Ayodhya case: Ram Lalla goes to court

Krishnadas Rajagopal | Updated on August 23, 2019 Published on August 23, 2019

Making a case: Ram Lalla, like other Hindu deities, is deemed a perpetual minor under the law   -  IMAGE COURTESY: WIKIPEDIA

The infant deity is at the centre of the ongoing Supreme Court hearings in the Ayodhya case. Under the law, a Hindu deity is considered a “juristic person” with the the right to sue and be sued

The divine infant, Ram Lalla Virajman, is represented by the best of lawyers in the Supreme Court (SC). Senior advocate K Parasaran, former Attorney General of India and popularly called the ‘Bhishma Pitamaha’ among lawyers, is committed to giving the infant god of Ayodhya his due. The SC started hearing the Ayodhya case — in which Ram Lalla is a plaintiff — on August 6. Under the law, a Hindu deity is considered a ‘juristic person’ — the deity has the right to sue and be sued.

Parasaran, who is in his mid-90s, declined the court’s permission to make his case sitting down, and argued for over two days about Ram Lalla’s rights as a ‘juristic person’. The Ayodhya deity is the infant form of Lord Ram and, like other Hindu deities, is deemed a perpetual minor under law.

The case is centred on the disputed 2.77 acre in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, which Hindus believe is the birthplace or janmabhoomi of Rama, the protagonist of Valmiki’s epic Ramayana. The religious belief has been a cause of strife between Hindus and Muslims for decades. Hostilities tipped over on December 6, 1992, when hundreds of kar sevaks stormed the Babri Masjid, which stood on the disputed land, and demolished the structure believed to have been built by Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in the early 16th century.

The Allahabad High Court attempted to broker peace in 2010 through a three-way partition and joint possession of the disputed land among Ram Lalla the deity, the Nirmohi Akhara, and the Sunni Waqf Board. Appeals were filed in the SC against the High Court decision. Ram Lalla claimed exclusive ownership and the untrammelled right to build a temple on the land. The SC kept the appeals pending for almost nine years. Following a failed attempt at mediation, a Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi began hearing the cross-appeals earlier this month. Ram Lalla has since taken centre stage in the first court of the country.

The genesis of Parasaran’s legal arguments about the deity as a ‘juristic person’ can be traced back to antiquity. The word ‘person’ originates from the Greek word ‘persona’ and had different connotations in various countries. For instance, ancient Roman law did not recognise a slave, though a human, as a person. He had no right to family and was treated as an animal or chattel.

The social, political and scientific evolution of humans later forced larger groups of individuals to band together to fulfil the functions of society. Artificial legal persons, such as the State, corporations and company, were created. Humans were collectively recognised as a ‘juristic person’ with rights and obligations.

The legal idea of a Hindu deity as a juristic person may have its beginnings in the English common law. However, the Hindu deity’s juristic personality is unique. For one, a Hindu deity gets its juristic personality from the concentration of the piety of its worshippers. The English law cannot fathom the creation of a juristic person solely through devotion and piety. In England, a juristic person is created by State law, not sourced from faith. But the Hindu law wholeheartedly accepts the belief of devotees that a deity’s personality resides in an idol.

The 1921 judgment of the Privy Council in Vidya Varuthi Thirtha versus Balusami Ayyar case concluded that “Hindu piety finds expression in gifts to idols and images consecrated and installed in temples. Under the Hindu law, the image of a deity of the Hindu pantheon is, as has been aptly called, a juristic entity vested with the capacity of receiving gifts and holding property”.

Unlike Hindu deities, the Privy Council refused to accept mosques as juristic persons. In its judgment in the Masjid Shahid Ganj case, the Council said a mosque was a structure dedicated for prayer and cannot be compared to a Hindu idol — a personification of the deity. In Christianity, the Ten Commandments forbid idolatry. The depiction of Christ on the Holy Cross is considered a symbol of human sacrifice. However, during the Ayodhya arguments, Justice SA Bobde asked lawyers if the church is a juristic person, and if so, whether it will be the congregation or the structure that will be considered so. Though a lawyer suggested “the Cross” could be considered a juristic person, Justice Bobde did not appear convinced. The sacred book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, was accepted as a ‘‘living Guru” and a juristic person by the SC in 2000. The Court reasoned that the last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, gave the sacred book the “recognition of a living Guru”.

The evolution of Hindu law did not stop with the recognition of the deity as a juristic person. It reasoned that a deity would not be able to act on its own and hence needed a guardian. Consequently, a Hindu deity was deemed in law as a perpetual minor with a manager appointed to act on its behalf. The relationship between the deity and its manager or shebait (a person who serves the deity) is that of a minor and its guardian.

But what if the manager acts against the interests of the deity? This probability was resolved in the 1967 judgment of the SC in Biswanath and another versus Sri Thakur Radhaballabhji. When the deity was left in the lurch by its shebait, the Court said that a worshipper could come forward to protect the interests of the deity. The worshipper could sue as a friend of the deity.

Order 32 of the Civil Procedure Code mandates that a minor should be represented in courts by a guardian of sound mind. Ram Lalla’s first sakha or friend was a retired Allahabad High Court judge, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, who moved the Allahabad High Court for the deity in 1989. When Agarwal passed away in 2002, the mantle of the sakha went to TP Verma, a retired professor of the Banaras Hindu University. The SC appointed Triloki Nath Pandey as sakha in 2010.

Section 11 of the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 puts an embargo on the guardian against selling the property of a minor. The State has a duty to protect the interest of the deity. If the State fails, the courts mandatorily step in. A deity cannot be divested of any title or rights of property in violation of the law. The deity, like a child, can sue a person who has done it wrong at any time.

Krishnadas Rajagopal

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Published on August 23, 2019
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