Vinod Mubayi


In retrospect, the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment on Ayodhya, despite its tortured logic, flawed reasoning and reliance on faith as a basis for resolution of legal claims, may come to be viewed in future as upholding a semblance of justice compared to what the Supreme Court ruled almost a decade later.


Faced with the intractable task of reconciling the claims of the three plaintiffs, the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and the Ramjanambhoomi Nyas aka Ram Lalla (infant Ram, declared to be a juridical entity), the High Court, in a split 2-1 decision, decided to resolve the title suit by awarding each plaintiff a one-third share of the site where the Babri mosque once stood. As the legal analyst A.G. Noorani writes (Frontline, Dec 6, 2019): “The Allahabad High Court gave the Muslims one-third of their masjid. The Supreme Court excludes them completely. It gives the entire land to the Hindus with an explicit direction to the Central government to build a Ram temple on it.”


The preamble to the Supreme Court judgment begins by offering paeans to India’s constitution, the rule of law and its commitment to the equality of all religious faiths, etc. In reviewing the history of the dispute, the judges state the mosque was desecrated in December 1949 when idols of the infant Ram were illegally brought into its inner sanctum. They condemn the destruction of the 450 years old mosque on December 6, 1992 as a wanton act of vandalism. Yet, after this lengthy preamble, the Court awarded the title of the site to the very group, a creation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, that planned, executed and applauded the vandalism and demolition of the mosque. In effect, the sin was damned but the sinners were richly rewarded. Not content with awarding the title, the Court also decreed that the government set up a board to supervise the construction of a Ram temple. India is still, constitutionally, a secular state. Can the Supreme Court of such a state order the government to supervise the construction of a religious structure of one, even if majoritarian, religious community?


Of the other two parties to the dispute, the Nirmohi Akhara that had supposedly held the banner for the Hindus since 1886 by maintaining the Ram chabutra and Sita-ki-rasoi was essentially passed over by being given a consolation prize: a berth on the board to be set up by the government for building the temple. The Sunni Waqf Board, meanwhile, will be offered five acres of land at some (unspecified) alternate location in Ayodhya to build a mosque.


Commentators have noted that this decision basically fulfills all the demands of the Hindutva side. The Hindutva crowd claimed that the site of the Babri mosque was precisely where Lord Ram was born, that a Ram temple should be built (or, rebuilt) there, and the mosque moved elsewhere. Shorn of its constitutional rhetoric the Court’s judgment fully accedes to these demands.


What is more curious is that at the same time the title suit was being put on the fast track to resolution, the Supreme Court in 2017 had ordered a judge in Lucknow to conduct a time-bound criminal prosecution of the same Hindutva leaders like BJP’s L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, whose speeches had spurred the mob of fanatics to destroy the Babri mosque in 1992 with hammers and axes. This case was supposed to have been completed in no more than two years, however it is still dragging on while some of the accused have died of old age.


It will surely be honest to acknowledge that this verdict reflects the current political scene in the country dominated completely by RSS ideology. The tide of majoritarianism swelled by the victory of the BJP and the Modi-Shah combine in the elections earlier this year seems to have thoroughly intimidated all constitutional bodies in the country, including the judiciary. No better evidence of this could be offered than the extreme poverty of the reasoning employed by the court in their decision. The court asserted that although the Babri mosque was constructed in 1528 the Muslims could not proffer any evidence that namaaz (prayer) was said inside the mosque for the next 325 years until 1856. The doyen of India’s medieval historians, Professor Irfan Habib, indicated that Ayodhya had a substantial Muslim population in the Mughal era and he dubbed the possibility of the Babri Masjid having had no Muslims to pray in it during Mughal times “a simple piece of judicial fancy.” The counsel of the Liberhan Commission, Anupam Gupta, went further when he averred: “But for the fact that the five-judge bench has consciously done what it has and on purpose, the contradiction between the court’s evidentiary finding and its decree is so stark as to qualify, even in the most technically legal sense, to be described as an “error apparent on the face of the record”, a ground for review under the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Frontline, Dec. 6)


However, there is another perspective or lens through which this verdict and its outcome, the construction of a “grand Ram temple,” can be viewed. This perspective becomes clearer if we recognize its resemblance to the capitalist, free market gentrification taking place in the old, working class areas of urban metropolises like Mumbai. What happened to the Babri mosque is similar to what occurred and is continuing to occur in areas like Lalbaug and Parel. As the old textile mills closed, the surrounding working-class settlements were beset by rapacious “developers” who threatened, vandalized and demolished the old “chawls” with the connivance of politicians. Quite legally, of course! Land in the central city had shot up in price and had become too valuable a commodity to be permitted to remain occupied by the lower classes living in slums.


The ouster and displacement of the chawl dwellers to far off areas allowed multi-story luxury towers to come up whose apartments sell in the millions allowing the developers and their host of politicians, bureaucrats and perhaps even some judges to make a killing. In this perspective, Ram Lalla and the board to be created by the government based on court decree are the analog of the developers, the Sunni Waqf Board and the Muslims of Ayodhya the banished workers and the award of the title to the former is appropriate from a capitalist market and gentrification perspective. It is the entity likely to spur investment and development in what is going to be a major construction project – the grand Ram temple at the site of the destroyed old mosque. While the gentrification of old religious sites is not unique to Hinduism or Ayodhya as anyone familiar with the luxury high-rise hotels and shopping malls looking down on the Kaaba in Mecca will testify, what will be unique, however, in the case of the future Ram mandir is the paradox at its heart. It will be a structure approved and directed by the Supreme Court that is, at the same time an outcome of a criminal act – and acknowledged as such by the Court itself. As Noorani tellingly asks: “What kind of spectacle will a Ram mandir built on the fruits of crime present to India and to the world?

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