What is it?
On September 27, in the Ayodhya title suit appeals, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion, decided against referring the question “whether offering prayers in a mosque is an essential part of Islam” to a seven-judge Constitution Bench. With this, the court has signalled that it will decide the appeals like any other civil suit, based on evidence, and pay little heed to arguments about the “religious significance” of the Ayodhya issue and the communal strife it has caused.
The Bench said the hearing would start from October 29, leading to the question whether the court would deliver a judgment before the May 2019 general election. The appeals are against the September 30, 2010, decision of the Allahabad High Court to divide the disputed 2.77 acre area among the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla. The court had relied on Hindu faith, belief and folklore. It concluded that Lord Ram, son of King Dashrath, was born within the 1,482.5 square yards of the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid premises over 9,00,000 years ago during the Treta Yuga. One of the judges added that the “world knows” where Ram’s birthplace is, while another said his finding was an “informed guess” based on “oral evidences of several Hindus and some Muslims” that the precise birthplace of Ram is under the central dome.
How did it come about?
The final hearings began before a Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra (now retired) and Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer on December 5 last year. The day also happened to be the eve of the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the 15th century Masjid by kar sevaks on December 6, 1992. However, the Muslim appellants pointed to certain paragraphs in a 1994 five-judge Constitution Bench judgment in the Dr. Ismail Faruqui case. One of these paragraphs stated that “a mosque is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam and namaz [prayer] by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in open.”
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“So is the mosque not an essential part of Islam? Muslims cannot go to the garden and pray,” their lawyer and senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan told the court. He asked the Bench to freeze the hearing till this question is decided by a seven-judge Bench.
In their majority view, Chief Justice Misra and Justice Bhushan refused to send the question to a seven-judge Bench. Their opinion said the observations were made in the context of the Faruqui case, which was about public acquisition of places of religious worship. It should not be dragged into the Ayodhya appeals. The minority decision authored by Justice Nazeer dissented with the majority on the Bench, and said this observation about offering prayer in a mosque had influenced the Allahabad High Court. He questioned the haste of the court.
Why does it matter?
The answer to this question is found in the maiden Supreme Court hearing of the appeals last year. Those present distinctly remember senior advocate Kapil Sibal suggest that the Bench post the hearings after July 15, 2019. Along with Mr. Sibal, senior advocate Dushyant Dave and Mr. Dhavan argued that the dispute is not just another civil suit. The case covers religion and faith and dates back to the era of King Vikramaditya. It is probably the most important case in the history of India, which would “decide the future of the polity.”
Mr. Sibal said the government was using the judiciary to realise its agenda for a Ram temple, a promise in the ruling BJP’s 2014 election manifesto.
All eyes are on the new Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. Justice Misra was also the lead judge on the Ayodhya Bench. Chief Justice Gogoi may lead the Ayodhya Bench himself or appoint another judge. With the Lok Sabha election nearing, a request to adjourn the case until after the poll may also be made.