From political Ayodhya to legal Ayodhya

Within the pages of the Ayodhya title suit verdict is a riveting political story that has not been taken note of.

October 16, 2010 01:07 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:44 pm IST

Babri Masjid demolition on 6th Dec 1992-

Babri Masjid demolition on 6th Dec 1992- Photo by-SANJAY SHARMA/INDIAPIX NETWORK

The Liberhan Commission inquiring into the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid was amateurish on many counts. However, it established one thing conclusively. That the Ram Mandir movement was pure political theatre. Its protagonists dragged out an issue that had been dead for decades, which had no resonance whatever with the local people, pouring so much destructive energy into it that for all outward appearances it became a throbbing, pulsating mass movement with a huge national following.

By contrast, the September 30, 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict on the Ayodhya title suits is innocently apolitical. To be sure, a commission of enquiry is far more free-wheeling than a court of law with its strict mandate to go by evidence, points of law and precedence. Yet we have had courts, the Supreme Court in particular, comment exhaustively and adversely on political developments, including the December 6, 1992 demolition and the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.

The Allahabad High Court's disregard of the political nature of the Ram movement is surprising, considering the ease with which it moved beyond the boundaries of law and reason to explore issues of faith. There is another compelling factor here: The dramatic unfolding of the political story within the pages of the court's own judgment. Indeed, the legal twists and turns outlined in the judgment are not merely episodic highlights in a marathon court battle fought between warring parties; an unmistakably strong political narrative binds them together, never mind that the court itself remains oblivious to it.

Of the Ayodhya dispute's many high-definition political moments, two stand out — the December 22-23, 1949 installation of idols under the central dome of the Babri mosque, and the 1992 demolition of the mosque. The judges take both these in their stride, treating them as legal milestones rather than as Machiavellian political acts. The 1949 violation was a result of premeditated collusion between bigoted sections of the Congress party and the local Faizabad bureaucracy led by a deputy commissioner whose blatant partisanship was proved by his subsequent admission to the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressed his distress at the 1949 incident in a series of letters, among them, to Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, to Governor-General C. Rajagopalachari, to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant and to close friend K.G. Mashruwala ( The Babri Masjid , edited by A.G. Noorani). In a December 26, 1949, telegram to Pant, he presciently described the installation as a “dangerous example” that will have “bad consequences.” To Mashruwala (letter dated March 5, 1950), Nehru confessed that the district officer in Faizabad “misbehaved,” further that while Pant “condemned the act on several occasions” he refrained from “taking definite action.” In a letter dated April 17, 1950, to the U.P. Chief Minister, the Prime Minister poured out his anguish: “… U.P is becoming an almost foreign land to me … I find that communalism has invaded the minds and hearts of those who were the pillars of the Congress in the past. It is a creeping paralysis and the patient does not even realize it ... It seems to me that for some reason or other, or perhaps [for] mere political expediency, we have been far too lenient with this disease …”

These exchanges conclusively nail the lie that the 1949 installation of idols was an act of faith on the part of the Hindu masses. Sections of the U.P. Congress, with the parivar only too happily in attendance, drummed up the issue for “political expediency,” as Nehru lamented. Fast forward 61 years. For the Allahabad High Court, 1949 is merely a legal issue. The majority judgment accepts that the idols were installed by human hands — a fact admitted to by Deoki Nandan Agrawala, former Vice-President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, in a suit he filed in 1989 as “next friend” of “Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman” and “Asthan Sri Rama Janam Bhumi, Ayodhya.” Nonetheless, Justice Sudhir Agarwal rules that the installation of idols is not of material relevance because Lord Ram's “birthplace” is itself a deity with all juridical rights by virtue of it having become part of Hindu faith as a result of continuous, uninterrupted worship.

The politically engineered 1949 Hindu-Muslim conflict — vandals dug out Muslim graves in Ayodhya and forced the ouster of a Muslim owner of a hotel in Faizabad, watched on by the district administration — was saved from escalating into a conflagration, thanks to the fact that though permeated by sectarian elements, the Congress at its core was liberal. Nehru was unashamed of his secular convictions and made no excuses for deviations from the party's stated ideology.

The parivar and the Jan Sangh were by themselves too weak to carry the movement forward. As has been proved repeatedly, movements and conflicts die down without political support. So too it was in Ayodhya where a deafening quiet prevailed until the mid-late 1980s, when the VHP and then a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party seized the issue, realising its enormous political and electoral potential.

The progress of Ayodhya from a relative non-issue to a potent, divisive movement is reflected in the changing character of the Ayodhya law suits, filed first in the lower court and subsequently consolidated and transferred to the High Court. The initial plaints filed with regard to the 1949 installation of idols and the subsequent attachment of the site are remarkably without extraneous motives. In the first suit, filed in 1950 in the Faizabad civil court, the plaintiff, Gopal Singh Visharad, describes himself as a religious person who had been offering puja to the idols in the janmabhoomi. The only relief he seeks is an injunction against the removal of idols from under the central dome followed by the right to unobstructed worship. The second suit, later withdrawn, is similar. The third suit, filed in 1959 by the Nirmohi Akhara, is a comic distortion of the sangh parivar's case formulated to perfection in the 1980s. Unaware of how the story would change in later years, the Nirmohi Akhara insists that there was no Babri Masjid, no mosque, no attempted mosque and no demolition of an earlier temple by Babar or anyone else. The Akhara's case is that the temple has existed from time immemorial, the idols were not planted in 1949 but have always been present, and the Akhara, which came into being in the “days of yore … long before living memory,” is the sole owner of the janmabhoomi as well as the temple and the idols.

The fourth suit, filed in 1961 seeking title and ownership, is by the Sunni Central Wakf Board. The SCWB's contention is that Muslims have been praying at the Babri Masjid since 1528, and prayers were forcibly and illegally halted by the installation of idols, the attachment of property and injunction against Muslims. By the time of the fifth and final suit, filed in July 1989, the political climate changed beyond recognition. A month earlier, the BJP had formally adopted the Ram mandir issue by a resolution passed at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. The BJP and the VHP insist that the courts have no jurisdiction over matters related to faith but simultaneously arrive at a strategy to give a sharper thrust to the legal case. It is obvious that the case cannot be left to the likes of the Nirmohi Akahara which up to this point has shown no political understanding of the issue.

To circumvent the suit being barred by limitation, the plaintiff, a prominent member of the VHP, sues for title and property as the “next friend” of Ram Lalla and Asthan Ramjanmabhoomi. The story of Ram is spectacularly reconstructed, complete with a temple by Vikramaditya. In 1528, Babur came to Ayodhya, halted there for a week, destroyed the ancient temple and erected a mosque in its place using material from the old structure. The suit makes two principal points. A mosque built this way cannot be a mosque. Secondly, because the janmabhoomi has always been deified, it has a juridical personality of its own going into the past before the construction of any temple or mosque and regardless of whether the idols have been installed or not. Presented thus, the suit forecloses the legal pitfalls arising from the illegal installation of the idols.

Stung to the quick, the Nirmohi Akhara files a counter statement alleging that suit 5 is malicious and has been filed to harass and usurp the Akhara's property. Mr. Agrawala is not a worshipper but a member both of the VHP and the Ramajanmabhoomi Nyas. Significantly, the “next friend” himself admits to the political nature of the suit by arguing that it has been prompted by the rapidly growing temple movement: The deities are impatient for a temple, the architect of the Somnath temple has already taken charge of the Ayodhya temple design, and a date has been set for its construction.

Justice Agarwal does take note of the “abominable manner” of the 1992 demolition. But he hastens to add that the Muslim defendants have never held the plaintiffs in suit 5 responsible for it. In an unbeatable irony, he also allots the space under the central dome to the plaintiffs in suit 5, presumably unaware that the VHP would see it as a vindication of a movement born and nurtured in violence.

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