India will this week wrap up a hearing on an archaeological dispute that has divided the nation for decades, pitting powerful organised religious groups against a deity itself.
The Supreme Court is hearing the case of what to do with the site where, in 1992, a mob of Hindu nationalists tore down the Babri Masjid mosque in the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The incident sparked riots across the country.
The matter evokes such intense opinions on both sides because some Hindus believe that the site is the birthplace of the deity Lord Ram. They say this claim is bolstered by a 2003 archaeological survey that concluded a temple may once have stood on the ground where the 16th century mosque was built.
And the issue is finally coming to a head after the landslide re-election of Narendra Modi for a second term as prime minister in May. Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP campaigned on a pledge to build a new temple to Lord Ram on the demolished Babri Masjid site.
The case is effectively a land rights dispute between three parties – the state Sunni Waqf Board representing the mosque, a group of Ram-worshipping ascetics who maintain a makeshift Hindu shrine at the site, and a team of top lawyers representing the Ram Lalla deity himself. Under Indian law, a Hindu deity has the right to sue and be sued.
The Supreme Court judges have set Thursday as the deadline for the hearing to wrap up, after which a judgement is expected no later than 17 November – the day the current Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who is presiding over the matter, retires from his post.
And in the many days of submissions in the court in recent weeks, the matter of the archaeological evidence for an ancient temple has unexpectedly become centre-stage – a surprise, one archaeologist told The Independent, because the evidence is so flimsy.
The 2002-03 dig was carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India. Its final 574-page report found that the only structures predating the Babri Masjid Mosque on the site were a single large wall along the western edge and a network of some 50 much smaller “pillar bases” across the centre.
In its conclusion, the ASI stated that this was evidence of a “massive structure”, and therefore that a temple to Lord Ram could have existed there in the past.
Yet even at the time, independent observers to the dig questioned the ASI’s findings. Six or seven leading academics from Indian universities were met with hostility and given only limited access by the government agency’s own archaeologists.
But they produced compelling testimony to say that the actual evidence in the ASI report points not to an ancient temple – which would at the least have required a central plinth – but instead to the possibility of even older mosques on the site.
Two of the observers published an academic paper in 2010 stating that “it was obvious that the ASI was operating with a preconceived notion of discovering the remains of a temple beneath the demolished mosque, even selectively altering the evidence to suit its hypothesis”.
That same year, the Allahabad High Court that was hearing the matter at the time recommended the site be divided in three between the litigants – it is the appeals to this verdict that the Supreme Court is hearing now.
Speaking to The Independent, one of the independent observers from 2003 said that regardless of the court’s verdict, the confusion over the scientific evidence in the case has cast a shadow over the reputation of archaeology in India.
Dr Supriya Varma, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said the Ayodhya case was arguably the most significant archaeological dispute in the world today, but that India was “not like in Europe or the US, where people have a much better knowledge of what archaeology can tell us and what it can’t”.
“One argument being made [in court] is that it is a social science and there is room for interpretation, whereas the other view is claiming that archaeology is a hard science and it is completely accurate,” she said. “So there is clearly a problem.”
The consistent misinterpretation of scientific evidence has meant that judges and politicians over the decades have essentially been able to take it or leave it, and ultimately the matter has been decided along the political lines of the time. “It is very frustrating and on one level it also discredits the discipline,” said Dr Varma.
Some Muslim groups have given up arguing the case on the evidence and, in the face of rising Hindu nationalism at both the national and state level in Uttar Pradesh, begun calling for a pragmatic approach to stave off the risk of fresh riots over the issue.
A group of prominent Muslim intellectuals and former public officials, calling themselves “Indian Muslims for Peace”, last week proposed an out-of-court settlement gifting the site to the Hindu litigants to build their temple, in exchange for a “cast-iron guarantee” that all other mosques in the country will be protected from the fate that befell the Babri Masjid in 1992.
“We have to face reality,” said General Zameer Uddin Shah, the former deputy chief of army staff . “Even if the court rules in favour of the Muslims, will it be possible to build a mosque [at Ayodhya]? Seeing the surcharged atmosphere in the country, that is a dream that cannot be fulfilled.”
The group is not, however, directly involved in the court case, and its proposal has been dismissed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the largest official body representing Muslims in the country.
The board’s spokesperson called the idea “surrender”, saying the body was “confident about the arguments and look[ing] forward to the much-awaited verdict from the court”. After decades of debate, the question remains as to whether everyone in India will abide by the apex court’s final decision.