With the clamour for a law to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya growing louder ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, in a surprising move, the central government on Tuesday approached the Supreme Court to give up its custody over the excess land it took over around the disputed land where the Babri Masjid once stood.

The mosque was demolished by a mob of Hindutva activists on December 6, 1992. The then Union government led by the Congress acquired 67 acres of land around the site through a legislation in 1993. The Supreme Court in M Ismail Faruqui vs Union of India upheld this move to take over the land around the spot where the mosque stood. The Centre argued in 1993 that taking over the land was necessary to ensure communal peace and stop any obstruction to about 0.313 acres of the disputed site.

However, the court had made it clear that as per the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993, the Centre was only a repository of the land it took over and it has to be restored to the original owners once the title suit over the Babri masjid land is settled. The suit is currently being heard by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court on appeal. The Supreme Court also reiterated in 2003 and 2011 that status quo has to be maintained at the disputed site.

On Tuesday, the Centre moved an application in the Supreme Court, stating that it had no objection to the demand of Ram Jhanmabhoomi Nyas for restoration of about 42 acres of its land that was part of the 67 acres of the acquired land near the disputed area. What the Centre did not say in the application is how the Nyas came to hold this land, something that has been criticised over the years as wholly illegal.

Excess land

According to constitutional expert AG Noorani, the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas was given 42 acres of land on perpetual lease by the then Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh in March, 1992, just months before the mosque was demolished.

The land was leased out to the Nyas through the department of tourism of the state government for the purpose of building a “Ram Katha Park”. The perpetual lease was given against a nominal rent of one rupee. Over the years, critics have pointed out that the any attempts by Nyas to build a temple on the leased land would be a violation of the lease agreement.

In fact, Noorani points out that former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee stated in Lok Sabha in 2002 that the Nayas owns only one acre of the 42 acres of land mentioned. In 1992, the then Union Home Minister SB Chavan made a detailed speech in Parliament about the land in question. He said:

“Regarding the Ramkatha Park project, the State Government has informed that the erstwhile State Government had, until the year 1989, acquired for the U.P. Tourism Department total of 52.90 acres of land. Regarding this land, there is no dispute in the Court and the Bhumiswamis have received compensation in lieu of acquisition. The erstwhile Government had prepared a project for the Ram Katha Park for the purpose of tourism development but this could not be implemented. Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, New Delhi proposed to the Tourism Department that it will implement the project with its own resources. Accordingly, following a decision by the present U.P. Government, the Tourism Department gave on lease 42.09 acres of land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas for implementation of the project.” 

However, in the petition filed on Tuesday, the government identifies Nyas and others as “original owners” of the land. Given the context of the lease, the original owner of the land can only be the Uttar Pradesh government. The Centre’s white paper in Parliament in 2002 also mentions the lease stipulations, as pointed out by Noorani.

Violations of lease and propose temple

The Indian Express reported in March 2002 that “when the government leased out 42.09 acres... the first thing the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad did was to demolish some small temples and raze a Muslim graveyard located there”.

The SR Bommai-led National Integration Council report on the Ayodhya dispute in 1992 had also noted:

“on three sides of Babri Masjid exists an ancient graveyard over which existed thousands of graves, kachcha and pucca, including the grave of Qazi Qidwa. That scores of graves existed till recently which have been dismantled by the State government after 20th March, 1992, including the grave of Qazi Qidwa...”

These documents underline the attempts made to use the land around the temple to set the stage for construction of the Ram temple at the disputed site. On Tuesday, immediately after the Centre moved the application, BJP member of parliament Subramanian Swamy tweeted the following:

Given the context of the growing demands to start the construction of the Ram temple, the Centre’s move to suddenly seek the restoration of land near the temple to the Nyas and others raises serious questions of intent. The very purpose of the Supreme Court upholding the 1993 acquisition of the land was that it was necessary to avoid communal clashes. That fear of violence remains, given the sensitivity of the Ayodhya dispute. It is also to be noted that the representation from Nyas to restore the leased land was originally made way back in 1996. In 2003 and 2011, the courts asked the government to maintain status quo in the disputed area.

Now, the Centre has used a warped logic to claim that the disputed area was only 0.313 acres and there was no bar on restoring the rest of the superfluous land to the owners, completely overlooking the sensitive nature of the dispute.