Top Indian court hearings in row over Ayodhya land end

In this photo taken on Nov 9, 2018, people look at a model of a proposed Ram temple that Hindu groups want to build at a disputed religious site in Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India.
In this photo taken on Nov 9, 2018, people look at a model of a proposed Ram temple that Hindu groups want to build at a disputed religious site in Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India.PHOTO: REUTERS

Up to 14 appeals made against 2010 decision awarding two-thirds of land to Hindus

Hearings in one of India's most protracted legal disputes over the ownership of a patch of land in Ayodhya drew to a close on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court is expected to pronounce its judgment on a dispute between Muslims and Hindus that first entered court in 1885.

The land is a 1.12ha plot on which stood the 16th-century Babri mosque that was razed on Dec 6, 1992, by right-wing Hindu activists. Many Hindus claim the site is the birthplace of their deity, Lord Ram, and that the mosque was built on the ruins of an ancient temple.

The mosque's demolition sparked riots across the country, leaving around 2,000 people dead. Nearly three decades on, the incident continues to bedevil Hindu-Muslim relations.

The top court has taken up as many as 14 appeals against a September 2010 verdict of the Allahabad High Court that had awarded two-thirds of the disputed land to two Hindu entities - the infant Lord Ram, represented by some of his devotees, and the Nirmohi Akhara sect.

The remaining third was awarded to a Muslim group - the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board.

The Supreme Court has been hearing the case daily since August; Wednesday was the 40th day. The hearings have been charged, with contesting parties drawing on faith as well as tradition to stake their claim to ownership of the land.

Orders banning the assembly of four or more persons were issued by the Ayodhya administration ahead of the verdict. They came into effect last Saturday and will be in place till Dec 10.

Describing the political import of the case, Mr Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political commentator and author of a book on the dispute, said its outcome would result in further polarisation in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu socio-political organisation with close ties to the BJP.

 
 

"It is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose scenario for the BJP and for the government," he told The Straits Times.

"If the Hindus don't get the land, they will be angry. If they do and a temple comes up, they will be euphoric.

"And there is only one party which can milk either joy or anger of the Hindus as a political constituency - it is the BJP."

A decision against the Hindus, Mr Mukhopadhyay said, could even lead the government to potentially explore a legislative route to hand over the site to some Hindu groups.

Building a Ram temple on the site was part of the BJP's election manifesto for this year's general election, as well as the 2014 one.

Together with the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, which was carried out in August, and the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code, these three issues form the BJP's core offerings to please its Hindu vote bank.

The last day of arguments in the Supreme Court saw an unexpected turn with the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board reportedly offering to withdraw its claim over the site as part of a parallel court-appointed mediation effort in return for some guarantees.

The proceedings of the mediation panel are confidential but the board's advocate, Mr Shahid Razvi, told reporters yesterday that a "win-win settlement" had been reached.

However, a statement released by an advocate for another Muslim litigant - there are six other Muslim parties to this dispute - said the board had "no more locus than any other individual Muslim parties" on this case and that the stand of the board "will have no consequence".

Regardless of the position of individual stakeholders, Mr Mukhopadhyay said the Supreme Court still has to decide on the suit.

"If in our country, where we are still a functional democracy, if a civil matter cannot be decided on the basis of law and on the basis of custodianship and extraneous circumstances come in - whether it is faith or tradition - then I think it is a tragedy," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline 'Top Indian court hearings in row over Ayodhya land end'. Print Edition | Subscribe