The Big Story: Temple run

On December 6, 1992, mobs mobilised by the Bharatiya Janata Party demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya with the aim of building a Ram temple on the site. But the legal tussle over who would own the patch of land on which the mosque stood goes back to 1950, when a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, Gopal Singh Visharad, filed a suit in the Faizabad civil court. By 1989, the Nirmohi Akhara, an order of sadhus, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Wakfs and, in fact, Lord Ram himself – represented in court by Nandan Agarwala, the vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Deoki – had entered the fray, asking for possession of the land.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court ordered a three-way division of the disputed site, awarding equal parts to the Nirmohi Akhara, the Sunni Wakf Board and Lord Ram. (Treating Hindu gods as juristic persons is a long-established feature of Indian law.) This order was immediately challenged by all parties and the case now sits in the Supreme Court.

Given the long decades that have passed and the thousands lives lost due to the dispute, one would think ending the tussle would be in everyone’s interest. Yet, on Tuesday, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing the All India Muslim Personal Law Board asked for the court to push its hearing till after July 2019 – a request the Supreme Court denied. If accepted, this would have pushed the case till after the next Lok Sabha elections.

Given that Sibal is also a senior Congress leader, this plea was immediately picked up by the Bharatiya Janata Party and attacked. Narendra Modi, campaigning for the Gujarat elections, accused the Congress of linking the Ayodhya dispute to the elections.

Given that the BJP’s rise to national politics has been driven almost solely by the promise to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, a commitment it listed in its manifesto for the 2014 national elections, Modi’s accusation bears a tinge of irony. Sibal’s plea, in fact, owes itself to the fact that any verdict before the 2019 polls would almost certainly be taken up the BJP as an election issue.

It is also noteworthy that the BJP assumes that any court verdict will necessarily be in favour of the temple. BJP President Amit Shah said on Tuesday, “The Supreme Court should give a judgment and a grand Ram temple should be built in Ayodhya”

Yet, riven as it is with contradiction, the BJP’s stand for a quick resolution to the dispute is still valid. The Babri Masjid demolition is a blot on India’s democracy and the judiciary has not escaped blame efor it. Not only was the title case verdict hugely delayed when the Allahabad High Court did deliver it in 2010, uniquely for a legal case, it factored faith into its decision. Moreover, the verdict partitioned the land – an option no one had asked for. This decision was most unusual in a dispute over land ownership.

Moreover, even as the title suit has reached the Supreme Court, the criminal case against the people who demolished the mosque in 1992 still languishes in a Central Bureau of Investigation court, with little progress. Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan, whose commission of inquiry held that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was planned by top BJP leaders, was clear that the criminal case needed to be heard immediately and should precede the title suit.

To delay justice any further could provide the spark for future upheavals.

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