Demystifying the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Ayodhya dispute

Taanya Trivedi

In a historic judgment by the Honourable Supreme Court of India (SCI), the Court put to rest a volatile dispute dating back to 1885 that has been “a flashpoint of continued conflagration,”[1] which has caused enormous loss of life and has unleashed sectarian violence across the country. The decision is a result of the cross-appeals filed by the Hindu and Muslim people on two different sides challenging the three-way partition of the disputed land comprised of 2.77 acres of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land between Ram Lalla, Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni Waqf Board as determined on 30th September, 2010 by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court.[2]

The dispute involves contested claims for possessory rights over land between Hindu and Muslim communities, where a mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528, which according to the locals was erected after demolishing a Ram temple. This contention sparked riots between these two communities between 1853-1859. To diffuse the festering tensions, the British government intervened to divide the land and allocated the inner courtyard to the Muslims and designated the outer courtyard to the Hindus for their worship, and built a fence around the entire land. In 1949, however, after the partition, the idol of lord Ram was placed inside the main sanctum of the Masjid, which allowed Hindu devotees to carry on their worship inside the inner courtyard which had been reserved exclusively for the Muslims.  This led to an increasingly hostile atmosphere, and again the government was compelled to intervene, completely banning any ingress into the premises. Various claims were filed by different groups to lift this ban: in 1950 Mahant Ram Chandra Das filed a claim for the continued right of worship of the Hindus, in 1959 the Nirmohi Akhara claimed the right of possession of the disputed land, and finally in 1961 the Sunni Waqf Board contested that they should be given the entire right of possession of the disputed land. In 1986 the Faizabad Court granted the right of worship to the Hindus in the disputed areas.  After which, another suit for possession was filed by Ram Lalla Virajman in 1989.

The Rath Yatra[3] in 1990, organised by BJP minister L.K. Advani from Somnath, Gujarat to Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh (UP) had catastrophic consequences: riots and violence broke out across the country, and Advani was arrested in Bihar under a charge of criminal conspiracy. In view of the prevailing situation, the state government of Utter Pradesh (UP) in 1991 acquired direct control over the entire disputed area. This was followed by another bout of riots due to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6Th December 1992, which is regarded as a fatal blow to the country’s pledge to secularism.[4]

Finally, in 2002, the Allahabad High Court constituted a three-member bench to delineate the possessory rights of the contesting parties.  The Court ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to investigate, whose report suggested evidence supporting the existence of a Hindu temple below the Masjid, relating back to the 12th century.  In a landmark judgement by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, on 30th September 2010, a three-way partition of the land was decreed: the area with the idol of Lord Ram was given to Ram Lalla Virajman, the outer courtyard was given to Nirmohi Akhara and the remained was given to the Sunni Waqf Board.  This judgment of the Allahabad High Court was stayed by the SCI on 9th May 2011.

In March 2017, Justice J.S. Khehar, the Chief Justice of the SCI suggested an out of court mechanism for a mutually acceptable outcome for the resolution of this dispute. By December 2017, 32 appeals against the decision of the Allahabad High Court were filed before the SCI, which decided to commence the hearing from January 2018. On 8th March 2019, the SCI directed a court monitored mediation for settling the dispute. The final report of the mediation was filed on May 2019 after which the SCI proceeded to hear this case for a continuous period of 40 days, making it the second longest continuous hearing in the history of the SCI.

Exercising its power contained in Article 142 of the Indian Constitution to remedy errors of the past, the SCI based its judgment on the historical evidence/reports supplied by the ASI, which suggested that despite the existence of a masjid, Hindu devotees were never denied their right of worship in the area. Relying on the probability of the evidence the SCI noted that it was settled that the Hindus were offering prayer in the outer courtyard since 1857 which consequently led to their control over this area; and the right to offer namaz for the Muslims was prohibited from 23 December 1949, i.e. from the time when the idol of Lord Ram was put in the Masjid, which resulted in the deprivation of their right to worship in their 400-year-old Masjid.

In 1,045-page long judgment the SCI allocated the disputed area of 2.77 acres to Ral Lalla Virajman; and further directed the central and state governments of UP to allocate 5 acres of land within the city of Ayodhya to be given to the Sunni Waqf board to develop a Masjid. The SCI specifically mentioned that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was a serious violation of the law[5], however no judgment was passed against the perpetrators of that, as the case at hand was civil dispute.

The unanimous verdict resounds the principle of secularism as embodied in the Constitution of India: evidence led by both the parties was taken into consideration to arrive at a decision in an attempt to assuage past feelings; foster respect and friendship between the two communities, which can be discerned from the continuous proceedings which took place before the SCI ensuring a fair trial. Despite this, there is growing resentment amongst the Muslims for not being given a share of the disputed land, which has deep religious significance for the community; moreover the 5 acres of land being handed down elsewhere feels like a consolation prize to them, giving rise to a probability of the decision being challenged in the form of a Review Petition. Critics’ debates have centred around questions of political motivations behind this judgment and whether the Court can direct a secular state to perform religious acts?[6]

[1] M Siddiq (D) Thr Lrs v Mahant Suresh Das & Ors Civil Appeal 10866-10867 2010 (para 10). This judgment can be accessed at- https://www.sci.gov.in/pdf/JUD_2.pdf.

[2] Decision of Hon’ble Special Full Bench hearing Ayodhya Matters can be accessed at- http://elegalix.allahabadhighcourt.in/elegalix/DisplayAyodhyaBenchLandingPage.do

[3]The term Rath means a horse drawn chariot, which in this context was a remodelled van; Yatra is a symbolic journey/procession.  The Rath Yatra was a political fuelled by religious motivations in support of the restoration of the Ram temple by replacing the Babri Masjid. For a glimpse of the actual events see- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBgLcEWZfnU

[4] The Chronology of events can be found at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/chronology-of-events-in-ram-janmabhoomi-babri-masjid-land-dispute-case/articleshow/71980846.cms

Also see, Engineer, Asghar Ali. “The Bloody Trail: Ramjanmabhoomi and Communal Violence in UP.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 26, no. 4, 1991, pp. 155–159. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4397237, and  https://qz.com/india/1741564/advani-sparked-ayodhya-fenzy-but-modi-and-vajpayee-ruled/

[5] “The destruction of the mosque took place in breach of the order of status quo and an assurance given to this Court. The destruction of the mosque and the obliteration of the Islamic structure was an egregious violation of the rule of law”, Part P, para XVII, page 913-914 of M Siddiq (D) Thr Lrs v Mahant Suresh Das & Ors Civil Appeal 10866-10867 2010, can be found at – https://www.sci.gov.in/pdf/JUD_2.pdf

[6] See generally, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/can-court-ask-a-secular-state-to-construct-a-temple/article29946603.ece