Home > Magazine > Cover Story > Forum: SUPREME COURT’S AYODHYA VERDICT



Part 1 By K. M. VENKAT NARAYAN and Part 2 By ZAFAR ANJUM Email Part 1 By K. M. VENKAT NARAYAN and Part 2 By ZAFAR ANJUM
December 2019

A MOMENTOUS DECISION ON BABRI MASJID. Did India’s Supreme Court cave in to right-wing sentiments, or did it make the right decision, with its recent verdict on the long-drawn-out, emotionally charged case involving the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya? Two opinion pieces, taking different views, revisit the dispute and tell us what the ruling bodes for the nation.

Part 1,
A Proficient Verdict amidst Inflamed Sentiments

In a landmark unanimous judgement issued on 9 November 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India brought to final closure the long, protracted, complicated, and painful Ayodhya dispute. The court gave the disputed 2.77 acres to the Hindus and ordered that the Ram temple be built under a Trust, and also ordered that 5 acres in a prominent place in Ayodhya be given to the Muslims (as restitution for the wrong done to them by the unlawful desecration of the Babri Masjid in 1949 and its destruction in 1992).



(Right) The Supreme Court of India.

Chief Justice Gogoi, and Justices Bobde, Bushan, Chandrachud, and Nazeer need to be commended for their thoughtfully written massive 1,045 page report. The judges have clearly taken their responsibility seriously and worked through the difficult task with great equanimity and balance. The process that led to the verdict also deserves credit. It was open, fair and inclusive, running 40 days, with testimonies and evidence presented from a large and diverse number of sources and witnesses.

It is important to step back and objectively understand what the verdict addressed and what it didn’t. Firstly, the verdict is basically purely one of a long-standing "property dispute" (with its first recorded legal history dating back at least to 1858). Secondly, the judges appropriately did not consider any of the theological arguments (e.g., whether Ram was born there, or whether a mosque is essential to Islam) in arriving at their collective decision. Thirdly, the verdict was not about the criminal charges over the unlawful destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, as that is being dealt with separately in another ongoing case in the Lucknow court.

To decide property ownership, the Ayodhya verdict placed the emphasis on establishing ownership of the land. The Muslim side could not establish ownership of the land on which the mosque was built. The mosque was not built on vacant land, and the archeological survey indicated that there was destroyed structure underneath when the mosque was built in 1527. Another item the court examined was continuity of usage. The balance of probabilities, in the court’s opinion, indicated that the Hindus had been using the premises for worship continuously for centuries. The Muslims, on the other hand, appeared to have had several long breaks in usage (including possibly one gap as long as 325 years). The court did not give the disputed 2.77 acres to any of the four litigants, but rather to the state, and directed the state to establish a trust to build the temple. The court did also forcefully call out as wrong the desecration of the mosque in 1949 (when Hindu idols were placed there) and again its unlawful destruction in 1992. They invoked Article 142 to deliver “complete justice” by ordering that a compensation of 5 acres of land in a prominent place in Ayodhya be given to the Muslims to build a mosque.

Although the judgement over the disputed 2.77 acres was restricted to the ambit of a property dispute, it is only natural that it will raise concerns about India’s secularism, and religious and minority rights. The report invoked the Indian Constitution’s commitment to secularism nearly fifty times, and made sure that this inviolable and sacrosanct principle was at the forefront of the country’s top judiciary. Furthermore, the Supreme Court delved deeply into the Places of Worship Act of 1991, which prohibits the conversion of religious places of worship as it existed at the time of Independence, and put in place iron-clad language and conditions to prevent the state or citizens from tampering with other religious places. The Ayodhya case, however, was noted as previously exempt in the Places of Worship Act of 1991, as it was an ongoing legal dispute going back to at least 1858. While technically correct, this exemption is an issue that may not be obvious to many and some may feel was not impartial.

The judges took great care, and prioritized peace and harmony, while staying within the letter of the Constitution and law. This spirit of peace and harmony has largely resonated well with the people of India, and the reactions thus far generally give cause for hope. Prime Minister Modi has echoed this sentiment, and emphasized that the verdict should not be viewed as victory or defeat. (PM Modi actually said in a tweet: "The nation's apex court has delivered its verdict in Ayodhya case. This verdict must not be seen as either victory or loss. Does not matter if you are a Ram Bhakt or Rahim Bhakt, it's time to strengthen Bharat bhakti.").

In a well-analyzed article in The Hindu, Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor of the NALSAR Law University in Hyderabad and Aymen Mohammed, a research scholar there, laid out a number of positive aspects of the Supreme Court verdict and have reassured the minorities and defenders of rule of law and secularism. Mr. A. A. Muhammed, the man who led the archeology survey that provided evidence that the mosque was not built on vacant land in 1527 (by order of Babur), expressed his complete satisfaction with the verdict. Ever since the verdict, several people from all sides, including religious leaders, Bollywood stars, and politicians, have called for peace and harmony, and for the country to put the Ayodhya dispute to rest and to look ahead. Even on Twitter, #HinduMuslimBhaiBhai (Hindu-Muslim Brothers) was trending, and across the country, there appears in most part a sigh of relief and a willingness to look positively to the future.

The real spirit of resolution, healing, and a sense of multireligious solidarity that has followed the Ayodhya verdict by the Supreme Court is laudable. Yet, given the complexity of the case, amidst the subdued reaction, there have also been some voices critical of the judgement and reflecting on its long-term implications for India’s religious minorities. These concerns should not be easily dismissed. At the same time, in the larger scheme of things, the verdict appears to have struck a good balance (within the context and the history of the problem) and also to have taken strong steps to protect religious freedoms and secularism for the long term. It is thus time for the various sides to come together and bring back the legendary syncretism, tolerance, and accommodation that has characterized the plural spirit of India for centuries.

There is also another important dimension to keep in mind. The growing perception of the rise of belligerent political Hindutva has created a climate of fear and a feeling of alienation within India’s Muslim communities. It is inevitable that the Muslim community and people safeguarding religious and minority rights may view the Ayodhya verdict going in favor of a Hindu temple as yet another indication of a grander design of Hindutva politics to undermine the rights of religious minorities in India. It is therefore critical that Prime Minister Modi should grasp the moment and sincerely reassure the country’s nearly 200-million-strong Muslim minority that they are part and parcel of India’s rich composite culture and history, that they are equal citizens of the Republic, and that they have nothing to fear. This will take serious effort of trust-building and genuine words and concrete action. A starting place for action will be serious implementation of the far-reaching recommendations of the Justice Sachar Committee Report, which called attention to correcting the socio-economic inequality and discrimination faced by the Indian Muslim community. Earnestly implementing the recommendations of the Sachar Committee would be a real and sincere statement of Prime Minister Modi’s inclusive policy of “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas” (Together with All, Development for All) and his vision of removing uncertainty, so that all 1.3 billion diverse people can thrive peacefully in India with equal opportunity.

Over her long and storied syncretic civilization, India has for thousands of years seen the ebb and flow of history. India has always surprised the world over how she can creatively and dynamically absorb differences and solve her daunting challenges while remaining true to an underlying core spirit of pluralism and tolerance. Contemporary India needs an audacious vision to renew her commitment to pluralism, inclusion, and tolerance. Perhaps the building of the Ram Mandir and a new Masjid in Ayodhya could each be done with active involvement and participation from both sides, Hindus and Muslims, ushering in a new multifaith pan-Indian collaboration, akin to the famous Bhakti and Sufi movements of the past or the struggle for Indian Independence.

K. M. Venkat Narayan, M.D., a professor of global health and medicine at Emory University, Atlanta, and director of the Emory global diabetes research center, is regarded as a national and international leader in diabetes and chronic diseases. He also dabbles in writing on current events and issues.

Part 2,
Hail the Hindu Rashtra!

This year, two major events took place on 9/11 in India, and the symbolism was not lost on anyone. One was the formal opening of the Kartarpur Corridor—the historic passage to facilitate visa-free entry of Indian Sikh pilgrims to one of Sikhism's holiest shrines, in the Pakistani district of Narowal. The second was the prominent judgement of the Supreme Court of India on the Ayodhya dispute.

Both events presented a kind of closure on matters of religious faith for India’s two important minority communities.



Babri Masjid before its destruction in December 1992. (Photo: Fredrick M. Asher)

One night before the judgement, an Indian Muslim friend who is a software engineer settled in the U.S. called me asking me what the judgement could be. Will it favor the Hindus or the Muslims? For me it was a given. He was still hopeful that the judiciary would pronounce a judgement that would favor the minority side’s claim—thus sending a message to the world community that India was still committed to the principles of justice and tenets of secularism. I could only admire his innocence.

Many such hopes of finding peace and reconciliation on this contentious matter were dashed earlier, too. Indian Muslims For Peace, a cross-section of Muslims including retired bureaucrats, soldiers, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and businessmen, including former Indian army deputy chief, Lt. Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah (retd.), had proposed that the Muslim community should hand over the disputed land to the Hindus in an out of court settlement, which could lead to lasting peace. Lt. General Shah said that the Muslim community should realize that even if the court order was in their favor, they would not be able to construct a mosque on the spot.

This proposal was a grand gesture of peace, but all it did was generate a minor debate in the Muslim community, ultimately leading to no resolution.

The Judgement Day
I was on my way to the airport when the judgement started being read out in the court. The initial TV reports confirmed my expectations. Through their judgment, the Supreme Court judges had paved the way for the construction of the Ram Temple. The Muslim side was to be given 5 acres of land somewhere else—a consolation prize for being in the game for so long.

Reactions began to pour in on social media platforms. A poet friend from the U.K., a professional doctor, made a metaphoric wail on his Facebook wall: “Khoda pahad, nikli aastha” (we dug up a mountain, only to find the rubble of faith underneath).

As I reached my destination, and through the day, I saw updates on TV news channels. Most Hinduvta leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, Rajnath Singh, and RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, hailed the judgement as balanced and just. I had been admiring the way they had prepared the country for the verdict—no one was to celebrate victory or loss once the verdict was announced. The law and order machinery, especially in UP, was all keyed up to control any such public outburst.

The judgement was a shot in the arm of the Modi-led BJP government. It had solved the Kashmir problem by dissolution of Article 370, and now this Supreme Court judgement had facilitated the fulfilment of another electoral promise: the construction of the Ram Temple.

The Muslim side accepted the verdict but expressed their disappointment. All India Majlis-e- Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi took to the TV and declared that Muslims should not take the charity of 5 acres of alternative land that the Honorable Court had decreed. He was not satisfied with the Supreme Court's verdict, saying that Supreme Court is indeed "supreme, but not infallible." "We don't understand how the court arrived at this verdict. There was a mosque at the site for 500 years and the court was deceived," he said.

6 December 1992, and "Kafka in Ayodhya"
While TV journalists and anchors dissected the verdict and its fallout, my mind briefly traveled back to 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished. I was studying at Aligarh Muslim University then. The Ayodhya movement was at its peak and we knew that something sinister and violent was going to erupt, so we made our way to our hometown in Bihar in late November. I was at my maternal grandfather’s place when the news came of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We saw the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao appear on TV and offer apologies and shed some tears. Later on, we learnt that Rao could have done more to stop the demolition but he chose not to. Through Rajiv Gandhi and later through Rao, the Congress Party had, wittingly or unwittingly, made its own contributions to the Ram Temple movement.

Even though we were hundreds of kilometers away from Ayodhya, we could still feel the tension. The small town that we lived in had slipped into a benighted silence. TVs were not that common in those days, so we depended on radio broadcasts and newspapers. For days on end, there were no newspapers delivered in our town. When the curfew was lifted, I cycled around the town looking for newspaper vendors. I gathered some Urdu and English newspapers and when I handed them over to my nana (maternal grandfather), I saw him going through the pages in silence. It was very painful to watch him slowly digest the news of the Babri demolition. Something had changed that day for good.

Years later, I wrote a short story titled "Kafka in Ayodhya." In this imaginary story, the German writer Kafka travels to India to meet his friend in Ayodhya. The story is set around the time when the Allahabad court verdict had been announced. A journalist asks Kafka, “Do you think it is unjust to build a temple where Lord Rama was born?”

“How do you know young man,” he says, “what is more pleasing to God? Your temple after destroying a mosque or the suffering of those whose place of worship you destroyed?”

The Muslim reaction to the verdict
I called home and found that my father had been glued to the TV the whole day. He was disappointed with the judgement. My mother was not that much into news. She was happy that no rioting had broken out in the country.

And that was overall the Muslim reaction to the Supreme Court verdict. That a judgement had come that tried to solve a very old dispute, that it might not be a perfect judgement, but it had resulted in peace. That, maybe, the honorable judges had given peace a priority over everything else—over faith, over history and archeology and principles of jurisprudence.

The Muslim side had always maintained that whatever the verdict, they will abide by it. As we write this, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) is yet to decide whether they will file a review petition against the Ayodhya verdict.

Over the next few days, a plethora of voices expressed their concerns on the judgment. They questioned its logic. Law professor Faizan Mustafa wrote in the Huffington Post on Saturday, "It looks like the Supreme Court gave importance to belief over other concerns. The court, even while observing that faith is limited to individual believer and that it cannot determine a land dispute, eventually gave the disputed land for the construction of a Hindu temple. This means that belief of a section of people was given prominence over the rule of law even though the latter should have ideally determined a property dispute."

“The large Muslim community across India’s most populous state (UP) know they have no agency to protest and just want to get on with their lives,” wrote Saba Naqvi. “No, they do not feel that real justice has been delivered. For in the end the perpetrators of India’s most public crime (the demolition of the Babri mosque) have got what they wanted. But people do hope that the worst has passed and will not be dug up again. There is disquiet, too, at the Supreme Court giving importance to faith in deciding what was essentially a land title dispute. Yet people want to look ahead.”

“For India’s Muslims, it is the closure of a festering issue,” says Professor Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches history at AMU, in The Hindustan Times. “This has now got an institutional stamp of as high an institution as the highest court of the land.” He makes the plea that Muslims must move ahead. “They must not even think of going for a review of the judgment. They must continue to concentrate on their educational and economic well-being, keeping this fact in mind that majoritarian sentiments often become national sentiment.”

However, not everyone is so positive about the fallout of the judgement and what lies ahead for the Muslims in India.

The voluble former Justice Markandey Katju wrote that the Ayodhya Verdict is based on a strange feat of logic and it is foolish to think the Supreme Court’s decision will bring about communal peace. Appeasement, like the Munich pact of 1938, only whets the appetite of the aggressor, he pointed out.

In a very personal and moving piece, journalist Rana Ayyub wrote in The Washington Post that post-Ayodhya verdict, “Muslims in India fear that this would indeed be the beginning of reimagining India with Muslims as second-class citizens as envisaged by right-wing supremacists.” She doesn’t just stop there. “A resounding message has been sent to the more than 200 million Muslims in the country that they must bear every humiliation and injustice with the silence expected of an inferior citizenry,” she says. “I and millions of my co-religionists have been made to feel like an orphan yet again in the land we have loved, cherished, and called our own.”

I had expressed this fear in 2014 itself in an interview to Rediff.com ('Muslims in India will learn to live as second class citizens', 4 Dec 2014) when my biography of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal (Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician) had come out, saying that Iqbal knew that democracy is a game of numbers and that Muslims would be marginalized in a Hindu- majority India. He was suspicious of Hindu nationalists. He thought that for them expressions like nationalism was just paying lip service while their gaze was fixed on their own community only.

For me, the Ayodhya verdict is the culmination of a series of events that started in 2014 with the election of the Modi government. What this judgment has done is that it has paved the way for the foundation of a Hindu Rashtra. Once the Ram Temple is built it will signal to the world that the Hindu Rashtra is here.

At this juncture, I am reminded of what Kannada poet V. Seetharamaiah said on Gandhi’s death: “All of us are like the serpent, full of poison. Godse is only its fangs.”

Today’s Godse and Savarkar have gone mainstream in India’s body politic, and their fangs have multiplied into millions.

Zafar Anjum, a Singapore-based writer and filmmaker, is the founder of Kitaab (www.kitaab.org).

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