AT the much-awaited hearing on Friday, August 2, 2019, of the appeals against the September 30, 2010 judgement of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title suit, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi directed that daily hearing of the cases would begin on August 6, 2019 as the mediation process by the Supreme Court-appointed three-member committee had not yielded any solution.
The report of the mediation committee, headed by retired Supreme Court judge F M I Kalifulla, with Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and advocate Sriram Panchu as its other members, had been perused by the five-member Constitution bench, the CJI said.
Since the apex court had recommended the mediation process and appointed the three-member committee in March 2019, hopes had naturally arisen that some light would be seen at the end of this particular tunnel. After all, the Ayodhya case has continued to be a factor in the political developments of our country for several decades. The religious sentiments of a great many Indian citizens, who are presented with the dream of a grand temple to Sri Ram at his birthplace, are used to bringing Ayodhya centre stage in every election season.
The Ram Janmabhoomi where such a temple is visualized, and where the Babri Masjid was demolished by a large mob of kar-sevaks on December 6, 1992, is at the heart of the dispute in the title suit, and its present status as a vast barricaded area of rubble among excavated trenches represents in many ways, the embattled state of Indian democracy.
Characters and Chronology: The akharas
The oldest litigants in the title suit are the Nirmohi Akhara. According to the traditional division of worship and rights among the akharas protecting the Hindu faith, Mahant Raghubar Das of the Nirmohi Akhara, filed a suit in 1885, asking for land to build a temple. The other two akharas having rights in Ayodhya are the Digambari Akharaand the Nirvani Akhara. Under this division of rights among the akharas,the Nirmohi Akharahas rights over the Ram Chabutara, Sita Rasoi, Bhandar Griha and Santi Nivasat the Ram Janmabhoomi, and were in fact, in possession of these places till 1982.
The original suit of the Nirmohi Akhara, initially dismissed by the then Faizabad magistrate on the ground that the demolition of a Ram temple in 1528 was a grievance that was now too late to remedy, was revived in 1950 after a serious development. It involved the clandestine placing of the idols of Ram Lalla and his brothers, Bharat, Lakshman and Shatrughan, which were smuggled into the Babri Masjid and installed inside on the intervening night of December 22-23, 1949 by a group of persons led by Baba Abhiramdas, a sadhu from Bihar.
While an FIR against persons unknown was filed against this break-in, the Faizabad additional city magistrate ordered the property attached and handed over to the receiver. A scheme of worship was drawn up for the idols to be offered puja and locals adhered to these timings and rules.
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In January 1950, the Hindu Mahasabha became the first political entity to make an entry into the suit through a case filed by its member, Gopal Singh Visharad. His prayer was that the removal of the idols should be prohibited and uninterrupted puja and darshan be permitted on the site.
In the same year, Paramhans Ramchandra Das, mahant of the Digambari Akhara, filed a case against some district officials and Muslims, with a similar prayer. The Digambari Akharadoes not have traditional rights over the Janmabhoomi area. However, Paramhans later went on to become the face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, heading the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas until his death in 2003.
Sunni Wakf Board and others
The title suit had acquired other cases filed by various Muslims, who were claimants to the “nazul” land around the Babri Masjid as it then stood. Among these local Muslims was Hashim Ansari, who ran a cycle shop, and became known later as the oldest litigant in the Ayodhya matter.
The idols remained in place and worship during regulated timings continued at the spot, which was confirmed by the Faizabad district court by an order in 1955. Meanwhile, some pleas had been filed, including one by Umesh Chandra Pandey, for uninterrupted pujaanddarshanand for the locks of the room where the idols were kept, to be opened. The Nirmohi Akharafiled a case in 1959 reviving their demand of Mahant Raghubar Das’ 1885 suit, seeking delivery of the property for themselves, as their traditional right.
In 1961, the Sunni Wakf Board stepped in, consolidating the cases filed by all the Muslim claimants to “nazul”land. It sought the declaration of the site as a mosque, the plot to be handed over to itself, and the removal of the idols and other articles of worship.
In the 1960s and 70s, the case continued as a title suit that had been consolidated by clubbing four separate claims to the land filed at different times. The various local litigants enjoyed good relations and it was treated as one more matter in the Faizabad District Court. Hashim Ansari and Paramhans Ramchandra Das, who were childhood friends, often travelled to court together in the same rickshaw. The iconic photograph of the time shows them both standing with Zafaryab Jilani, advocate for the Sunni Wakf Board, and Mahant Bhaskar Das of the Nirmohi Akharaon the steps of the court (see the lead picture).
The entry of the Vishva Hindu Parishad
In 1981, Baba Dharamdas, the disciple of Baba Abhiramdas, broke into the portion of the disputed site that was then in control of the Nirmohi Akharawith a group of men. Although a case of looting and encroachment was filed against him and he spent a short time in jail, he then began claiming this land based on his occupation and continued stay.
All other parties allege that he destroyed many land records and valuable documents during this period. Baba Abhiramdas passed away in December 1981, naming Dharamdas his successor on all his worldly properties, including those at the site. It is these portions that were later handed over by Dharamdas to the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), enabling them to become parties to the case.
Lord Rama becomes a litigant; Buddhists enter the fray
From 1984, after the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had created a huge sympathy wave for the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been defeated very badly in the general elections, the disputed site at Ayodhya became the concerted focus of the Hindutva-espousing right-wing to create a mass following.
In the decade that followed, the Faizabad magistrate’s order in 1986 opening the locks of the disputed site and allowing freer access to the idols for worship helped the VHP and other organisations to choreograph events around the disputed site to produce emotional reactions from Hindus. The culmination of these was the “shilanyas” ceremony conducted at the disputed site on November 9, 1989, by the VHP in which a pit was dug for the foundation of the Ram temple. This was a dress rehearsal for the takeover of the site by mobs who felled the Babri Masjid three years later.
Earlier in that same year, in July 1989, a fifth title suit was filed in the Allahabad High Court by a retired High Court judge, Deoki Nandan Agrawal, on behalf of Ram Lalla Virajman, or the deity of Sri Rama installed at the disputed site.
With this, Indian jurisprudence was being tested in having a deity or representation of God as a litigant in a case. The September 30, 2010 judgement of the Allahabad High Court which is presently being appealed against in the Supreme Court had divided the disputed site into three portions for the Nirmohi Akhara, Ram Lalla Virajman and the Sunni Wakf Board respectively.
The final dramatic twist in the Ayodhya story came in April 2018, when a petition filed by Vineet Kumar Maurya, asking for Ayodhya to be declared a national heritage site of importance to Buddhists, on the lines of Sarnath, Kushinagar and Shravasti, and a permanent museum to be set up here to house the Buddhist artefacts that have emerged from the excavation done at the disputed site by the Archaeological Survey of India was accepted in the apex court. On July 23, 2018, the Supreme Court ordered for this petition to be heard along with the other petitions in the title suit.
In 2019, the Supreme Court-appointed three-member mediation committee met in Ayodhya and heard representatives of fifteen parties which can be broadly classified as – six Hindu petitioners, eight Muslim petitioners and one Buddhist petitioner.
Process and Participation
The meetings of the mediation committee, like much else connected with the Ayodhya case, were conducted under a heavy security cover, and participants were subjected to many screenings before they were cleared to reach the guest house in the Dr R M L Awadh University campus in Faizabad where the committee sat.
Mediation was conducted with diligence and with ample opportunity for all concerned to be able to present their views. On the first occasion, all the participants and their legal representatives lunched together and were allowed to introduce themselves and their connection to the title suit. After this, there were separate time slots announced for the parties to present themselves, which stretched to days and weeks. This is because, if an hour was the allotted time, and the presenters continued to speak for another two hours, the mediators did not cut them short or shunt them out. All the invited presenters had their chance to make their points in full.
Khaliq Ahmed Khan: “I made it clear that we are open to a solution”
I spoke to Khaliq Ahmed Khan, a nominee of Maulana Mehfoozur Rehman, one of the appellants in the Babri Masjid case. Khaliq Ahmed has been associated with the AIMPLB’s legal cell on Babri Masjid and has taken part in all the negotiations in the case, both at the local and the national level. He is an executive member of the Milli Council and reports to the Supreme Court on whether status quo is being maintained at the disputed site after weekly visits.
“We went into the mediation process with a consensus having been worked out among all eight parties. I had the opportunity to meet the mediators on three separate occasions. At the meetings, I made it clear that we are open to a solution, but the legal hurdle in the way of this is the Wakf Act of 1995, last amended in 2013, which declares that a mosque cannot be sold, altered, or change hands.
“As far as we can see, the possible scenario of the future can only be one of these three possibilities – the amendment of the Wakf Act by Parliament, the acceptance of a Ram temple on the site and awarding of the land for it by the Supreme Court, or for a mob to enter the premises and begin construction, just as they did the demolition. Of these, of course, we will honour the first two. The third possibility is one which will show what kind of a country and what kind of citizens we are – it will be a tragedy surpassing the original,” said Khaliq Ahmed.
Khaliq Ahmed spoke about the comparison many have made between the Lahore Shaheed Ganj Gurudwara case and the disputed site at Ayodhya.
“In that case, citing the adverse possession by the Sikhs, the Privy Council held in 1940 that although there was no disputing the fact that a mosque had indeed existed on that spot till the 18th century, when it had been destroyed by the Sikhs and a Gurudwara constructed thereon, the rules of limitation applied at the time when the case was filed for the mosque and therefore status quo was maintained at the site. This decision was considered binding even after the birth of Pakistan in 1947 when it was decided to retain the status quo as it existed at the time of Independence, which was that the Sikhs continue to have a Gurudwara on the spot.
“In the case of Ayodhya, if we were to regard the occupation of the site by Muslims as adverse possession from the 16th century onwards, we still have to consider the building as it stood at the time of Independence. It was the Babri Masjid which stood on the spot.”
Vineet Maurya: “What concerns us is the Buddhist relics that have emerged from the site”
The sole Buddhist petitioner in the Ayodhya matter, Vineet Maurya (also spoke to me about the mediation process. “We were given a fair hearing. Advocate K K L Gautam and I presented all our points in writing. We made it clear that we had no additional demands from what we had made in our petition in the Supreme Court. As far as we are concerned, we are not involved in the title suit for land. What concerns us is the Buddhist relics that have emerged from the site during the Court-ordered excavations at the Ram Janmabhoomi site.
“These are of a sufficient number to prove the existence of a Baudh Vihar in Ayodhya around 5th century B.C at the time of Ashoka. Excavated artefacts are stored in 150 trunks out of which only 50 have been opened so far. If so many Buddhist relics have been found in only one-third of the boxes, there must be many more.
“We want a permanent display of these artefacts in Ayodhya, so that it can become a tourist destination for international travellers who come to Sarnath, Kushinagar, Bodhgaya and other places. We believe this will lead to the development of Ayodhya,” said Vineet.
The Unseen Hurdles
When all attempts were being made to conduct the mediation process with the seriousness due to it from the Supreme Court directions in March 2019, several latter-day developments gave cause for concern. The first was a challenge to the process itself by Rajendra Singh, son of Gopal Singh Visharad, by a petition in the apex court, seeking that the mediation process be set aside as it had proved infructuous. Rajendra Singh and his representatives had been given an opportunity to present their points to the mediators, just like all other parties.
The second was the publication by the Indian Express on August 2, 2019, a couple of hours before the Supreme Court hearing of the Ayodhya matter that the mediation attempts had been unsuccessful. In this report, one of the shortcomings of the process mentioned is that the mediators organized only one meeting in which all petitioners were present (the introductory session).
But in fact, the mediators spent many days, meeting the petitioners in turn, and there was sufficient discussion of opposing points of view. There was room for petitioners to meet and discuss with each other as well on days when they were present to meet the mediators. All petitioners being present in a common forum is a feature of court hearings, not a necessary part of mediation involving so many parties.
Finally, a day after the Supreme Court hearing in which the Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi announced that the mediation, as reported to the bench by the panel members, had failed and that the case would be heard on a day-to-day basis from August 6, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath said in Ayodhya on August 3 said that he knew nothing would come out of the three-member mediation committee on the matter, and that such mediation had also been done between the opposing Pandavas and Kauravas before the Mahabharat, but it had failed. (Such a dismissal brings up the question of what kind of outside pressure is being exerted on parties in the Ayodhya title suit, making it difficult for the petitioners to be genuinely involved and open in their dealings with the mediators.)
While the Muslim and Buddhist viewpoints have been outlined above from my conversations with Khaliq Ahmed and Vineet Kumar, the competing tussles between the various Hindu petitioners, the Nirmohi Akhara, the VHP through Baba Dharamdas, the Hindu Mahasabha through Rajendra Singh, and the petition of Ram Lalla Virajman, cannot be denied.
The failure of the mediation process is not so much a legal or procedural failure. It is more a reflection of our society’s failure in allowing a simple property dispute to assume the proportions of a holy war that must, of necessity and due to political compulsions be played out every election season for the benefit of a particular ideology.