As the final day of arguments in the decades-old Ayodhya Babri Masjid dispute began in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, legal corridors were abuzz with a fresh rumour: the Sunni Waqf Board was all set to withdraw its suit in the case. Although the significance of this purported development was unclear, it suggested that the final day of hearings would feature a fair bit of drama.
Ultimately, there was indeed drama – but no withdrawal of the suit. Instead, papers were torn, the judges said they were prepared to walk out, and the court eventually reserved the judgment after arguments were concluded. The final verdict is now expected any time before November 17, when Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is set to retire.
The Supreme Court has been hearing what is an extremely controversial title dispute over 2.77 acres of land in Ayodhya. A mob of Hindutva supporters demolished a 16th century mosque on the site in 1992, after a political campaign had sought to portray the shrine as having been built by the Mughal emperor Babur on the very spot on which the god Ram had been born. Cases over the ownership of the land, however, date back to the 1950s, and have been progressing through India’s judicial system ever since.
There are three main parties in the case: the Nirmohi Akhara, a group of Hindu ascetics who worship Ram and want to build a temple on the disputed site; the Sunni Waqf Board, which is seeking control of the site so that the demolished mosque can be reconstructed; and Ram Lalla, the deity placed illegally under the central dome of the demolished mosque in 1949, along with Ramjanmasthan, the claimed site of Ram’s birth, represented by activists associated with the Sangh Parivar.
So what actually happened on the final day?
Did the Waqf Board withdraw its suit?
No. No such submission was made to the court and even outside, members of the board said that they had not heard of any withdrawal application. Rajeev Dhawan, the senior advocate representing the Waqf Board continued his arguments in the case, and his office told Scroll.in that it had no information about the suit withdrawal.
So where did the news come from?
It is possible that the headlines were a misinterpretation of a settlement proposed through the mediation process. A Supreme Court-appointed panel of mediators submitted a report to the Supreme Court on Wednesday detailing the conclusion of their efforts to arrive at a consensual settlement between all parties in the case.
Although the findings of the report were not made public, several news organisations claimed to have knowledge of what was in the document. Common to these reports was the position of the Sunni Waqf Board, which has reportedly offered to drop its demands for the land on which the Babri Masjid once stood, under a certain set of conditions that the other parties will have to agree to.
According to the CNN-News18, the Waqf board’s proposal would see it give up a claim to the site of the Babri Masjid, in return for affirmation from other parties that the ownership of other places of worship would not be brought into question.
The Wire reported that, “according to informed sources, the Sunni Waqf Board and some but not all of the Hindu litigants have signed the settlement proposal, which has been submitted via the three-member mediation panel that the court had set up earlier this year. Significantly, the VHP-backed Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas has not accepted the terms of the settlement.”
Wait, but didn’t mediation fail?
It did. The Supreme Court-appointed three-person mediation panel began its process in March and had six months to attempt bringing the various parties together for a negotiated, consensual settlement. In August, it told the court that it had failed to do so, which meant hearings in the matter would go ahead.
Then, in September, weeks after a five-judge bench began day-to-day hearings in the case, the mediation panel went back to the court to say that some of the parties wanted to consider a settlement yet again.
This time, instead of suspending proceedings, the court said that the mediation process could carry on simultaneously as the court hearings, with the panel free to file a report if it arrives at a settlement. On Wednesday, the panel submitted its report for this second attempt at negotiation, which apparently included the approval of a number of parties to the suit – but not all of them.
So the Waqf Board news was wrong?
Well, yes and no. The reports seem to suggest that the Waqf Board did indeed offer to give up its claim to the site, in return for certain other conditions. But that was explicitly conditional. The Board has not said that it wants to withdraw from the suit, without conditions, and indeed, it did not move such an application either.
There is another angle here: Reports also suggested that some of the headlines may have come after news of a rift within the board. Chairman of the Sunni Waqf Board ZA Faruqi recently asked the Supreme Court for protection. He said that he feared for his life after the Uttar Pradesh government recommended an inquiry by the Central Board of Investigation into two First Information Reports alleging that he was involved in illegal land dealings.
Others have also pointed out that his position seems to have changed in recent times.
If the Waqf Board had withdrawn its suit, what would have changed?
It is hard to say, but first the court would have had to decide whether it was willing to even accept an application like that at the last minute. Moreover, the Sunni Waqf Board is not the only party to this complex case from the “Muslim side”, as it is referred to. Even if it had withdrawn, the case would likely have continued since there were many other parties claiming ownership or stewardship of the land.
What was that about papers being torn?
As all of this was playing out in news reports, there was plenty of drama inside the court as well. Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi began the day saying “enough is enough” and insisting that arguments would wind up by 5 pm, no matter what. About mid-way through what was supposed to be concluding arguments including the demands from each party, the advocate for the Hindu Mahasabha submitted some new material from a book about Ayodhya.
Rajeev Dhawan, the advocate representing the Muslim parties, responded by doing this:
Later Dhawan, telling the court that the incident is going viral, sought to clarify for the record that he had torn the papers with the consent of the bench – with the Chief Justice agreeing with him.
Ultimately, after 40 days of arguments, the Supreme Court five-judge bench reserved its order in the Babri Masjid land title suit.
What happens next? Does the mediation report matter?
The judges will now sit down to write their verdicts on the case. They have copious documents and arguments as well as written submissions from each of the parties. They also have both the reports of the mediation panels, one from earlier this year and one submitted on the final day.
Although the Waqf Board reportedly offered to give up its claim on the land – subject to conditions in the mediation report – this does not mean that the court will presume that it no longer is party to the suit, since there was no application made to the bench directly.
The judges can choose to disregard the mediation report entirely as it looks for a final decision in the case, or to use elements of the report to build the verdict, which is likely to come before November 17, when Gogoi retires.