The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to include Art of Living founder Ravi Shankar, known as Sri Sri to his followers, on the panel of mediators that will attempt to arrive at an amicable solution over the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir title suit has raised eyebrows. The spiritual leader joins retired Supreme Court Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla and reputed lawyer Sriram Panchu on the Supreme Court-appointed panel that has been tasked with seeing if the communally sensitive case can be resolved through consensus rather than legally.
The decisions has been welcomed by some of the parties, though earlier there was pushback against the idea of any negotiation. The Supreme Court has directed the mediation panel to begin proceedings in Faizabad and has prohibited all media reporting on the developments. A progress report is expected in four weeks time, with another report to be filed within eight weeks.
‘A civil war’
But questions are already being raised about whether Ravi Shankar is an appropriate addition on the panel. The most obvious reason relates to comments he has made over the past two years as part of a very public attempt to intervene in the title suit, which came about after Hindutva activists demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya claiming it is the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
The criticism of Ravi Shankar lies in the fact that he has already signalled an opinion on how the dispute should be resolved, and what will happen if things do not go that way. “Muslims should give up their claim on Ayodhya as a goodwill gesture. Ayodhya is not place of faith for Muslims,” the Art of Living founder said in an interview with India Today in 2018.
Ravi Shankar, who has in the past claimed to have said no to those urging him to enter the race for a Nobel Peace Prize, has been pushing for a mediated resolution to the title suit, claiming that a Supreme Court verdict will not resolve the issue. In the same interview, he claimed that whoever the Supreme Court’s decision goes against will be pushed to “extremism” and that could lead to a “Syria, Middle-East type of situation”, or in other words, a civil war.
In an open letter to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in 2018, Ravi Shankar listed out what he saw as the various potential verdicts from the Supreme Court and what that would mean for Indian society:
- Hindus get the land and build a temple. “In this scenario, Muslims would have serious apprehensions about our legal system and their faith in the Indian judiciary may be shaken. This could also lead to Muslim youth taking to violence as one of the many repercussions.”
- Muslims are given the land to reconstruct the Babri Masjid. “This would cause huge communal disturbances all over the country. In their victory however, the Muslims will lose out on the good will and trust of millions of Hindus right from the villages up.”
- The Supreme Court upholds the Allahabad High Court verdict, dividing the land between claimants. “We are giving a chance for a repeat of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition situation and will be a continuous point of conflict. This is no solution at all.”
- The government bypasses the verdict, regardless of what it is, and passes a law for a temple to be built. “In this case again, the Muslim community will feel they have lost.”
“In all the four options,” he wrote in the open letter, “whether through the court or through the government, the result will be devastating for the nation at large and the Muslim Community, in particular.”
Ravi Shankar then listed out what he believes would be an appropriate way to solve the matter:
“The best solution, according to me, is an out-of-court settlement in which the Muslim bodies come forward and gift one acre of land to the Hindus who in turn will gift five acres of land nearby to the Muslims, to build a better mosque. It is a win-win situation in which the Muslims will not only gain the goodwill of 100 crore Hindus but it will also put this issue to rest once and for all. A palak nama will recognise that this temple has been built with the cooperation of both the Hindus and Muslims. It will put to rest the issue for future generations and coming centuries.”
Of course, this approach quite intentionally bypasses the question of the law, and does not acknowledge the violence that led to the Babri Masjid demolition. Ravi Shankar also claims that it “will put to rest the issue for future generations,” but many have brought up the question of whether this precedent – outside of the bounds of law – will simply empower more Hindutva activists to raise the communal pitch and stake claim to other mosques on the basis of this approach.
His effort for an out-of-court settlement at the time did not go very far, with a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader saying Shankar was trying to divert focus from a “huge foreign donation” he recently received. Mahant Gyan Das, head of the Hanumanghari temple in Ayodhya, even claimed that Shankar was responsible for putting the brakes on an earlier negotiated settlement that was already agreed upon.
But the fact that Ravi Shankar had already made public his preference on how a mediation process should go and what the result should look like is currently being questioned, now that he has been made part of the mediation panel.
Ravi Shankar himself tweeted about mediation a day before the Supreme Court’s verdict on the matter, calling on all to keep their egos aside to resolve the issue.