In its judgement in the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid case on Saturday, the Supreme Court had to go into the question of limitation in some detail. While doing so, it dismissed the suit filed by Nirmohi Akhara, an organisation of Hindu ascetics, for possession of the disputed site. It, however, upheld the suits of the Sunni Waqf Board and Ram Lalla in the aspect of limitation.

The way the court dealt with the question of limitation in Ram Lalla’s suit raises several questions, which this article will explain. But first, an explanation of what the legal concept of limitation is becomes necessary.

In civil law, a limitation period, calculated from the time the cause of action arises, is one beyond which a property right will not continue. The Limitation Act governs the period of limitation for different scenarios, enumerated as different articles within the Act.

In the case of the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid dispute, there were three main parties: Ram Lalla, Sunni Waqf Board and Nirmohi Akhara.

Sunni Board and Nirmohi Akhara

The suit of Nirmohi Akhara was dismissed as barred by limitation by the Supreme Court. The suit of the Sunni Waqf Board and of Ram Lalla were declared to be within the limitation period and were sustained.

With regards to the Nirmohi Akhara’s suit, it was time barred as, according to the bench, the suit fell under the ambit of Article 120 of the Limitation Act, for which the limitation period is six years. The Akhara claimed the cause of action to file the case emerged on January 5, 1950, when the site was placed under the control of the administration-appointed receiver. The suit, however, was filed in 1959, violating the six-year rule.

In the case of the Sunni Waqf Board, the court held that it was a suit for possession within the meaning of Article 142 of the Limitation Act, which prescribes a limitation period of 12 years. The cause of action for the board arose on December 23, 1949 when the idols of Ram Lalla were placed under the central dome of the mosque demolished in 1992, thereby dispossessing Muslims of the site. The suit was filed on December 18, 1961, which is within the limitation period of 12 years.

Ram Lalla’s suit

The case of Ram Lalla is more complicated. The representative suit on behalf of the deity was filed in 1989, almost 40 years after the idols were placed under the central dome of the Babri mosque. If either Article 120 or Article 142 of the Limitation Act was invoked, this was well beyond the limitation period. So why did it not attract a dismissal like in the case of the Nirmohi Akhara?

One of the arguments made on behalf of Ram Lalla to circumvent limitation was that the deity is a perpetual minor in the eyes of law and so no adverse title could be acquired against a minor. The court dismissed this view, stating that the concept of a perpetual minor does not apply to the scheme of limitation. The deity is a perpetual minor because of its inability to sue without human agency. But once there is a human agent, it cannot avail the benefit of being beyond limitation.

The matter then moved to the question of whether Ram Lalla’s suit will fall under Article 120, 142 or 144 of the Limitation Act, with varying limitation periods of 6 to 12 years.

The court declared that the suit was within limitation because Ram Lalla’s interests were not represented by any other party in the other suits. The court said:

“Suit 5 is founded on the plea that the needs and concerns of the deity of Lord Ram were not being protected and that the parties to the earlier suits were pursuing their own interests. This apprehension as the basis of Suit 5 is not without substance. The cause of action in Suit 5 cannot be considered to be barred by limitation on a proper construction of the basis of the cause of action for the institution of the suit.” 

The court also points out what seemed like a joint strategy of the Akhara and the board, with the Muslim side acknowledging the claim of the Akhara that it was to be the manager of the site. This perceived coordination, and the fact that the Akhara opposed the rights of the deity in its reply to Ram Lalla’s suit, became an argument to show that the deity’s rights were not being protected by a party that wanted managerial rights.

The court’s position begs several questions. Did those who claimed to be the friend of Ram Lalla in the suit really represent the deity’s interest? Was this established? It is a well known fact that in 1989, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, filed a petition seeking to become the “sakha” or friend of the deity and its birthplace in the title suits. Agarwal, after retiring from judicial service, had become a vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In 1985, he was one of the central figures who launched the Ramjanmabhumi Nyas, a trust created with the singular aim of constructing a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

During the arguments, K Parasaran, the senior lawyer for Ram Lalla, stated that the suit “essentially looks to the future and for the need to construct a temple dedicated to Lord Ram on the site of Ram Janmabhumi.” This has been the political project behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement led by the Sangh Parivar, which goes well beyond the question of who holds the title to the disputed site.

This was not a case where a non-partisan, apolitical worshiper had come to court with only his faith and belief as the driving force. The Nyas had members from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organisation founded by MS Golwalkar, the second Sarsangchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in 1964 as an international Hindu organisation.

In fact, in the pleadings of the suit filed in 1989, Agarwal had claimed on record that the purpose of the Ram Janmabhumi Nyas, of which he is a trustee, was to build a temple and that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which had a central role in the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, had nominated four representatives to the trust. The Supreme Court quoted the suit pleadings thus:

“The trust has been named the – Sri Ram Janma Bhumi Nyas and consists of ten trustees. In addition, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, through its Marga Darshak Mandal is to nominate four trustees, which it did. Further, five trustees have been nominated from amongst  – eminent Hindu citizens of India. Of the aforesaid five persons, the third plaintiff [Agarwal] was nominated as one of the trustees. Ram Janmabhumi Nyas is stated to be directly interested in the seva-puja and other affairs of the plaintiff deities.” 

Rajeev Dhavan, the lawyer for the Sunni Board, criticised this position, arguing that the suit was part of a wider Hindutva agenda.

However, the court did not consider the antecedents of the representatives of Ram Lalla relevant. It said:

“Dr Dhavan criticised this as well as the constitution of the trust of 1985 and the Nyas as part of a wider agenda which led to the event of 1992. This criticism in our view cannot be factored in while determining whether as a matter of law, Suit 5 is barred by limitation. Simply put, Suit 5 contains a plea that by virtue of the deity not being a party to the earlier suits, its interests and concerns were not being adequately protected in the earlier suits including those instituted by the Hindu parties. The reasons which weighed with Justice Agarwal [High Court] in holding Suit 5 to be within limitation, to the extent summarised above, commend themselves for acceptance.”

But if the fear of the deity’s interests going unrepresented is seen as the reason for the filing of the 1989 suit, the question that comes up: Why did this fear not manifest in the 29 years that lapsed between 1959 when the Nirmohi Akhara filed its suit and 1989 when Agarwal moved the court? It is clear that the fear manifested only after the Ayodhya dispute was converted into a political movement in the 1980s.

In explaining this, the Supreme Court adopts the position of Justice Sudhir Agarwal of the Allahabad High Court that protected Ram Lalla’s suit from limitation. The court said that December 29, 1949, when the mosque site was attached by the district administration, could not have been the date when cause of action arose as the worship of the deity continued even after the attachment. Summarising Justice Agarwal’s reasoning, the Supreme Court added:

 “... Justice Sudhir Agarwal held that worship of the deities had continued and there was no action or inaction in respect of which the plaintiffs [Ram Lalla] could claim a right to sue governed by a particular period of limitation. The learned judge held that in the preceding few hundred years, the only action which may have arisen to adversely affect the interest of the plaintiffs was the raising of the disputed structure [mosque]. In spite of this, the place in dispute continued to be used by the Hindus for the purposes of worship.”   

But if continued worship is an important criteria, it should be noted that in 1986, the disputed site was thrown open for public worship, which is a better position for Ram worshipers than the restricted access to the central dome where the idols were placed between 1949 and 1986. Yet, it is after 1986 that the suit is filed.

Secondly, should the Nirmohi Akhara be blamed for a position of support the Sunni Waqf Board took during the course of the arguments? This could hardly be seen as collusion against Ram Lalla as in the final scheme of things, the Akhara and the Board are opponents trying to seek control of the same piece of land.

Plus, the position of the Akhara against Ram Lalla was sharpened in response to the 1989 suit filed by those of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad claiming to be the friend of Ram Lalla. This, unfortunately, worked against the Akhara as someone claiming to be the manager of the deity cannot take a position against the deity. In the court’s eye, this turned into an attempt by the Akhara to perpetuate its self interest.