Court rises above Ram
Singhal signals forward march
Centre loses right to handover
Sorabjee reads master�s mind
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New Delhi, March 13: 

Verdict gives Atal a shield

Judicial intervention saved the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from performing on its own the unpleasant task of having to stop a determined Vishwa Hindu Parishad from offering a symbolic puja in Ayodhya.

The Supreme Court today prohibited �religious activity of any kind by anyone� anywhere on or near the Ayodhya land, including the undisputed portion, the Centre had acquired through the Ayodhya Act, 1993.

In a balancing act in two stages � in and outside the court � the Prime Minister also managed to keep Sangh parivar hardliners happy while at the same time not making members of his ruling alliance so unhappy as to threaten a pullout.

Sources close to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed the ruling as a godsend because with one stroke it has allowed the BJP�s allies to continue backing the government and taken care of the VHP for the moment.

If the VHP still insists on performing bhoomi puja for the Ram temple in any undisputed portion of the land, the government can crack down on the strength of the court directive without having to take an independent administrative decision, which would have been far more unpopular not only among VHP activists but also sections of the BJP.

A bench of Justices B.N. Kirpal, G.B. Pattanaik and V.N. Khare said in an interim order: �We direct that on the 67.703 acres of land located in revenue plot Nos. 159 and 160 in village Kot Ramchandra, which is vested in the Central government, no religious activity of any kind by anyone either symbolic or actual, including bhoomi puja or shila puja, shall be permitted or allowed to take place.�

The court also barred the Centre from handing over any part of the land until it had dealt with the petition. The orders came on a petition by Mohammad Aslam alias Bhure who sought a directive to deploy the army to prevent the symbolic puja the VHP plans to perform on March 15. After passing the interim orders, the case was posted to a larger bench (a five-member, full Constitution bench).

Through attorney-general Soli J. Sorabjee, the Centre told the court that it had the right to put the acquired land to �any temporary use� and contended that the sants could be allowed to perform puja under certain conditions. Sorabjee listed these conditions, but the court rejected them.

When Sorabjee argued that �with definite conditions and regulated restrictions�, the Centre could allow the use of the land �for a temporary period�, the judges said that the 1994 judgment ordering �status quo� did not intend this to happen.

By claiming that the land originally belonged to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, the counsel for the VHP, Rama Jois, provoked the judges to question the locus standi of the VHP itself. �Who is VHP...? What is your (VHP�s) legal status...? Who are you? We don�t recognise you!� the judges said.

For the record, the government tried its best through the attorney-general to build a case for allowing a symbolic puja.

�No one can now accuse the government of not wanting to go ahead with the bhoomi puja. Even hardliners in the Sangh parivar, who have been extremely critical of the Prime Minister, will have to acknowledge that the government tried its best. There is nothing the executive can do when the Supreme Court gives its ruling,� a senior government official said.

The effort did not go unrecognised. VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmiya said: �The court did not allow, so what can the government do?� he asked.

Some others were even reading in the government�s gesture the return of the prodigal Vajpayee to the Hindutva fold. �The Ram mandir agitation was just the right moment for Atalji to reaffirm his commitment to the Sangh�s ideology. There was increasing pressure on him to prove he was ready to put the party above power. And he seems to have done just that in today�s hearing,� said a hardliner from Madhya Pradesh.

Sorabjee�s submission that a token puja could be allowed made Vajpayee�s �secular� allies angry. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee did not even attend an NDA meeting in the evening. But the damage control began in earnest, with Vajpayee agreeing at the NDA meeting to make a statement in Parliament tomorrow on the government�s position. BJP sources, however, said the government took the chance with the Sorabjee submission because it did not believe the allies would push the coalition over the brink.

Vajpayee claimed the allies left the meeting �satisfied�. �They thought we had submitted a written document, but there was no need for this. But when the attorney-general was asked by the court to clarify the government�s viewpoint, obviously he could not keep quiet.�

The Prime Minister stuck to the view submitted by Sorabjee, though. �Performing a puja would not have altered status quo ante,� he said.


Ayodhya, March 13: 
Leading a motley crew of supporters to the temple workshop at Karsevakpuram, a triumphant-looking Ashok Singhal today announced that the Supreme Court verdict had gone in VHP�s favour and that the March 15 programme would go on as scheduled.

However, the decision on what the future course of action will be has been left to sants belonging to the temple construction committee, which will meet tomorrow.

�Court ka faisla mere khilaf nahi gaya hain (verdict has not gone against me),� the VHP leader said, adding that the court has not stopped them from �going where we wanted to go�. Neither has the court given any direction to the Centre to stop kar sevaks from performing puja at the undisputed site, Singhal said.

Turning the Supreme Court judgment, which categorically said that no religious activity could be performed on the 67.703 acres of acquired land, around to interpret it as a green signal to the VHP, Mahant Ramchandra Das Paramhans added: �Hum wahan chalenge, chalenge, chalenge (We will go there).�

Singhal and Paramhans warned that dark clouds could be hovering over the March 15 sky if the Centre tried to prevent them.

The Supreme Court has not stopped �us�, but the �Hitlershahi� government could, Paramhans, who is also chairman of the Mandir Nirman Samiti and president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, added.

Having interpreted the verdict as �VHP friendly�, Singhal said that if the government insisted on stopping them on their way to the undisputed site, the mahants and kar sevaks would have no option but to court arrest. �As the court has now cleared the way for us, we will tomorrow talk to the government and the (Faizabad) commissioner to discuss the modalities,� Singhal said.

If the government insisted on disallowing the VHP from proceeding to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid area, �a decision would be taken accordingly�, Singhal said.

The VHP has announced that it will proceed to the �undisputed site� with 2,000 kar sevaks, 500 sadhus and 50 vedic scholars to perform a �full-fledged puja� for three hours from 2.15 pm.

Paramhans, who struck out at the Prime Minister, warned that if the government tried to obstruct his �peaceful programme� to donate pillars to Lord Ram, he would answer it in �the same manner that families of those killed in Godhra reacted in Gujarat�.


New Delhi, March 13: 
The clock struck 1994, Soli Sorabjee notwithstanding.

The three-judge bench today added an extra paragraph to its order, curbing the Centre�s right to determine the use of the 67.703 acres it had acquired under the Ayodhya Act of 1993. In 1994, a Constitution bench had upheld the validity of the Act.

The court today said: �� no part of the aforesaid land shall be handed over by the government to anyone and the same shall be retained by the government till the disposal of this writ petition nor shall any part of this land be permitted to be occupied or used for any religious purpose or in connection therewith.�

Today�s ruling virtually reopens the 1994 judgment. A larger bench will now hear the interpretations to the 1994 judgment. Then a five-member full Constitution bench will be set up in 10 weeks. Almost every paragraph of the judgment with the nuances of expressions will be debated.

The court � which today issued notices to all parties, including the Centre and the VHP � ordered for counter-affidavits to be filed within four weeks and rejoinders within another four weeks.

According to Section 6 of the Ayodhya Act, ��the government may impose or direct by notification in the official gazette that the right, title and interest or any of them in relation to the area or any part thereof instead of continuing to vest in the Central government, vest in that authority or body or trustee of that trust�.�

Stripped off legalese, this means the Centre could hand over the acquired land to the rightful owners or any trust, body or association.

Today, attorney-general Sorabjee argued against this provision being annulled. �M�lords,� he told the court, �do not rake up the past but redeem the future.� His contention was that �this is not the issue in today�s debate�.

In 1994, the Ayodhya Act was challenged as unconstitutional and ultra vires. However, its validity was upheld with a clear direction that the acquired land could be handed over to the rightful owners, after the title suit � original petition for the land � between Hindu and Muslim groups was settled.

According to the Act � as Sorabjee explained in court � if the Muslims won the title suit, the government would give a few acres of extra land adjacent to the disputed land of 2.77 acres. This would also be the case if the Hindu groups won the case. This was to facilitate construction of the mosque or temple, after the title suit was determined. However, 47-odd acres � part of the acquired land � was to be given back to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas.


New Delhi, March 13: 
Attorney-general Soli Sorabjee, whose puja submission generated as much heat as the Supreme Court verdict, denied he had sought the judges� permission to allow the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas to perform a bhoomi puja on the acquired land on March 15.

He also stressed the Centre had not �directed� him to make a submission to this effect. �We did not ask permission for bhoomi puja, in fact we did not ask for permission at all. There was no written submission or affidavit,� he told reporters this evening.

He said the judges asked him what his stand was. �It was a question of law but when court asks the attorney-general or the senior counsel for his interpretation, I said my reading of the judgment (of the Supreme Court�s verdict of 1994) was permission to use land temporarily for use of puja did not violate the judgment.�

While emphasising that he made it clear that the permission would be given only under �well-defined conditions and restrictions�, Sorabjee said he discussed the matter with Rama Jois, the VHP�s lawyer who was also present at today�s hearing. �I ascertained from Rama Jois �what�s your stand, what are your views� because there were conflicting reports about the VHP.�

The operative part in Sorbajee�s submission was that �even if puja was not prohibited by virtue of any previous judgment of the Supreme Court, the same could not be permitted except under well-defined conditions and restrictions�.

Sorabjee said the only discussions he had with the government before the hearing were on �factual matters related to law and order�. �As for the interpretation of law, they (the Central ministers) said �we leave it to you�.�

He also claimed that the five conditions � under which puja could be allowed � he listed in court were made �off the cuff, on the spur of the moment�.

But the Opposition, which alleged that seeking consent for a puja had �exposed� the Centre�s �hidden agenda� of allowing the VHP to surreptitiously start construction, found the conditions too precise and comprehensive to be off the cuff.

The �off-the-cuff� conditions suggested by Sorabjee are:

The government has rights under Section 6 of the Ayodhya Act to allow a group to perform puja for a limited period of time

Ram sevaks or kar sevaks will not be allowed to enter the place of puja

The total number of sants attending and performing the puja will be between 50 and 70

Other visitors will be allowed in a batch of 25 and one batch will be allowed to visit the puja site only after the previous batch had returned from the site

Over 45 companies of paramilitary forces, apart from Uttar Pradesh police, totalling about 5,000 security personnel, will safeguard the place

Asked if his submission was his own and did not reflect the government�s position, Sorabjee said: �As the attorney-general, government can�t disown me but I was not told �don�t make these submissions�, which was that status quo ante was not applicable to the undisputed site and holding of puja won�t be hit by the court order.�

The Opposition uproar over Sorabjee�s submission forced the �secular� allies of the NDA to defend their flanks and seek an explanation from the government. The Prime Minister assured them that the submission was not given in writing, nor had it been made by the attorney-general on his own

While the Prime Minister indicated that he shared Sorabjee�s stand, home minister L.K. Advani was more forthright. He said: �It was not his personal view but the government�s.�




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