Administrations at the Centre and in the States that have their hands full with daunting law and order challenges have obtained a breather from the Supreme Court's order deferring the Allahabad High Court's verdict on the Ayodhya title suits. Among the issues to be decided in the suits are: whether the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a Hindu temple after demolishing it and what the legal effect of such an action is; and whether Muslims had offered prayers from time immemorial at the Babri Masjid and if Hindu idols were placed inside. Some of the suits date back to 1950 and after consolidation in 1989, four have survived and it was in these four that judgments were to be pronounced today. The plea before the Supreme Court was that, given the implications of the impending high court decision for communal harmony and in the circumstances in which the Central and the State security forces were overstretched in dealing with the Maoists, the situation in Kashmir and the security for the Commonwealth Games, the parties should be given one more chance to work out a settlement through negotiations. This unusual last minute plea on a matter that has defied a negotiated settlement for over 60 years, and more particularly since it flared up in the 1990s, hinges on the hope that the parties would change their attitude and work towards an agreement when the Supreme Court takes up the matter. If that hope fails to materialise, the relief for the administrations would be short lived. It was with some reluctance that the Supreme Court bench decided to order the high court to defer its verdict for five days, with one of the two judges inclined to dismiss the petition.
The Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi issue would no longer seem to inflame passions to the extent that it did in the 1990s, although the court verdict could still have a significant impact on communal harmony. No one would quarrel with the desirability of a fair and equitable negotiated settlement if only that were possible. Yet, if the judicial process itself were to be held hostage to fears of disturbances, it would amount to giving rioters a veto over the law-abiding and would have disturbing implications for the rule of law. The country has come a long way since the turbulent 1990s, and the lessons of that period have hopefully been learnt — the appeals for calm from all parts of the political spectrum are a good augury. Reasonable people on both sides of the communal divide should have no problems in accepting the judicial verdict whichever way it goes, and it would in any case be open to appeal. The nation as a whole should face the Allahabad High Court verdict squarely and demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law, with issues being resolved in judicial and other institutions of the state rather than on the streets.