Nearly 28 years after the kar sevaks pulled down the Babri mosque, a Constitutional Bench of the apex court obliterated it as a legal entity attached to the land on which it stood. The unusual turn of events prior to the verdict left little room for surprise. The SC worked through sleepless nights to conclude the proceedings and pronounce the judgment, keeping on hold other exigent matters — including the abrogation of Article 370 and the habeas corpus petitions challenging detention of political leaders.
In sharp contrast with this urgency, the criminal cases against the perpetrators of the demolition is lost in the labyrinth of lower courts. Indeed, the accused boasted that the judgment vindicated their criminal acts. Days and months prior to the final order, religious leaders and sundry intellectuals sought to impress upon Muslims to surrender their claim. Considering the antiquity of the dispute, their guest appearance in the final moment alarmed many. The judgment ultimately hands over the disputed land to the reigning deity, Ram Lalla Virajman through his next ‘human’ friend. It thus gives rest to a dispute whose recorded history dates back to more than 150 years.
For liberal consciousness, disturbed by the hostile posturing of parties in dispute, the pronouncement of this judgment amounted to a ‘closure’, regardless of its disturbingly ideological nature. What mattered ultimately was comfort, peace and tranquillity, and the judgment — by its so called ‘balancing act’, it is argued — holds immense promise.
Sadly, this whole argument rests on the goodwill or helplessness of the minorities caught in an increasingly majoritarian polity. Moreover, there is a childlike naivety —that the end of the Ayodhya dispute would bury the raison d’etre of Hindutva politics.
This pragmatics is oddly mixed up with the mobilisation of modern, legal rationality — the supremacy of secular law, analysis of evidence as against faith, the marshalling of case law and incontrovertible legal principles. Justice here receives short shrift, or is assumed to be the end outcome of judicial scientism. It thus fails to answer certain questions: if 1949 marked the forceful encroachment of the sanctum sanctorum by the deity, how could the deity then become the rightful owner?
While the judgment assertively claims to have kept individual faith aside in adjudications on land dispute, why did it ultimately cede to ‘undisputed faith’ to determine adverse possession, and not land and revenue records? There are far too many questions that the judgment leaves unanswered.
The response from Muslim denominational organisations is guarded. It ranges from immediate acceptance to muted disagreement to appeals to “move on”. There are various social media postings that have appealed to the Sunni Waqf Board to decline the compensatory gift of five acres of land. Open defiance and outright denunciation is not yet evident; or is it too early to conclude?
Nevertheless, a state of shock and incredulity runs deep; the silence and stillness is far more worrisome. Is it going to leave a deep scar on the psyche of young and old, and impact the collective conscience of being an Indian Muslim? The demolition of the mosque in 1992 had indeed left its impact on generations to come, as the Nellie (1983), Gujarat (2002) and Bhagalpur (1989) riots did. Living in the New India, choices for Muslims and the minorities in general are severely constrained.
If this judgment brings a ‘closure’, there are other indignities in store — the National Register of Citizens on an pan-India plane, the Citizenship Amendment Bill that exclusively targets Muslim immigrants and so on. Is there an escape?
Maintaining status quo
There is more than a century-old case law on competing claims of communities over places of religious worships, and the judgment draws strength from many of them. The colonial jurisprudence for instance, wary of opening a Pandora’s Box of ceaseless conflicts, was inclined towards maintaining status quo. All through the British period, the courts seemed to take the least precarious course, the status quo, for the maintenance of public order. And this approach informed its handling of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi dispute too.
In 1855, after widespread rioting over the possession of the mosque, a mutually arrived-at resolution was its bifurcation into two parts, inner and outer, one to be accessed by Muslims and the other by the Hindus. In 1885, when Baba Raghubar Das of the Nirmohi Akhara petitioned for permission to build a temple of Ram Lalla on the Chabutara , the court of the sub-judge refused to disturb the status quo on grounds that such permission would incite violence between communities.
Appeals against this order in the courts of the district judge and the judicial commissioner too, fell. But the policy of non-interference and status quo shifted significantly post-Independence. The court and the administration were only too eager to intervene, their intervention explicitly favouring the majority party.
On the night of December 23, 1949, a Hindu mob managed to enter the inner courtyard of the Babri mosque and install an idol of Ram Lalla right below the central dome. Since then, the inner premises of the mosque, so far under Muslim use, became inaccessible to them. The persistent Muslim demand for the removal of the idol was not heeded to by the local authorities who frequently took the plea that this would incite Hindu sentiments.
A new status quo allowed rituals to continue with access provided to Hindu priests. This continued until 1986, when an order from the district judge of Faizabad allowed the Babri Masjid to be opened to the general Hindus. The opening of the locks unleashed a series of events involving massive campaigns and counter mobilisations, culminating ultimately in the demolition of the mosque in December 1992. A makeshift temple on the site was the new status quo, where darshan was allowed but not namaz .
Every intervention from 1949 onwards prepared the grounds for the eviction of the mosque, and institution of the temple, a feat eventually achieved through the judicial pronouncement on November 9 2019.
A judgment, like any official decree, leaves a variegated impact, speaks to different audiences. In a nutshell, the end result of the justice delivered is that triumphalism prevailed. For those on the receiving end, there is a coded message. The sooner they absorb it, the better.
The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University