Preceding the laying of the foundation stone of the Ayodhya Temple is a long history of court battle. The author analyses the Supreme Court judgements of what is an essentially a civil dispute with political overtones. Noting the rise of extremism around the world, the author ponders on what the politics of building the temple means to a citizen of India.
Here is a small piece of land (1500 square yards) where angels fear to tread. It is full of innumerable land mines. We are required to clear it.
-Allahabad High Court on Ayodhya
On November 9, 2019, the Supreme Court of India decided upon a long court battle of one of the oldest civil disputes in Indian courts. The verdict was decided in favour of the parties who contested for building a Ram temple. They are referred to as Hindu parties, for convenience. The Sunni Central Waqf Board, and some Muslim residents of Ayodhya, filed Suit No.4 seeking to declare that ‘the entire disputed site of the Babri Masjid was a public mosque’. They are referred to as Muslim parties, for convenience.
The Allahabad High Court had held the three parties, i.e. Muslims, Hindus and Nirmohi Akhara as joint title holders of the property and allotted 1/3rd share to each of them.
The Supreme Court modified the High Court’s judgment. It decreed that the disputed site belongs to plaintiff’s deities (Hindu parties) and prohibited the defendants from interfering or obstructing with the construction of the new temple.
History of Ayodhya dispute and claims
The Supreme Court starts its judgement with a reminder: “This Court is tasked with the resolution of a dispute whose origins are as old as the idea of India itself.”
The Supreme Court relied on accounts from travellers Tieffenthaler and Montgomery Martin and corroborated by both Hindu and Muslim witnesses. It drew an inference of identifiable places for offering worship by Hindu pilgrims at the disputed site. The order notes that Babri Masjid was constructed in 1528 under the command of Babur. It also notes the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims necessitated the British administration to build a grill-brick wall in 1858.
The earliest court case regarding the dispute arose in 1885. The District Judge of Faizabad, in his judgment dated 18/26 March 1886, held that “it was most unfortunate that the Masjid should have been built on the land especially held sacred by the Hindus but since the construction had been made 358 years earlier, it was too late in the day to reverse the process.”
The Supreme Court observes that the Muslim account is conspicuously silent on worship prior to 1856 as opposed to the accounts of worship being offered by the Hindus. There is clear evidence of obstruction of worship, like 1934 riots, even after construction of the grill wall. Yet, the restoration of the mosque and arrangements made for Pesh Imam’s service indicates some form of namaz continued to be offered in the mosque until 16 December 1949.
The Court notes evidence that Muslims offered Friday namaz at the mosque and had not completely lost access to or abandoned the disputed property.
Evidence before the Supreme Court
Sunni Wakf Board’s claim was based on “adverse possession” and “lost grant”. The Supreme Court rejected both the claims for lack of a clear stand. In pleading adverse possession, the party must acknowledge the title of the person against whom the plea is made.
“Adverse possession postulates the vesting of title in one person and the existence of a long continued and uninterrupted possession of another, to the knowledge of and in a manner hostile to, the true title holder. The plea of adverse possession would lead to an inference against the application of the doctrine of lost grant as a plea of adverse possession is premised in the title vesting in someone other than the alleged grantee.”, held the Supreme Court.
Resolution of dispute adopted by the Supreme Court
While decreeing the suit in favour of the Hindu parties, the Supreme Court directed the handing over of the disputed property to the Trust or body. Further, a suitable plot of land admeasuring five acres was directed to be handed over to the Sunni Central Waqf Board. The Hindu reported that five acres was allotted to the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board for building a mosque in Dhannipur village in Sohawal tehsil of Ayodhya, around 25 km from the site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
Dr.Upendra Baxi, who usually minces no words in aggressively attacking a judgment of the Court, cautiously opined: “it is perhaps best advisable to see the outcome of the case purely and dispassionately from the prism of law and constitutionalism.”
Noted lawyer and former Law Minister, Salman Khurshid said, “If this is what was to happen, could we all not have done it ourselves? Has the Court gently nudged us to rethink our approach to our national life? As we look back, we will be able to see how much we have lost over Ayodhya through the years of conflict.”
Author and commentator, Dr.Pratap Bhanu Mehta, however, was not so enthused. He wrote “Ram’s political triumph should not leave him, like in Valmiki’s Ramayana, with an inner torment, at war with his better more compassionate self”.
Social aspects and Majoritarian assertions: A comparison with Hagia Sophia, Turkey
The immediate comparison with the Ayodhya verdict, which is coming to mind of anyone conscious of world affairs, is the recent events in Turkey.
Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Divine Wisdom was built in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Mehmed II rechristened it as a mosque, with some additional features of a mosque. In 1934, Turkish President Kemal Atatürk secularised the building, and in 1935 it was made into a museum. President Mustafa Kemal Atatuk wanted Turkey to have a break from its Ottoman past, based on the firm principles of Turkish nationalism and secularism.
Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to take Turkey back to the Ottoman days, though he publicly pays lip service to secularism.
Turkey’s highest court, the Council of State, revoked a 1934 cabinet decision that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum. Soon thereafter, on July 10, 2020, Turkish President Erdogan ordered the Hagia Sophia museum, to be converted into a mosque.
In his acclaimed book, “21 lessons for the 21st Century”, well known author Yuval Noah Harari, makes a wonderful comparison with the attitude of Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century BC to that of the Christian Emperors of the late Roman Empire.
In his own words:
“Emperor Ashoka who ruled an empire teeming with myriad religions, sects and gurus issued an imperial edict of tolerance which proclaimed, among other things: “…..Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’, only harms his own religion. Therefore contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”
Five hundred years later, the late Roman Empire was as diverse as Ashoka’s India, but when Christianity took over, the emperors adopted a very different approach to religion. Beginning with Constantine the Great and his son Constantius II, the emperors closed all non-Christian temples and forbade so called ‘pagan’ rituals on pain of death. …….Of course, not all monotheist rulers were as intolerant as Theodosius, whereas numerous rulers rejected monotheism without adopting the broad-minded policies of Ashoka”.
While narrating the problems of the 21st century, Harari points out: “religious movements mould the politics of countries as diverse as India, Turkey and the United States; and religious animosities fuel conflicts from Nigeria to the Philippines”.
Impact of the Supreme Court judgment on Ayodhya in Indian Politics.
It is common knowledge that the highest courts in any democracy are often called upon to decide issues of political ramifications and they cannot abdicate their duty to record the legal reasoning for or against a particular claim.
Our Supreme Court has recorded its reasoning and it is a plausible legal view.
Looking at the judgment purely and dispassionately from the prism of law and constitutionalism, as Dr.Upendra Baxi wanted, the judgment cannot be faulted. The Supreme Court has applied the niceties and precedents of civil law while resolving the legal dispute.
Now the ball is in the court of Executive and more importantly the people of this country.
Politics of Building Ram Temple and Majoritarianism
The ruling dispensation at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh are geared up for the ‘foundation stone-laying’ ceremony of the Ram Temple on August 5, 2020. Some may wonder as to the application of secularism in the Indian context when state functionaries are involved in the work of construction of a temple for the majority community.
The Congress has complained that its leaders were not invited by the Ram Mandir Trust for the temple’s bhoomi pujan (ground-breaking) programme.
Back in 1989, it was the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi, which allowed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to perform shilanyas at the disputed site. His stand was that there was no objection to a Ram temple but the mosque must be protected.
While political parties are entitled to take their own stand in a democracy, the association of parties or its leaders with the functions closely associated with one or the other religion is problematic. If we are a secular country, why should the political party or some of its leaders publicly associate with some religious function? The hallmark of a Constitutional democracy is its ability to safeguard the feelings of its minorities in every action by the state.
If every nation wants to only assert its majority sentiments and adopt a narrow domestic and staunch nationalist approach, we will not be living in a liberal secular world. Nations with thousands of years of civilisational history and intermixing of major religions must be more mindful of this.
Should I pay my homage at Ayodhya?: An atheistic view point
Richard Dawkins, world’s leading atheist, opines in his celebrated work, ‘God Delusion’, that we can retain sentimental loyalty to the cultural traditions without following the supernatural beliefs of traditions. He says, “We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.”
The question is, can the construction starting at Ayodhya with its overt political tones- be qualified as our treasured heritage? I doubt.
Persons belonging to the majority community are entitled for all the rights and expressions available to minorities. Let us have a look at the temple to be constructed at Ayodhya from a Hindu viewpoint.
अहमात्मा गुडाकेश सर्वभूताशयस्थित: |
अहमादिश्च मध्यं च भूतानामन्त एव च || 20||
aham ātmā guḍākeśha sarva-bhūtāśhaya-sthitaḥ
aham ādiśh cha madhyaṁ cha bhūtānām anta eva cha
I am seated in the heart of all living entities. I am the beginning, middle, and end of all beings, says Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagvad Gita. (Chapter 10, verse 20)
Similarly, in Chapter 2, verse 26 it is mentioned.
“To the knowledgeable who has known Atma, all the VEDAS are of so much use, as is a reservoir of water in a place where there is flood everywhere.”
These are clear indications that omniscient God is present everywhere in the Universe and one who sees Him only in a temple does not know His true nature. Therefore, a Hindu philosophical approach should not make any difference between a Mandir or Masjid at Ayodhya. The same God is everywhere and there is only one Omnipresent God.
Apart from the legal aspects of the case, a citizen is free to believe or not believe in a God, exercise his right to practice the religion of his choice. I, as a citizen, will not visit the place of worship at Ayodhya as it reminds me of the destruction of a previous place of worship. Destruction, not only of a place of worship, but also if it is a hut of a poor person, must give rise to the same sentiments.
Whether it was a temple or a mosque, who prayed for how long, whether it was abandoned as a place for worship for long, and so on are irrelevant. What is relevant is the conflict in the minds of people in India who follow two major religions.
I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of a symbol of majoritarianism, disguised as nationalism, be it in Turkey or in India.
Lay the foundation for unconditional Love, Oneness and Peaceful co-existence.
What we need is the laying in ceremony of strong foundations for God within the hearts of each of the believers living in this great nation, cradle of ancient civilisation. For a non-believer, it must be the strong foundation for unconditional love, peaceful co-existence and fraternity.
(Prashant Padmanabhan is an advocate in the Supreme Court. Views are personal.)