In its historic judgment on Saturday, the Supreme Court upheld the claim of Hindus to the disputed land on which the Babri Masjid stood, and said that a Ram temple should be permitted to be constructed there. The court has also asked the government of India to give five acres of land for construction of a mosque in Ayodhya. It is a unanimous decision of the court and brings finality and hopefully, closure, to the issue, though efforts may be made by affected parties to file a review petition in the matter. Several questions arise at this juncture.
The court seems to have relied on the report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to hold that there was a non-Islamic structure at the site before the construction of the mosque. It would be recalled that the President of India had, on January 7, 1993, sought an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Constitution (Special Reference No. 1 of 1993) on “whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid (RJB-BM) in the area on which the structure stood?” By its majority decision dated October 24, 1994, the court had respectfully declined to answer it and had returned the same.
During the hearing and in the public debate on the reference, a point was raised whether the court had expertise to decide such a highly technical issue. This argument was totally unfounded. The courts decide a number of highly technical, complicated issues on the basis of evidence produced and also get, where necessary, expert opinion by setting up committees for the purpose. In the present case, too, the court has finally relied on the assessment of the ASI.
It can be seen that the court has considered the very question referred to it for advisory opinion in 1993 in the appeal decided on Saturday and has upheld the claim of the Hindus. If the court had entertained the request of the President and had tendered an advisory opinion in 1993, the country would have been saved living through the horrendous anxieties in the following 25 years.
I have been arguing that the RJB-BM dispute was not just a civil title suit but much more. As I have stated in my book, The Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir Dilemma, An Acid Test For India’s Constitution, the Hindus could claim the right only to the outer periphery of the Babri Masjid, where pooja was offered on the Ram Chabutra and Sita-ki-rasoi for a number of years. But the Supreme Court has upheld the right of the Hindus to the entire land, including that under the mosque where prayers were held by Muslims for over 400 years. One has no choice but to accept this unanimous decision of the five-judge bench.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid being a criminal act did not require any reiteration. Unfortunately, though 27 years have elapsed, no one has been held responsible so far. It is only due to the intervention of the Supreme Court that the case is being heard on a day-to-day basis by a Lucknow court and its decision is expected in the next two-three months. But, thereafter the appeals process will begin and it may take years till the case is finally decided by the Supreme Court.
It is not enough merely to acknowledge that the placing of the Ram Lalla idol in the Babri mosque was wrong. The court processes following the incident in various courts in UP left a great deal to be desired. The Supreme Court has not commented on it while taking notice of this atrocity. Here again, no one has been held responsible so far. The wrongful possession of the mosque thereafter has also not been taken note of by the court for appropriate remedial action.
Finally, there are apprehensions whether, on the basis of the reasoning used by the Supreme Court in the present case, Mathura and Varanasi will not become new battle grounds. I hope this will not happen. There is already a law on the statute book to stop conversion of any place of worship. Because of longstanding court litigation, the RJB-BM dispute was kept out of the purview of this law. One can only hope that the provisions of law on the subject will be respected.
The real answer, however, lies in the separation of religion from politics by making a suitable amendment in the constitution. I have been advocating this for quite some time, but no political party in the country is prepared for it. The effort made by the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1993 towards this end had met with stiff opposition in Parliament and outside, not just from several political parties but also from jurists, intellectuals, academics and a cross-section of the media. I wonder how long will it take to appreciate the importance of taking this step and preparing the pressure of public opinion for the purpose. Till this is done, political parties will continue to misuse religion for their narrow political ends.
Finally, a question needs to be asked: whether India is better placed to address such situations, if they arise in future. My answer is a categorical NO. I have analysed this at great length in my book and have underlined that unless a series of remedial actions are taken, India would be as vulnerable as it was in 1992. In this light, it will be wrong to remain satisfied with a superficial impression that the Supreme Court decision has brought a closure to the issue. I would urge that it should lead to introspection of all that went wrong in dealing with the RJB-BM issue and what remains to be done, if future imbroglios, as in Ayodhya, are to be avoided.