The Supreme Court is set to deliver its verdict on the vexatious issue of whether Sri Ramlalla Virajman is the legitimate owner of the Ram Janmabhumi temple site in Ayodhya, before Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, retires on November 17, 2019. Alternately, the court will decide whether the land belongs to the Sunni Muslim Wakf Board because Emperor Babur conquered the region and erected a mosque in 1528 AD. Hindus have doggedly fought to reclaim this particular spot for 491 years, and now await the judgment with bated breath.
Many who led the struggle to reclaim the site in the twentieth century are no more: Paramhans Ramchandra Das (allegedly behind in the “arrival” of the Ramlalla murtis in the disputed structure in 1949), Mahant Avaidyanath, Gopal Singh Visharad, Ashok Singhal, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Deoki Nandan Aggarwal, and so many others. However, leaders like Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati and Vinay Katiyar will witness this historical moment. So will Sadhvi Rithambara, then a noted firebrand.
As a political correspondent at the time, I recall a conversation with Congress leader P. Shiv Shankar wherein he said that the history of India would henceforth be written in terms of pre- and post-December 6, 1992. Like many Congressmen of the time, he was unhappy with the way Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had handled the matter. Though the political discourse on “communalism” got much fodder with the demolition of the disputed structure, History is more complex and has so far eluded such simplistic prescriptions.
The Supreme Court had dodged the Ram temple bullet when President Shankar Dayal Sharma, on January 7, 1993, under Article 143 of the Constitution, sought its opinion on the question of whether there was a temple at the site before 1528 AD. Coming hot on the heels of the demolition, the court should perhaps have laid out some objective parameters for resolving this long-simmering dispute. However, a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice M.N. Venkatachelaiah and comprising Justices J.S. Verma, A.M. Ahmadi, S.P. Bharucha and Y.D. Ray returned the Presidential reference on October 24, 1994, expressing an inability to answer the question. In the process, a judicially sponsored opportunity to resolve the vexed issue was lost.
Now, the appeal against the judgment of the Allahabad High Court, which heard the matter as a trial court (unprecedented in the annals of the Indian judiciary), has reached the Supreme Court as the first court of appeal. But there is no higher court of appeal. It may be emphasised here that the Supreme Court has clarified that though five judges are hearing the appeal, the Bench is not a Constitution Bench.
Looking back, Sri Ramlalla has gone through many vicissitudes to arrive at this crossroad after murtis of Ramlalla “mysteriously” emerged inside the central dome of the structure on December 22-23, 1949. As chief minister Gobind Ballabh Pant refused to remove the murtis despite pressure from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the site was declared a disputed property on December 29, 1949. Muslims were barred from entering the mosque and Hindus were permitted to have darshan from a side gate. Both sides filed cases in court. The Nirmohi Akhara suit of December 17, 1959, sought possession and custodianship of the land. The Sunni Central Board of Waqf suit of December 18, 1961, claimed ownership of the site.
The case hung fire for several decades until the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) took it to the people in 1984. The campaign got an unexpected boost when, on February 1, 1986, the Faizabad district magistrate ordered the gates of the mosque to be opened so that Hindus could worship there. As this was not expected in the regime of Rajiv Gandhi, the shocked Muslim community set up the Babri Masjid Action Committee at the instance of Ali Miyan, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
The stagnant wheels of the Ram chariot began to move and in 1989, the campaign to build a grand temple for Sri Ram gathered heft with the Bharatiya Janata Party endorsing the Ram Janmabhumi movement at Palampur (HP). Briefly, the VHP performed shilanyas (foundation laying ceremony) on land adjacent to the Babri structure on November 9, 1989, with permission from the Rajiv Gandhi government, and BJP president Lal Krishna Advani launched his famous Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra on September 25, 1990. The yatra galvanised the country and seemed invincible until Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav ordered Advani’s arrest at Samastipur the same month.
After a two-year stalemate, during which Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav ordered firing upon Ram bhakts in Ayodhya in 1991, killing an untold number (the bodies were allegedly thrown in the Saryu river), frenzied kar sevaks razed the disputed structure to the ground on December 6, 1992. This apocalyptic event was the most powerful Hindu assertion in northern India since the creation of the Sikh kingdom by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It sent shock waves through the country, even the world, and led to a new stalemate at the site itself, though prayers and darshan by devotees continued.
The Ram temple now took off from the point at which the Supreme Court returned the President’s reference in 1994. At that time, Justice A.M. Ahmadi had asked the purpose of the reference, to which Solicitor General Dipankar Gupta had responded that if there is a temple the government will act according to the wishes of the Hindus, and if not it will respect Muslim wishes.
In April 2002, a three-judge Bench of the Allahabad high court began hearings and sought to know the truth about the ownership of the land. Accordingly, in 2003, the Canadian firm, Tojo Vikas International, entered the picture with its technology for ground-penetrating radar. It took pictures up to a depth of 1650 feet and reported to the High Court that a huge Bhavan (building) was visible under the ground where the mosque stood. To verify this finding, the court ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to excavate the site.
Amidst stringent conditions and restrictions, the excavation was conducted under the supervision of Dr B.R. Mani. A two-volume report submitted to the court stated that a “north Indian temple” was found under the disputed masjid; in other words, the masjid was not built on empty land. This let the cat among the pigeons and Muslim organisations and secular intellectuals went into overdrive to dispute and discredit the findings.
It is pertinent that the Allahabad High Court accepted the fact that the central dome of the demolished structure was the birthplace of Sri Ram. On the question of whether a “non-Islamic structure” was destroyed to build the mosque, two judges concurred while one merely agreed that malba (debris) was used in the construction of the mosque. It is reasonable to ask where this debris came from; it would hardly have been transported from outside the area, but it could have belonged to a previous human habitation on the site. But the excavation did not reveal any debris suggesting human habitation at the site; only artefacts relating to the presence of a grand temple were revealed along with the presence of an older and smaller temple below it.
Oddly, proponents of the Babri mosque offered their arguments and “pieces of evidence” outside the courtroom. In the court itself, they conducted themselves quite poorly, unable to substantiate any of their loud claims. Ultimately, on September 30, 2010, the High Court awarded the disputed land to three parties, one-third to Ram Lalla Virajman, represented by the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha; one-third to the Sunni Waqf Board; and the remaining to the Nirmohi Akhara. Aggrieved, all parties approached the Supreme Court in December 2010 and secured a stay order in May 2011.
After a considerable lull, the Supreme Court returned to the matter on March 21, 2017, and observed that as the matter is sensitive, an out-of-court solution should be attempted. This failed, predictably, and on December 5, 2017, the Court said it would hear the 13 appeals in the title dispute on February 8, 2018. In October 2018, the apex court ruled that the dispute would be treated as a title suit (ownership dispute) and would be listed before an “appropriate Bench” in January 2019 and this Bench would fix the schedule of hearings in the case. Ultimately, a five-judge Bench was set up on January 8, 2019, and the first hearing held on January 10, 2019.
During the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi, Congress leaders Buta Singh and Sheila Dikshit tried to open a debate on the very existence of Sri Ram, whether he was born in Ayodhya and where this city was located. In fact, this question was raised even in the tenure of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, but the VHP said that if the existence of Sri Ram is questioned, it (VHP) would withdraw from the dialogue. So the Muslim side dropped this question in 1991.
Sri Ramlalla Virajman’s case to recover His birthplace and temple fought via “next best friend” Deoki Nandan Aggarwal, ran for 15 years (1995 to 2010) before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court. During the course of the hearing, Justice Rafat Alam asked Zafaryab Jilani (lawyer for BMAC), “do you want to solve the case or to leave it to the next generation?” Jilani replied, “I want it to end” and withdrew the question of the existence of Sri Ram. Justice Alam insisted that he give it in writing that Sri Ram was born in Ayodhya, and accordingly, Jilani submitted in writing: “Now the question ends”.
Nevertheless, once the question is raised, doubts will linger in the minds of citizens, so some points can be made. The most obvious answer is that Sri Ram is the hero of the Valmiki Ramayana, but scholars are undecided about the age of this epic, though they agree that it is thousands of years old. However, the Skanda Purana is generally accepted to be one thousand years old, and in the Vaishnav Khand, Ayodhya Mahatm, chapter 10, there is a description about the location of Ayodhya in relation to the temples surrounding it. This matches the map created by the Government of India in 1950 with the sole difference that the measurements were given in dhanus (one dhanus is a little less than 5 feet).
The Skanda Purana also explains why the Ram Janmasthan is worshipped: its darshan gives moksha (release from the cycle of birth and rebirth). The darshan gives Punya (merit) equal to the donation of one thousand cows. For Hindus, the Janmasthan is itself a deity, a swayambhu, self-manifested expression of divinity.
An interesting aspect of the case in the Allahabad High Court was that the suits of the Nirmohi Akhara (1959) and Sunni Muslim Wakf Board (1961) were dismissed and “no relief granted”; their appeals are now before the Supreme Court. Both parties got one-third share of the disputed plot during “moulding of relief” (vaikalpik rahat), which the court is entitled to grant under Article 142 of the Constitution, in the case where God is plaintiff (filed by Deoki Nandan Aggarwal as “next friend” of deity; after Aggarwal’s death, the Supreme Court-appointed advocate Triloki Nath Pandey to represent the deity).
The most pertinent point in the Ayodhya struggle pertains to the issue of adverse possession. That Muslims have broadly been in possession of the Janmasthan since 1528 is undisputed. But for this to give them legitimate ownership rights requires them to fulfil certain legal conditions, as argued by advocate Parmeshwar Nath Mishra of Kolkata, namely, they must be in continuous possession of the site, the possession must be uninterrupted, and peaceful. None of these conditions apply to Ayodhya. Briefly, Hindus and even Sikh Nihangs have waged armed struggle to reclaim the site from 1528 onwards; Muslims stopped offering namaz in 1936; Muslims were officially barred from the site in 1949 and since; and Hindus are in effective possession of site since December 6, 1992.
The Muslim side invoked the concept of Res Judicata under which if a civil suit is filed and decided, a similar suit cannot be filed in the same matter. Hindus lost a legal battle in 1885. However, the Hindu side responded that the God is a legal entity, a juristic person, and a living entity due to the ritual of pran prathistha (breathing life into the murti); the deity can hold property and the deity is always minor in Law and the property of a minor cannot be taken by anyone. Hence, the claim of adverse possession and Res Judicata does not hold. Further, the Janmasthan is itself a swayambhu deity and the deity cannot be divided.
Interestingly, under Muslim law, the land must be purchased legally from the owner for the mosque to be considered legal (wajib), and this was how Prophet Mohammad built the first mosque in Medina. Namaz on the seized property is not acceptable to Allah. This was why Syed Shahabuddin, a leading personality of the BMAC, had said that if the existence of the temple is proved, Muslims will withdraw their claims. This was brought on record in the White Paper published by the Narasimha Rao government, but pressure from certain historians made the BMAC renege on its promise.
The Supreme Court hearings have now concluded, including failed attempts at mediation. Zafar Farooqi, chairman of the UP Sunni Muslim Wakf Board is reported to have said that Muslims should give up claims to Ayodhya, but he did not make any presentation before the court. So now, Ramlalla Virajman waits for his day in court.
Leading Hindu and Muslim organisations have appealed for calm ahead of D-day and it seems that both sides are prepared to conduct themselves with maturity and goodwill. For the Janmabhumi side, however, there is also the issue of charges against leaders like L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi, Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar and others, who were charged with criminal conspiracy in the demolition case. The verdict could determine whether these charges will be dropped, or will persist. But whatever the verdict, it would be in the fitness of things to drop the charges because this was not a petty crime and involved larger civilisational issues.
Sandhya Jain is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, author, and columnist.