court resorts to the norm of “preponderance of probabilities” to settle the claim in favour of one party. In the absence of a title proof by either party, the Court initially establishes certain facts favouring both the parties. About the claims of the Muslim parties, the Court averred that there existed a mosque for over four centuries at the disputed site, and that the Muslims have been using its inner part until forced out by intimidation and dispossessed by its ultimate destruction through criminal acts. The Court also did not find any evidence to suggest that the mosque was built by demolishing a pre-existing Hindu religious structure.  
In favour of the Hindu parties, the Court concluded that the disputed site is one composite whole and that Hindus have been in exclusive and unimpeded possession of the outer courtyard.  However, in the absence of any formal title, the Court decided to adopt the criterion of nature (length) of use of the facility to settle the final claim. As the Hindus, based on available evidence recorded in travelogues, gazetteers, and scriptures are believed to have had unimpeded usage since prior to 1857, the Court decided to grant the entire disputed property (of 2.77 acres) to the Hindus. Since the Muslims have been deprived of their legitimate claim to a mosque by unlawful destruction, the Court directed the government to grant them five acres of prime land for the construction of a mosque in Ayodhya as a measure of restitution.   

Arbitrary Criterion Employed

The final stand of the SC is arbitrary and biased. Specifically, the length of the use of property is an arbitrary criterion to allot a disputed property. It is almost like two siblings have equal rights, but are treated differently in sharing an inheritable property based on difference in their age or length of use. While, for Hindus, the “preponderance of probabilities” came to their rescue, the Muslim parties were asked to provide evidence for their usage of the mosque in the first 330 years of its existence. In treading such a path, the Court has, apparently, overlooked many glaring facts, including the bases of various judicial and administrative orders passed since 1857, wherein the claims of the Muslims are clearly established. The past orders could not have given rights to Muslims without recognising historical usage at that point in time.  Even if the Hindus may have shown unimpeded use, their entry into a structure incontrovertibly recognised as a mosque could have happened only in two possible ways. Either the mosque was built as a syncretic structure (even alluded by the SC) for both parties to pray or they have forced themselves into it as intruders. The latter aspect cannot be totally denied, given that it has been a communally contested site, and sustained and conspicuous usage is a common ploy adopted through mass mobilisation by vested interests to assert claims. This is similar to the way Hindu devotees have had unimpeded access to idols of Rama installed subsequent to the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992. If it was a syncretic structure, the SC should have tried restoring such a status to be fair to both parties. Otherwise, the SC should have sought proof from the Hindus as to how they managed to get unimpeded access into an Islamic structure prior to 1857. Instead, the onus of proof of historical usage was placed on the Muslims.  Even ignoring the past, the avowed facts of the present like the criminal desecration of the mosque in 1949 and its destruction in 1992 by Hindus do not seem to have had one iota of bearing on the final decision of the SC to make it fair. In the process, the Muslims have been dispossessed once again, this time by the refusal of the SC to uphold their rightful claims.   

The SC opinion that the division of the disputed land would neither serve the interest of both the sides nor help in fostering a lasting peace is weak given the nature of the dispute. What litigants may want to do with their share of the property is their prerogative. Taking a paternalistic view, the SC seems to take what serves Muslim interests better for granted when their demand has been for justice and equity. Asking the government to grant five acres of land to Muslims in lieu of the dispossession is rendering justice more through benevolence than by way of entitlement. Emphasising “lasting peace” as a factor to deny their claim alludes to the SC almost succumbing to the threats by communal elements.

Curiously, what seems to have influenced the Court is finally revealed in the question: Was the disputed structure the holy birthplace of Lord Rama as per the faith, belief, and trust of the Hindus? Authored by a single anonymous judge, the 116-page addendum—that attempts to provide a justification—to the main judgment clearly exposes the biased nature of the Court in considering a matter of faith and belief as the basis for adjudication. The addendum attempts to establish that the faith and belief of the Hindus about Lord Rama and his birthplace are reasonable and justified. The judgment sanctifies an obscure interpretation of faith and belief that has served as the very foundation of the communally driven Ram Janmbhoomi campaign spearheaded by the leaders and affiliates of the Sangh Parivar since long.

The minorities are being forced to accept the judgment in the name of peace and harmony. This is a gambit ridden with duplicity. This duplicity becomes obvious from what the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh did in Kerala when they tried to instigate the Hindus against the Sabarimala judgment, which was passed by the SC in 2018. When peace and harmony are a matter of convenience, meek acceptance may not be the right path. The Muslim litigants have rightly sought for a review of the judgment, especially because it can set a precedent for faith-based adjudications in the future. At another level, the secular parties must try and expose the strategies and approaches of communal elements lest there is a repetition of the tragedies of the past.

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