With Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s tenure at the Supreme Court ending on 17 November, the judgment of the court on the Ayodhya title dispute is expected any day now, before Gogoi departs.
Arguments in the case – an appeal against the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 judgment splitting the disputed land three ways – were heard by a five-judge bench headed by the CJI for 40 days.
But what was this case actually about? What did the main parties in the case – the Nirmohi Akhara, the Sunni Waqf Board and ‘Ram Lalla Virajman’ – argue to stake claim to the land where the Babri Masjid once stood ? And what are the possible outcomes of this case?
1885-1949: The Makings of the 'Title' Dispute
The case heard by the Supreme Court was pared down to one simple question:
Who has title over (ie, who is the rightful owner of) the 2.77 acres of land on which the Babri Masjid once stood?
It is important to note that this case predates the destruction of the Babri Masjid by kar sevaks in December 1992 and is not related to that per se. Criminal proceedings relating to that incident continue, and have unfortunately not been heard with the urgency demonstrated by the apex court in this case.
The first legal dispute over the area came in 1885. After having been refused permission to build a temple at the ‘Ram Chabutra’ area adjoining the mosque, Mahant Raghubar Das filed a title suit in the district court in Faizabad, seeking a right to ownership over the land.
The ‘chabutra’, a raised platform for worship, had been built there after violence between Hindus and Muslims between 1853 and 1855, which originated over Muslim claims that the Hanumangarhi Hindu temple nearby had been built over a mosque. From initial records, it appears that the site of the chabutra was claimed to be Ram’s birthplace, not the area under the dome of the Babri Masjid itself.
The court rejected Raghubar Das’ suit in 1886, denying the Hindus any ownership over the area, and refusing permission for them to build a temple there. The verdict was upheld on appeal.
However, there were soon fresh clashes between Hindus and Muslims at the site, and the Muslims never fully recovered it after them, causing disruptions in their ability to pray at the mosque. Among the Hindu groups involved was the Nirmohi Akhara, a sect that claimed to have been worshipping Lord Ram at his ‘birthplace’ since the 1400s.
In 1934, fresh communal riots took place in Ayodhya over the killing of a cow, leading to a mob of Hindus breaking into the area and damaging the Babri Masjid. While they eventually helped pay for repairs to the site, the Nirmohi Akhara bases one of its key legal claims – of possession over the site, from this year.
On the night of 22-23 December 1949, the next major development in the case took place, when idols of Ram, Sita and Laxman were placed inside the mosque. Local authorities disobeyed orders by the government to remove the idols on the pretext that this would cause communal riots.
On 29 December 1949, the Faizabad district court declared the area a disputed site under Section 145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and placed it under the ‘receivership’ of the local administration till its ownership was determined. The court also ordered maintenance of the status quo till such time.
The gates to the mosque itself were locked and Muslims were not allowed to enter, but ‘darshan’ of the idols was still permitted through the locked gate.
1950-1989 : The Title Suits and the Claims by the Principal Parties
The next case filed regarding the area was in January 1950 by Gopal Singh Visharad, leader of the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha. Visharad didn’t ask for title over the land per se, but instead demanded a right to worship, and an injunction to ensure that the idols could not be removed. Another suit was filed shortly after by Ramchandra Das Paramhansa on the same grounds.
1959: THE NIRMOHI AKHARA FILES ITS CLAIM
In 1959, the first proper title suit was filed by the Nirmohi Akhara, who claimed ownership over the land and challenged the decision of the district court in 1949 to place the land under receivership.
They claimed that their mahant (chief priest) and sarbrahakar (administrator) have been managing the site and been responsible for prayers to Lord Ram there since their founding in the middle ages – what is known as ‘shebaitship’. As a result, they included an argument that they were being denied from properly carrying out their duties and rites of worship after the appointment of the receiver.
The Akhara’s ownership claim rests on two grounds:
- The Babri Masjid was built after destroying a Hindu temple that was meant to commemorate the birthplace of Lord Ram. This means the site was Hindu and the mosque was not in fact a mosque at all, as it was against the tenets of Islam.
- Muslims have not been worshipping at the mosque since 1934, while the Akhara has been doing so since then, and has been in possession of the site since that time.
1961: THE SUNNI WAQF BOARD STAKES ITS CLAIM
In 1961, the Sunni Central Board of Waqfs, UP, filed its own title suit, along with several Muslim residents of Ayodhya. The Sunni Waqf Board challenged the receivership granted to the administration, and also challenged the suits filed by Visharad and the NIrmohi Akhara.
They asked for a declaration that the Babri Masjid was a mosque that was part of waqf property, and that the area around it was a Muslim graveyard.
Legally, their arguments rested on two basic grounds:
- The land belonged to them as it had been granted as waqf property in Mughal times, and Muslims had been worshipping at the site till 1949, when the idols were placed inside the mosque.
- In 1886, the Faizabad court had rejected the Hindu claims for title over the area, and upheld the claims of the Mutawalli of the Babri Masjid. Following the principle of res judicata, this now determined the legal status of ownership going forward, and would bind any court looking into the matter.
1989: LORD RAM ENTERS THE FRAY
Nothing happened in the cases till 1986, when an application was made by a Hindu advocate Umesh Chandra Pandey for the locks to be opened and Hindus be allowed inside the disputed structure to worship the idols. This request was granted by a district judge and the gates were opened on 1 February 1986.
The Muslim parties approached the Allahabad High Court for a stay on this order. The court passed an order for maintenance of status quo pending a decision on the cases, but no progress took place to decide ownership of the cases.
On 1 July 1989, a new title suit was filed by Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman (the god’s idol, also known as Ram Lalla Virajman) and Sri Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace). These deities were represented by their ‘next friend’, retired judge Deoki Nandan Agarwala, who was associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Indian law has long recognised that deities can be considered legal persons, and so this suit was included without batting any eyelids.
The deities’ arguments for ownership of the site were:
- This was where Lord Ram was born as an avatar of Lord Vishnu, and the Janmabhoomi had been a site of worship since ‘time immemorial’. On this basis, nobody could own the site but the deity himself (represented through the idol) and the manifestation of the birthplace – the granting of the waqf for the mosque was therefore illegitimate.
- The Babri Masjid was not a valid mosque, as it included features not allowed under Islamic law including certain engravings.
1989-2010: The Allahabad High Court Muddies the Waters
On 14 August 1989, the Allahabad High Court clubbed all the different cases together, including the one filed by the deities, and decided it would hear them. However, the cases again went into cold storage, even as the Ram Janmabhoomi issue took centrestage politically.
CONSEQUENCES OF BABRI MASJID DESTRUCTION
The destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 violated several court orders on maintenance of status quo. The developments around this also led to certain changes in the petitions filed by the parties, and to additional cases in the courts.
The Sunni Waqf Board now had to ask for the site to be declared a ‘public mosque’ as the structure had been demolished.
The suit by the deities now involved prayers to allow the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a VHP-affiliated trust, to build a temple on the site. The Nyas bought much of the land surrounding the disputed site, which led to the Centre having to acquire 67 acres of land around original 2.77 acres.
This acquisition by the Centre was challenged in the Supreme Court in the Ismail Faruqui case in 1994. The apex court upheld the government’s actions but made several offhand observations that would prove controversial. The Aslam Bhure judgment of 2003 reiterated maintenance of status quo till the ownership claims were decided and said no construction could take place on the acquired land till then.
2010: THE HIGH COURT’S VERDICT
Hearings in the high court took place intermittently between 1993 and 2002, based on the arguments outlined above. In 2002, the court asked the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct excavations at the site. The ASI submitted its report in 2003, which included some findings about an ancient structure in the ruins.
On 30 September 2010, the Allahabad High Court delivered a judgment that disappointed all the parties.
The most crucial and controversial aspect of the judgment was that it gave credence to the arguments of faith to hold that Ram Lalla and the Ram Janmabhoomi had rights to the land because of the belief of people that this was in fact the birthplace of Lord Ram.
The ASI report also played a role in supporting this reasoning, though it was primarily based on faith.
- As a result, the area that had been claimed during the arguments to be the exact spot where the god was born, the area under the central dome of the mosque, was allotted to the deities, who were now represented by Triloki Nath Pandey, an RSS functionary who also had ties to the VHP as the late Deoki Nandan Agarwala.
- The Ram Chabutra and another area of interest to HIndu worshippers within the complex – the Sita Rasoi – were given to the Nirmohi Akhara as their possession over this area had been established.
- The Sunni Waqf Board was to be allotted one-third of the disputed land, with land acquired by the government to be used to ensure they got their allotted share.
Unsurprisingly, all the parties filed appeals in the Supreme Court, which stayed the Allahabad High Court’s decision, noting that the judgment was ‘strange’, as none of the parties had asked for a partition of the land.
2019: The Final Stretch in the Supreme Court
Former CJI Dipak Misra first tried to get the hearings in the appeals underway after he took office in 2017, but failures to get proper translations of several key documents delayed the proceedings several times. When the hearings did begin before a three-judge bench, the Muslim parties asked for it to be referred to a Constitution Bench of five judges or more, to avoid being bound by the controversial statements in the Ismail Faruqui case.
The apex court had to then hear detailed arguments on this issue, eventually ruling that a larger bench was not necessary. By this time, however, CJI MIsra had to retire, and his successor Ranjan Gogoi did not initially take the matter up on an urgent basis when he took office in October 2018.
In January 2019, he surprised everyone by constituting a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear the matter.
Two of the judges initially on the bench recused themselves, leaving the final composition as follows: CJI Gogoi along with Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and Abdul Nazeer.
The matter was delayed yet again when the judges decided to refer the case for mediation in March 2019. An initial 8-week period was extended till August, but in the meanwhile some of the Hindu parties approached the judges saying the mediation attempts had failed.
As a result, the judges started hearing the final arguments on 6 August. It heard the case for 40 days in total, ending on 16 October, when the judges reserved their verdict.
The arguments in the court have essentially been along the same lines as the suits themselves.
THE WAQF BOARD
The Sunni Waqf Board and the other Muslim parties, represented by senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, have focussed on the fact that the land belonged to them under law, as per Mughal era-grants, recognised by the British-era administration, and a judgment of the courts.
It strongly contested the ASI report about the site, arguing it was inconclusive and in any case irrelevant as the existence of a temple in antiquity would not affect legal claims now. Dhavan also argued that the fact that Muslims had been forcibly prevented from worshipping at the mosque from 1934 onwards should not be used against them.
The Waqf Board and the Muslim parties have also sought to counter the faith-based arguments with Dhavan often using scripture to challenge the arguments by the Hindu parties. He also referred to the Historians’ Report to the Nation of 1991, which argues that a pre-existing Ram Mandir is a myth.
THE NIRMOHI AKHARA
The Akhara’s legal case rested strongly on the concept of adverse possession, ie, its possession over the area and conduct of worship since at least 1934. Represented by senior advocate Sushil Kumar Jain, it sought to emphasise its long-running shebaitship, which it argued was not affected by no longer having possession when the receiver was appointed in 1949.
Interestingly, the Akhara found itself at odds with Ram Lalla Virajman, as their claims of ownership technically clash, as do their differing versions of how Lord Ram has been worshipped in Ayodhya.
RAM LALLA AND RAM JANMABHOOMI
The deities were represented by a slew of veteran lawyers including senior advocates K Parasaran, CS Vaidyanathan and Shyam Divan. They relied heavily on historical and archaeological records to argue that there had in fact been a temple on the site since antiquity, to justify their claims to the land. The ASI report as well as several independent investigations, books and maps were referred to for support.
The deities also argued that the British had themselves acknowledged in multiple records that Hindus offered prayers at the site, and noted how a wall had been built to separate the two communities.
Another key legal argument raised by them to counter the claims of the Sunni Waqf Board was that of limitation: that the Muslim parties had taken too long to file their case after having lost possession of the site (first to the Hindus and then to the receiver), and so their claims were time-bound.
What Can We Expect From the Judgment?
It is difficult to speculate much on how the case will be decided. In most other property disputes, cold hard law is all that matters, which would, one imagines, make this a straight fight between the Nirmohi Akhara’s claim of adverse possession and the Sunni Waqf Board’s claim of longstanding legal title, recognised by the courts in 1886.
However, the involvement of the deities changes things here, as it brings in arguments about history for which records are not exactly reliable, and, crucially, about the faith and beliefs of the Hindu community regarding the Ram Janmabhoomi.
Despite Dhavan’s protestations, the court allowed the deities to make these arguments, and the expertise of their lawyers has allowed them to present these as legally credible.
One thing which does seem unlikely, however, is a partition of the area in a similar manner to what the Allahabad High Court did. As Justices Aftab Alam and RM Lodha of the apex court had observed when admitting the appeals, none of the parties are asking for a partition of the land, and so the court cannot order such a partition.
It is therefore likely to be more of a all-or-nothing decision, as all parties are claiming the whole land for themselves. For the Sunni Waqf Board, the question of limitation of claims could prove crucial, as this could scupper even a valid claim to title and ownership. Similarly, their claim of res judicata could also put to rest any claims by the Hindu parties, even if the judges see merit in them.
Separating the claims of the Hindu parties could prove trickier as there are what appear to be some direct conflicts. In the event the Waqf Board’s claims are not upheld, it is still unclear who would then get the land, as the deities arguments would preclude any rights of ownership for the Akhara even if the Akhara’s claims of shebaitship were upheld.
All we can do, therefore, is wait to see what the judges decide, and whether there will be a unanimous verdict or there will be dissents. Another thing to watch out for is if judges agree on the same outcome but for different reasons.
For instance, when the Supreme Court struck down triple talaq by a 3:2 majority in 2017, two of the three judges in the majority held it was unconstitutional and so illegal while the third held it was against Islamic law and hence, illegal. Beyond this, one can only hope things don’t get ugly, whichever way the verdict turns.
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