With the Supreme Court now hearing the final arguments in the Ayodhya title dispute, an effort is afoot to revive a long-pending contempt petition against seven politicians for enabling the Babri Masjid’s demolition on December 6, 1992.

The idea of reviving the petition was kindled when a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra announced on December 5 that it would hear the final arguments in the title suit from February 8. Last month, Shakil Ahmad Syed, counsel for the petitioner Mohammad Hashim Ansari, enquired from the Supreme Court Registry why the petition had not been listed for hearing for more than 20 years.

Admitted in the Supreme Court in 1995, the contempt petition seeks action against PV Narasimha Rao, SB Chavan, LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Vijayraje Scindia and Ashok Singhal for “deliberately and willfully” violating its orders and those of the Allahabad High Court to demolish the mosque. Rao was then prime minister and Chavan his home minister, both belonging to the Congress. Advani, Joshi, Scindia and Singh were top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party while Singhal led the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a sister organisation of the BJP in the Sangh Parivar. Singh, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at the time, now serves as the governor of Rajasthan. Apart from them, the petition also names the central and Uttar Pradesh governments as the contemnors.

Roa, Chavan, Scindia and Singhal are dead. As is the petitioner, Ansari. He was also the co-plaintiff, with the Sunni Waqf Board, in the first title suit laying claim to the Babri Masjid site that was filed in 1961. Ansari’s suit and three others together constitute what is now known as the Ayodhya title dispute.

Ansari’s petition last came up with a bunch of writ petitions before a bench of Justices GN Ray and SP Bharucha on March 26, 1997. The bench said “these matters” should be listed for hearing after that year’s summer holidays. It was never heard of again.

Reviving the petition will draw attention to the fact that while the title dispute – whether the site of the Babri Masjid belongs to Muslims or Hindus – is about to be decided, no one has been punished for the mosque’s destruction so far. Though Kalyan Singh was sentenced in a different contempt of court case in October 1994, it was merely to a day’s imprisonment.

It will also underline the irony of the situation: the Allahabad High Court decided the title suit in 2010 even though the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a blatant violation of its own orders to maintain the status quo at the site. It is appeals against the High Court’s verdict that the Supreme Court is now hearing.

The contempt petition was filed by Mohammad Hasim Ansari, who died in July 2016. Photo credit: Twitter/Tv9 Gujarati

Critical question

Many feel it is as essential to determine whether prominent political leaders had flouted court orders to enable the Babri Masjid’s destruction as it is to settle the ownership of the site it stood on. It is felt that exemplary punishment for violating court orders would go a long way in dissuading the political class from behaving irresponsibly to achieve its goals.

This is what prompted Shakil Ahmad Syed’s enquiry to the Registry. “The Registry was under the mistaken notion that the contempt petition had been disposed of,” Syed said. “This was perhaps because Hashim’s petition had been bunched with related writs that the court had already dealt with. I told the Registry our petition had not been decided upon.”

In response to Syed’s enquiry on January 15, the Registry asked him to file an application for “setting aside abatement” of the petition. This is because a petitioner must be substituted within 90 days of their death or the petition lapses. According to Ansari’s will, his son Iqbal Ansari is to replace him in all litigation. The Registry has asked Syed for a copy of Ansari’s will. It will then remove from the contempt petition the names of both Ansari as well as the four defendents who are now dead.

Syed said it would take him a week to “complete the formalities” that the Registry has asked for. “The petition will then be ready to be taken up,” he added. “It should happen within the period the Supreme Court hears the final arguments in the title dispute.”

If the title suit judgement is delivered before the contempt petition is disposed of, it will make many wonder whether the delay in dispensing justice has once again led to the denial of justice.

If the title suit is settled before the contempt petition is disposed of, it will raise the question of whether justice has indeed been served. “Since the petition was filed, some contemnors have died and those alive are old,” said MR Shamshad, counsel for Iqbal Ansari. “Now that the title suit is going to be decided by the Supreme Court, the contempt petition for the sake of justice should be decided as soon as possible.”

It is, in fact, the same logic that MS Liberhan, a retired High Court judge who conducted a 17-year enquiry into the Babri Masjid’s demolition, invoked to argue that the conspiracy case related to the mosque’s destruction – which his enquiry found was “meticulously planned” – should have been settled before the title dispute. “If it is decided that it is Waqf property, then one side is established as guilty of demolition,” he told The Indian Express in early December. “And if the Hindu sides get it, then the act of demolition becomes seen as ‘justified’.”

By Liberhan’s argument, the contempt petition should be decided before the title suit. But there is also the matter of time. It is generally expected that the bench hearing the title suit will deliver its judgement before Misra, who heads it, retires on October 2 this year. In case it does not, the bench will have to be reconstituted and the case heard all over again.

The contempt petition describes Ansari watching the Babri Masjid’s demolition from a grove he was hiding in: he saw Advani and Joshi on a platform, joining in a chorus of slogans to demolish the structure. It also cites newspapers reports in which Advani is quoted as saying, “Karseva could be anything”. Advani’s ambiguity, the petition argues, was a violation of the Supreme Court’s clear instruction that the December 6 karseva was to be only symbolic.

The petition accuses Rao’s central government of not taking action despite knowing that a dress rehearsal to demolish the Babri Masjid had been conducted on the evening of December 5. The government also did not prevent karsevaks from erecting a makeshift Ram temple on the site of the razed mosque on December 7 and December 8. This was its direct responsbility, the petition argues, since Uttar Pradesh had been placed under President’s Rule after the Kalyan Singh government was dismissed on December 6.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.