The political history of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid conflict is of recent vintage. However, the legal cases go back to 1885.

What are the key issues involved in the consolidated Ayodhya title suits to be decided by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court on September 24? How are the political movements built around the dispute different from the civil suits, the earliest of which dates back to 1885?

While there is much folklore around centuries-long battles fought over the Ramjanmabhoomi and the Babri Masjid, the dispute's violent political history culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid is of very recent vintage. On December 6, 1992, the Masjid was brutally brought down by Ram kar sevaks in the presence of a stellar cast of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, among whom was Lal Krishna Advani.

The Ram temple movement was launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1982; the BJP officially adopted the issue in June 1989 with a resolution passed at its national executive in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh: “The BJP holds that the nature of this controversy is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law. A court of law … cannot adjudicate as to whether Babar did actually invade Ayodhya, destroy a temple and build a mosque in its place … The sentiments of the people must be respected, and Ramjanmasthan handed over to the Hindus — if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else, by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer.”

Two major twists

However, two major twists in the story came courtesy the Rajiv Gandhi government. Acting with alacrity on a February 1, 1986 decision of the Faizabad District Judge, it ordered open the locks of the Masjid, thus paving the way for the politicisation of the movement. The unlocked doors were a huge symbolic victory for the VHP which ramped up its agitation with the Muslim side retaliating by forming the All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee. On November 9, 1989, with only days to go for the Lok Sabha election, the Rajiv Gandhi government allowed the VHP to perform the shilanyas (foundation laying ceremony) of the temple, thus implicitly accepting that the sangh parivar was within its rights to build a temple on the disputed site.

For the sangh parivar and the BJP, there was no looking back after this. Starting 1989, the movement steadily gathered pace, growing in size and violence even as the BJP formally came into the picture. The agitation scaled two major peaks: Mr. Advani's Ram rath yatra of 1990 and the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Masjid. Through all this, the sangh's position remained steadfast: since Ram's birth was a matter of faith, Hindus must be given possession of the land, either by negotiations with Muslims or by legislation enacted in Parliament.

The legal history of the dispute (source: Babri Masjid, A.G. Noorani) shows that other Hindu organisations, themselves deeply divided, had no reservations about fighting out the case in court. In fact, Bhagwan Rama Virajman (presiding deity Bhagwan Ram) was himself listed as a party in one of the suits filed in the Court of the Civil Judge, Faizabad (case no 236 of 1989). Arrayed against the Lord in this case (now part of the consolidated suit and registered as original suit number 5 of 1989 in the High Court) are Hindu as well as Muslim defendants, among them Rajendra Singh, son of the original plaintiff, Gopal Singh Visharad; Mahant Paramahans Ramachandra Das, regarded as the mascot of the temple movement; Nirmohi Akhara, one of Ayodhya's oldest religious institutions; and the Sunni Central Board of Wakfs, the main litigant from the Muslim side.

The dispute was dragged to the court for the first time in 1885, when Mahant Raghubar Das filed suit no 61/280 of 1885 in the Court of the Sub-Judge, Faizabad, against the Secretary of State for India, seeking permission to construct a temple on the Ram chabutra (adjoining the Babri structure). The stage for the next batch of litigation was set on December 23, 1949, when a mob of 50-60 people laid siege to the mosque and surreptitiously placed the idols of Ram and other objects right under the central dome. This led to the property going into the hands of the receiver, and to puja being conducted by a pujari appointed by the receiver.

On January 16, 1950, Gopal Singh Visharad filed a suit in the Faizabad civil court (suit no 2 of 1950 now registered as other Original Suit no 1 of 1989 in the High Court) seeking exclusive rights for performing puja for Ram Lalla. He sought a restraint order on the removal of idols on which the judge issued a temporary injunction. This order was later confirmed by a Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court.

On December 5, 1950, Mahant Paramahansa Ramachandra Das (now dead) filed a suit (no 25 of 1950 now registered as other Original Suit no 2 in the High Court) for the continuation of puja and keeping the idols in the Babri structure. In August 1990, out of sheer frustration, the Mahant withdrew the case.

The third suit (no 26 of 1959, now registered as other Original Suit no 3 of 1989 in the High Court) was filed on December 17, 1959 by the Nirmohi Akhara seeking transfer of charge of the disputed site from the receiver. The fourth suit (no 12 of 1961 now registered as other Original suit no 4 of 1989 in the High Court) was filed on December 18, 1961 by the U.P. Sunni Central Board of Wakfs for the declaration and possession of the Babri site. Significantly, this suit was filed with days to go before the expiry of the 12-year limitation period. The fifth suit, in the name of Bhagwan Ram Lalla Virajman, was filed after a gap of 28 years on July 1, 1989. While the first four suits were filed during periods of relative political calm, the fifth suit coincided with the escalation in the political movement. Only a month earlier, the BJP had officially joined the movement.

With suit No 2 withdrawn, only four title suits remained in the Faizabad civil court. In 1989, on an application by the then Advocate General of U.P., these suits were transferred to the High Court. On October 10, 1991, the Kalyan Singh government acquired 2.77 acres of land around the disputed dacha. After the demolition, the Narasimha Rao government at the Centre, with the consent of Parliament, took over some 67 acres of land all around the disputed area and sought a Presidential reference to the Supreme Court to find out whether a Hindu place of worship predated the construction of the Masjid. The Supreme Court declined to answer the reference.

Muslims claimed in their suit that the shrine had always remained a mosque and prayers were being offered there up until 1949, when the gates were locked following the illegal installation of idols. They sought a declaration that the area in dispute be declared a Babri Mosque.

On the other hand, on behalf of Hindus it was argued that the right to worship the deity of Ram Lalla at the disputed site in Ayodhya must be recognised by the court, as millions of Hindus believed it to be the birthplace of Lord Ram. Further that in Hindu ethos and Hindu customary law, unlike in other religions, the concept of deity was a very distinguishing feature. The Hindu side quoted the Valmiki Ramayana, the Skanda Puran, the Gita as also a whole range of other literary and cultural evidence to claim that Ram was born in Ayodhya. It cited many accounts by foreign travellers of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Century besides a series of Gazetteers to argue that not only before 1528 but even thereafter Hindus held possession of the place.

Main issues

The following are the main issues (not all) framed by the Court to decide the dispute.

— Whether the building had been constructed on the site of an alleged Hindu temple after demolishing the same. If so, its effect?

— Whether the building in question described as a mosque was a mosque as claimed by the plaintiffs.

— Whether the building stood dedicated to almighty God as alleged by the plaintiffs.

— Whether the building had been used by members of the Muslim community for offering prayers from times immemorial.

— Whether the idols and objects of worship were placed inside … or were in existence even earlier.

— Have the Hindus been worshipping the place in dispute as Sri Ramjanmabhoomi and visiting it as a sacred place of pilgrimage as (a matter) of right since times immemorial?

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