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Temple battle Round 1 goes to govt

New Delhi, Feb. 21: A day before the VHP’s dharma sansad meets on the Ayodhya issue, the Supreme Court today ruled that a five-member Constitution bench would hear the Centre’s petition on the “undisputed land” on March 6.

A division bench of Chief Justice V.N. Khare and Justice A. Lakshmanan said that if the larger bench could not hear the matter fully on that day “for any other reason”, it would decide on the “first prayer” of the Union government.

The plea is for vacation of the court’s March 2002 order banning “any kind of religious” activity on the “undisputed” 67.703 acres acquired by the Centre. This land is around the disputed 2.77 acres, where the Babri Masjid stood.

With the court setting an early date for the hearing and deciding to address the question of the undisputed land first, Round I of the renewed legal battle has gone to the Centre.

The apex court also took on records an interlocutory application by the Raja Rajeshwari Sitaram Trust, to be heard along with the rest on March 6. The trust claims to represent the original owners of various pieces of the acquired 67.703 acres. Several plots of varying sizes were pieced together and acquired as a single unit by the Centre under the Ayodhya (Land Acquisition) Act.

An hour of arguments and drama, straight out of a film courtroom scene, preceded the order. After a verbal duel between solicitor-general Kirit Rawal and senior counsel for the Babri Masjid Action Committee Kapil Sibal, lawyers of the two Hindu organisations — Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Raja Rajeshwari Sitaram Trust — almost came to blows.

From another front, Muslim Personal Law Board counsel Rajeev Dhavan attacked the BJP, alleging that the head of the ruling coalition at the Centre had passed on the “political pressure” mounted by organisations like the VHP to the judges. At this, Chief Justice Khare said: “We are never under pressure… rest assured.”

Sibal mocked Rawal, contending that it had taken the Centre “eight months” to move “this urgent application for early hearing” though the March 2002 order had said the matter would be heard within 10 weeks.

Rawal countered that he was “shocked” at such accusations when everyone agreed that an order should come from the court.

Sibal: “Oh, we know your urgency.... Your parivar organisations are convening a dharma sansad ....”

Rawal: “My Lords..., this is the kind of allegation made here as argument....”

Sibal : “Your lordships, then my learned friend does not know what is happening (at the ground level)....”

Rawal: “We want early hearing and your shoe pinches.”

Sibal: “Whose shoe pinches' It is yours....”

The chief justice brought order with a little difficulty. The moment order was restored, counsel for the Raja Rajeshwari Sitaram Trust rose to accuse the VHP of having no locus standi in the issue. “They don’t own even an inch of land at the site... they unnecessarily foment violence,” he said.

VHP counsel Mishra countered that there were statements made in the courtroom for which “it is not the time to answer”.

Even as the chief justice started dictating the order, O.P. Sharma, senior counsel for the petitioner Mohammad Aslam, alias Bhure, rose.

At this, the judge said: “Mr Sharma, you come here and dictate the order.”

Earlier, senior counsel and former West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray told the court that the Sunni Wakf Board had given an undertaking that it would abide by the court’s verdict. He wanted a similar undertaking by the VHP.

Ray said he was appearing for a section of the parties in the title suits in the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court and wanted to give the background to the apex court. He said it might take a few more months for the judge to arrive at a judgment.

“Let the Lucknow court give its verdict by this year-end or maybe early next year... till then what’s the urgency for the portion of the undisputed land'” Ray asked.

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