The Supreme Court remains a beacon of hope for a just Ayodhya settlement
It takes a particular kind of diabolic genius for perpetrators of a crime to portray themselves as victims. Over the last one week, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its two principal satellites — the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party — have indulged in just such an exercise.
On October 29, a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, refused to heed the plea of the Uttar Pradesh government for a speedy hearing on the long festering Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute — or the Ayodhya “title” suit as it is legally known — immediately after Diwali.
Listing the matter for the first week of January 2019 when a fresh bench will be constituted to hear the matter, Gogoi tersely said, “We have our own priorities. Whether the matter will be heard in January, February or March, the appropriate bench will decide.”
The RSS-led sangh parivar did not hide its disappointment and anger. The Union minister, Giriraj Singh, expressing the tacit sentiments of his party colleagues, warned: “Hindus are running out of patience. I fear what will happen if Hindus lose patience.” The VHP working president, Arun Kumar, demanded that the government enact a law to construct a “grand” Ram temple in Ayodhya at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid was demolished. And the RSS threatened a “1992-like” agitation in the light of the delay in a judicial pronouncement.
The underlying thread linking the various threats was an admonition of the Supreme Court. Its refusal to “immediately” hear the case, they claim, went against the sentiment of “a hundred crore Hindus”, and left them “anguished” and “insulted”.
Such is the power of the Hindutva forces today that even those who do not subscribe to the ruling ideology tend to accept the rhetoric about the judiciary’s “inordinate delay” in deciding the case to allow the construction of a temple — the only solution that is now expected, and acceptable to them.
And such is the extent of Hindutva’s hegemony over our collective consciousness that few remember the unprecedented assault on the highest court of the land by the very forces who call into question that court’s “delay” today.
But with the RSS-VHP-BJP combine set to ratchet up the Ram temple issue once again as the 2019 elections draw near, it is important to revisit their perfidy in the early 1990s, as also the sagacity of the Supreme Court in those dark times.
Although almost every child in India has grown up listening to tales from the Ramayana and knows that Lord Rama was born in Ayodhya, it was not till the late 1980s that anyone knew that the “exact spot” of the lord’s birth lay beneath the central dome of a fifteenth-century mosque. But after the BJP formally backed the VHP’s campaign for the “liberation” of Ramjanmabhoomi in 1989, and especially after L K Advani’s nationwide rath yatra in 1990 in support of the cause, it turned into a mass movement through a cynical manipulation of religious sentiment combined with political mobilization.
The victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 emboldened the Hindutva forces, who periodically gathered at the disputed site in Ayodhya in a show of strength. What is forgotten, though, is that the UP chief minister, Kalyan Singh, gave repeated assurances to the National Integration Council in late 1992 that the Babri Masjid would not be harmed pending a negotiated settlement or a court verdict on the dispute.
The UP government followed that up with a solemn assurance to the Supreme Court — in the form of a four-point affidavit — that only “symbolic” kar seva would be allowed at the disputed site on December 6, that no court orders would be violated, no construction activity would take place, and the mosque would be untouched.
On December 6, the darkest day in India’s history since Independence, these promises were flagrantly betrayed as thousands of kar sevaks — with the top brass of the BJP in attendance — demolished the Babri Masjid. The destruction in Ayodhya led to riots in many parts of the country, leading to death and destruction on a scale not seen since Partition. The wounds inflicted on India’s secular and pluralist fabric on that day are yet to heal; of late they are turning septic.
And yet, despite the horror and revulsion felt by vast numbers of Indians at that act of wanton vandalism, the perpetrators of the crime got away lightly. The Congress government at the Centre led by P V Narasimha Rao, after initially promising to rebuild the mosque, capitulated to the Hindutva forces by following their logic of righting “historical wrongs”.
On January 7, 1993, the then president promulgated the ‘acquisition of certain area at Ayodhya ordinance’ acquiring the site of the demolished mosque (later enacted as an Act of Parliament) and asked the Supreme Court under Article 143(1) of the Constitution whether “a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious construction” had stood where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 CE.
It is to the great credit of the Supreme Court that it refused to entertain the question at all. In its verdict delivered on October 24, 1994, a five-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, M N Venkatachaliah, struck down Section 4(3) of the Act that provided for the abatement of all pending suits and legal proceedings in the case after the Centre’s acquisition of the disputed land. The legal battle between rival claims over the disputed site was, thus, revived.
The apex court also dismissed the presidential reference under Article 143(1) as “superfluous and unnecessary”, adding, “For this reason, we very respectfully decline to answer it and return the same.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain the question, the Allahabad High Court, in its controversial 2-1 verdict delivered on September 30, 2010, held the view that the Babri Masjid was built at the site of a pre-existing temple (ignoring the sharp disagreement on the issue among archaeologists).
It went on to divide the disputed area three ways between the Nirmohi Akhara, the Ram Lalla deity and the Sunni Waqf Board. The voluminous judgment made no mention of the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
The sangh parivar hailed the verdict as a vindication of its campaign to build a temple and as exoneration of its crime of demolishing a mosque. With two thirds of the area being awarded to its supporters, it would not be difficult to “persuade” the Muslim community to give up claims on the remaining one third in the name of “national reconciliation”. After coming to power in 2014, the BJP government became even more confident that the apex court would uphold the Allahabad verdict — which had relied on matters of “faith” and myth rather than legal claims over ownership.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to be hurried into hearing the case to suit the ruling party’s electoral timetable is not the only reason for the sangh parivar’s vocal resentment. The apex court’s 1994 verdict is peppered with observations that resolutely refute Hindutva majoritarianism.
Describing the December 6 demolition as a “national shame”, the verdict said, “What was demolished was not merely an ancient structure; but the faith of the minorities in the sense of justice and fair play of [the] majority. It shook their faith in the rule of law and constitutional processes. A five hundred year old structure which was defenceless and whose safety was a sacred trust in the hands of the state government was demolished.”
The minority judgment by Justices Bharucha and A.M. Ahmadi, which held the entire Act and not just Section 4(3) to be void, expounded at length on the secular essence of the Indian state. It noted, “Secularism is thus more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions. This attitude is described by some as one of neutrality towards religion or as one of benevolent neutrality... What is material is that it is a constitutional goal and a basic feature of the Constitution... Any step inconsistent with this constitutional policy is in plain words, unconstitutional.”
More tellingly, it said, “Ayodhya is a storm that will pass. The dignity and honour of the Supreme Court cannot be compromised because of it.”
The majority judgment, too, advocating a negotiated settlement, said: “Unless a solution is found which leaves everyone happy, that cannot be the beginning for continued harmony between ‘we the people of India.’”
The Narendra Modi government, goaded by the RSS, may be tempted to take the ordinance or legislation route to whip up the temple issue. But without the imprimatur of the Supreme Court, the temple — no matter how grand — will be a testament to aggression and hate, not piety and faith even for ardent devotees of Lord Rama...