One of the longest running cases (1850-2019) has finally come to an end with the verdict on Saturday. The Ayodhya land title dispute case, with its roots stretching back more than a century, is one of India’s thorniest court cases. More than that, it goes in to the heart of the country’s identity politics.
To gauge a sense of the enormity of the case, let us take into consideration the following factors. The testimonies in the appeals alone ran into 54 volumes consisting of 13,426 pages which have been translated into English. There were a total of 533 exhibits translated by various parties.
But why has this issue played such a pivotal role in our country’s dynamic? What was so important about it that led the country’s highest court to dig and go through everything related to this case with a fine comb? How did the Ram Janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid land title dispute take its course?
To understand this, one had to delve a little into history first. According to the Ramayana, Lord Rama was born in Ayodhya on the banks of the river Sarayu. This place is identified with Ayodhya in present day Uttar Pradesh. As per Hindu beliefs, an ancient temple stood at the birthplace to mark the spot.
Hindus claim that the temple was demolished in 1528 by a commander in the first Mughal emperor Babur’s army. The commander built the Babri Masjid atop the said temple. The dispute related to the area was attempted to be sorted by the British government also, but without much success.
In 1992, the High Court wanted to take over the disputed land and manage the grounds and provide amenities to the pilgrims traveling to the location. But a petition challenging the court’s plan set the proceedings aside. But on December 6, 1992, everything changed, when a huge swathe of kar sevaks marched towards the disputed structure and demolished the central dome of the mosque. on December 6, 1992. And thus began the whole debate of who owns the 2.77 acre property.
Legal Timeline of the dispute
The first suit regarding the structure was filed in the 1850, when a communal fight broke out between two groups of Hindus and Muslims. The then Faizabad Deputy Commissioner refused to let Mahant Raghubar Das build a temple on land adjoining the mosque. Rather the temple got divided into two parts, where the inner part belonged and was managed by Muslims and the outer part came under the purview of Hindus. But this did not hold the disputes down.
Das then filed a title suit in a Faizabad court against the Secretary of State for India, seeking permission to build a temple on the Chabutra on the outer courtyard of the Babri Masjid.
In Dec 1949, some Hindu activists broke and entered the Mosque and placed idols of Ram inside the disputed structure, leading to communal tension. The mosque was seized by authorities. Court orders restrained people from removing the idols, and the structure’s use as a mosque effectively ceased from that point.
In 1950 a court appointed commissioner was appointed to make a map of the disputed land along with two site plans. Then in 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara filled a suit to get an “absolute right” to manage the entire land. In 1961 however, the Sunni Waqf Board along with 9 other Muslim organizations filed a suit for the Babri Masjid to be handed back to them post the removal of the idols inside.
In 1986 a Hindu devotee filled an application for opening the gates and install a grill brick wall to perform darshan in the inner courtyard. In 1986, a Faizabad district judge ordered the gates of the Babri Masjid to be opened after 37 years, in favor of Hindu parties, and allowed worship.
The Rajiv Gandhi government allowed shilanyas at the site. The VHP laid the foundation of a Ram temple on land next to the Babri Masjid.
In the year 1990-91, Senior BJP leader LK Advani began his ‘rath yatra’ for a Ram temple, and kar sevaks arrived in Ayodhya, thus stirring up clashes. On December 6, 1992, Babri Masjid structure was demolished by kar sevaks.
In a case that was filled in the Allahabad HC, the verdict was decided with a 2:1 majority, which said that there must be a three way division of disputed area between Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.
Not satisfied with the high court verdict, the parties approached the Supreme Court and obtained a stay on high court judgment. The case remained pending for nearly seven years in the top court, before it decided to start hearing the case on a daily basis. A mediation led by a retired judge of the Supreme Court was also ordered by the court without much success.
During September and October this year, the SC heard the appeals for the case for 40 days and reserved the judgment, which was delivered today.
Who was fighting the case?
This particular case was being fought majorly between three parties: two Hindu groups and the Muslim Waqf Board, which is responsible for the maintenance of Islamic properties in India.
The Hindu litigants are the Hindu Mahasabha, a right wing political party, and the Nirmohi Akhara, which is a sect of Hindu monks. They filed a title dispute in the Allahabad High Court in 2002, a decade after the mosque was demolished. A verdict, in that case, was pronounced in September 2010.
It determined that the 2.77 acres of the disputed land would be divided equally into three parts. The court ruled that the site should be split, with the Muslim community getting control of a third, Hindus another third and the Nirmohi Akhara sect the remainder. Control of the main disputed section, where the mosque once stood, was given to Hindus.
The Allahabad Court Verdict in 2010
In September 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled a three way division of the disputed area between Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla. The inner courtyard, where the dome once stood, went to the deity. The Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi nearby went to the Akhara. The Muslim side was left to take their one third after partition and adjustments from the extra land in and around, acquired by the govt. Each side was expected to give entry and exit rights to the other.
The 3 parties preferred multiple Civil Appeals and Special Leave Petitions before SC against the judgement of the High Court. In May 2011, a two judge bench stayed the Allahbad Court’s judgement. In September 2013, February 2014 and August 2017, the SC issued directions to get all the digital records of evidence and pleadings from Allahbad High Court. By the start of the year of 2019, the CJI appointed a 5 member bench to start going through all the evidence of the proceedings.
The conflict of Parties in Apex Court
The Muslim side wanted the masjid rebuilt at the same location. It also wanted the SC to implement the Places of Worship Act 1991 which freezes all places of worship as they existed when India became free. This was to prevent spillovers to other disputed sites like Mathura and Kashi. The akhara and deity wanted possession of the land. The akhara was willing to concede the rights of the title to the deity if its shebait is recognized.
After the hearings were over, the Sunni Board reportedly made a mediation offer that it would give up claim for the title, if Kashi and Varanasi were left alone and the masjid rebuilt at another location. Other parties seemed unlikely to support this.
The Archeological Records
An Archaeological Survey of India probe, on the orders of HC, submitted a voluminous report in 2003 saying that proof had been found of a massive non-Islamic structure just below the demolished Babri Masjid. The survey claimed the presence of walls and pillars of a temple-like structure. However, this was disputed by other members of the group who conducted the dig.
Reports suggest that the first excavation at the disputed site was carried out in 1976-77 under the eminent archaeologist BB Lal, who was the then director-general of ASI. KK Mohammed, Former Regional Director of ASI, was a part of this excavation and said that there was “enough evidence to prove the presence” of the temple.
He illustrated the presence of the temple saying: In almost all the temples of the 12th and 13th centuries, you get ‘Purna Kalasha’ at the base which is a symbol of prosperity in Hinduism and is known as “Ashta-Mangal Chinha” (one of the eight auspicious symbols. these symbols were found at the Babri Masjit as well.
Subsequently, BB Lal undertook excavations on the western side of the mosque. A number of terracotta sculptures were found. these sculptures are not found in a mosque as the depiction of human beings and animals is forbidden in Islam. However, these findings were not highlighted as some historians went on record claiming no temple remains were found at the site.
Later in the year of 2003, another excavation was carried out which was directed by the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court. Before the excavation, a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey was conducted after which several structures were found below the ground.
The excavation was carried out under the supervision of archaeologists Hari Manjhi and BR Mani. In the second excavation, more than 50 pillar bases in 70 rows were exposed. Several other sculptures like “pranala”, “amalka” and “shikhara” were also found during the excavation. Besides these, 263 pieces of Terracotta objects depicting various Gods, human beings were found.
Moreover, various travelogues and literary works aligned with the claim of the presence of temple beneath the mosque. In Ain-e-Akbari Volume III, Abu Fazal says that Ayodhya was worshipped by Hindus in the month of Chaitra. Joseph Taissen Thaler, who wrote in 1766, also speaks about the erection of a cradle at the place. for the first time, he said that the temple was destroyed either by Babur or Aurangzeb.
The Present Scenario
The five judge constitution bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi had reserved the judgment after a marathon hearing of 40 days. The members of this bench included Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer.
In an attempt to keep any violence from breaking out appeals for peace came from Hindu and Muslim organizations and various political leaders ahead of the verdict. While the home ministry had asked all states to be on alert, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath held a three hour review meeting with top police and administration officials in Lucknow last night.
The Uttar Pradesh government had ordered the closure of all schools, colleges, educational institutions and training centers in the state from Saturday to Monday. Yogi Adityanath asked for two helicopters to be on standby, one in Lucknow and one in Ayodhya, to tackle any possible emergency.
Section 144 has been imposed in Ayodhya till December 28. Those violating the order would be booked under section 188 of the IPC (disobedience of an order promulgated by public servant).
The Ayodhya district magistrate issued directives prohibiting people from making defamatory remarks against any religion, community, deities, eminent personalities on social media platforms. People have been barred from holding any event regarding the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute.
The administration had also banned any media debates in the city and has imposed restrictions on people gathering in the region.
The Chief Justice of India announced the unanimous decision made by the bench regarding the disputed land. The SC dismissed the appeal of Shia Waqf board who had challenged the order of 1946 Faizabad Court. Not entering into the area of Theology, the SC barred the suit by Nirmohi Akhara by limitation and Government by article 120.
SC made it clear that the birthplace is not a juristic entity but the Ramlalla Virajman Spot is. The ASI report was held legitimate by the SC and the CJI said “Babri mosque wasn’t constructed on vacant land. An underlying structure did exist.”
The SC said the underlying structure was not of the Islamic religion as artifacts, architectural evidence had distinct non-Islamic nature. ASI report can be lent credence to the underlying structure was dated 12th century. But it adds that the ASI report has not said the underlying structure was a specific temple.
The Sunni Waqf Board’s suit is maintainable, but Muslims cannot assert the right of adverse possession, said the Supreme Court. Prior to 1856-57, there was no exclusion of Hindus from praying there. For 325 years, from the construction of the mosque till 1857, Muslims have given no evidence of offering prayers at the disputed structure in exclusion of Hindus, it said. After addressing the appeals made by different Parties, the CJI announced the verdict reading out the pointers stated below:
- Centre will hand over the disputed site to the Board of trustees and a suitable alternative plot of land measuring five acres at Ayodhya will be given to Sunni Waqf Board. In the scheme by the Board of trustees, appropriate representation is given to Nirmohi Akhara.
- The disputed land in Ayodhya goes to the Hindus in its entirety for the construction of Ram Mandir. The Sunni Waqf Board will get five acres of alternate land, which will be accorded either by the state or the Centre.
This way, the SC headed by the CJI Ranjan Gogoi made a landmark decision and closed a case that was being disputed over for decades. The SC maintained the balance and gave equal rights to the three parties.
Find our articles on other landmark judgements, here.