Did Mixing Religion and Justice Help Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir Dispute?

There exists no historical or archaeological evidence that Ram existed or that he was born in Ayodhya. It's a matter of faith and nobody, including the VHP, disputes that. But who owns the 2.77 acre disputed property believed to be his birthplace – THAT is a question of law, and at the crux of India’s longest running legal dispute.

Whose Land is it Anyway?

The notion that Ram was born on this disputed property gained steam after 22-23 December 1949, when a group of 50-60 desecrated the Babri Masjid. Led by Hindu sadhus and aided by an amenable district administration, the mob broke open the locks, and installed idols of Ram and other Hindu gods and organised a kirtan.

This was publicised as a “miracle” that “infant Ram had appeared at his birth place”, and that it was a sign “to build a Ram Mandir.” Thousands thronged to Ayodhya to witness this divine intervention.

This lie has been systematically mythologised with the help of effective audio-video propaganda, paid for by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and other affiliates.

The case at hand was that of a temple being illegally set up inside what was once a place of worship for Muslims, and a national monument. But instead of treating it as a case of criminal trespassing and ordering the removal of the idols, the Faizabad District Court took religious sentiments into account and ordered status quo to be maintained.

This contrived miracle became the basis of a nearly 70-year-long title suit that is yet to reach its logical conclusion.

Faith Muddled with Jurisprudence

With Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, the Ram Mandir movement is gathering momentum once again. Adityanath visited Ayodhya and met seers on 27 March. There’s talk of a Ram Mandir museum, Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti has said she’s ready to go to jail or even hang herself for the cause of a Ram Temple, and Subramanian Swamy’s plea for an urgent hearing has elicited an offer to act as a mediator from the Chief Justice of India JS Khehar himself.

The Muslim petitioners, however, are not keen on an out-of-court settlement, for the simple reason that the power imbalance would be in favour of a Ram Mandir.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled on the five title suits filed between 1950 and 1989, and ordered a three-way division of the disputed land – one-third for the Sunni Waqf Board, one-third for the Nirmohi Akhara, and one-third to the party ‘Ram Lalla’.

Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is also Ram Lalla’s lawyer. (Photo: PTI)

How the ‘Divine’ Got Legal Sanction

Appearing on behalf of ‘Ram Lalla’, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad introduced a new position in court – that of “the presence of divine” at the site, a point that was accepted by the Allahabad High Court.

He argued –

The presence of an idol in the temple, which is the home of God as per Hindu belief sanctified by scriptures, though desirable, is not a precondition. The test is that people must believe there is a divine presence, whose blessings they seek for salvation… a deity is not an alienable property. It is not subject to commerce. There are hundreds of cases decided by the high courts and the Supreme Court confirming the above legal position.”  

The senior BJP minister, whose father was a founding member of the Jan Sangh, also argued that even the Holy Quran clearly says there can be no compulsion in religion.

The alleged Babri mosque, constructed in violation of Islamic injunction, is a nullity, and well-known jurists of Islamic law have gone to the extent of saying that it is void, ie, it never existed.

The 8,000-page judgment failed to make a single reference to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. Additionally, all three judges – Justice SU Khan, Justice Sudhir Agarwal, and Justice DV Sharma agreed that the idols were placed under the central dome on 23 December 1949. Interestingly, all the three judges also agreed that this area, that covered the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi, should be the allotted to the Hindus, thereby lending a legal sanction to the illegal takeover and the illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid.

It is debatable whether the Babri Masjid, seen here in the early 1900s, was a functioning mosque where namaz was regularly offered. What’s not is that it was a protected monument bearing testimony to the life and times of 16th century India. (Photo Courtesy: The British Library Board)

Commenting on the judgment in The Hindu, former Solicitor General TR Andhyarujina wrote – “It is an elementary rule of justice in courts that when a party to a litigation takes the law into its own hands and alters the existing state of affairs to its advantage, (as the demolition in 1992 did in favour of the Hindu plaintiffs), the court would first order the restitution of the pre-existing state of affairs. If that is not possible, as in this present case, the court would not allow an act of lawlessness to benefit the party that indulged in it. This elementary rule of justice, the Allahabad High Court judgment ignores.”

(Graphics: The Quint/Lijumol Joseph)

On 14 October 1994, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to acquire 67.7 acre surrounding the disputed 2.7 acre through the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993.

The court also empowered the government to delegate a trust to manage the property and to enable Hindus to worship in the makeshift temple on the basis of the “comparative user” principle, which essentially meant that the Hindus were praying more often at the disputed structure before its demolition.

Justice Verma observed –

A mosque is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam, and namaz by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in the open. Accordingly, its acquisition is not prohibited by the provisions in the Constitution of India.

The two Muslim judges on the five-judge benchmarked their dissent on this observation.

Rajeev Dhavan, who represented the Muslim side of the litigation, wrote – “The Court’s verdict that the right to pray at a mosque (as opposed to prayer in the open) was not to be regarded as a constitutionally protected practice of a particular significance, must gnaw at the roots of any version of plural secularism, surrendering the property and practice of a faith to extensive interference by the State, and annihilating the diversity of local practices which make the Indian subcontinent what it is.”

It must, however, be noted that the same Supreme Court ruling made it impossible for any movement on ground, when it struck down Section 4(3) of the contentious Act that abated any pending “suit, appeal, or other proceeding”. In doing so, the Supreme Court revived the title suits that were at the time, lying pending before the Allahabad High Court.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was orchestrated 43 years after Ram Lalla’s idols were placed inside the Babri Masjid. (Photo: Reuters)

Should Faith Have any Place in Law?

Should a law be promulgated or interpreted to protect a position held purely on religious grounds? Constitutionally, India identifies itself as secular. We have no state religion. But unlike the United States and France, where there is a clear separation of the church from the state, in India, there exists no wall of separation between religion and state – neither in law, nor in practice. Our definition of secularism does not totally eliminate religion from state affairs.

For example, India has retained religion based “personal laws” for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Muslims. These run parallel to our secular laws. The Constitution provides for laws that regulate arrangements for Indian Muslims to go on Haj, and also organise annual Hindu pilgrimage to Mansarovar in Tibet. The Commission for Religious Minorities was constituted to enforce their legal rights.

The Places of Worship (Special Provisions Act of 1991) was enacted to prohibit the forcible conversion of any place of worship, and the preservation of the religious character of all places of worship. The law makes one exception – the disputed site in Ayodhya.

In practice, higher courts have been instrumental in defining the role of religion in Indian society and the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Ayodhya dispute will be one such watershed moment.

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Also Watch: Ayodhya DeQoded, Part 1: Ram Lalla and a Contrived Miracle