New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the decks for the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court to deliver its judgement on the six-decade-old case over the ownership of the 2.77-acre plot in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood. The judgement, whichever way it goes, could potentially polarize the country and trigger a law and order problem when it is pronounced on Thursday, just three days ahead of India’s coming out event, the Commonwealth Games.
Hindus believe that the Babri Masjid was built atop an ancient temple marking the birthplace of Hindu god Ram.
Communal riots broke out across India in 1992 after the mosque was demolished by Hindu protestors, resulting in the death of at least 2,000 people. Some analysts say India has moved on from those polarized times, but the government continues to be apprehensive and as a cautionary move extended the ban on bulk short messages on phones (they could be used to incite and organize mobs), and has increased security in 32 communally sensitive locations across the country.
A senior government official, who is closely monitoring the situation, said: “The judgement may invite some sharp reactions from fundamentalist groups if it is not in their favour. People in sensitive areas have already started stocking up food.”
Uttar Pradesh cabinet secretary Shashank Singh said at a press conference in Lucknow: “We will be taking special care of monuments of national importance. Also miscreants will be kept at bay.”
Given the stakes, analysts say that the outcome of the high court order has political implications for the Congress, the dominant party in the ruling United Progressive Alliance government and its main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
According to a senior Congress leader, who did not want to be identified, whichever “way the verdict goes, the party will have trouble. Each community will be upset with the Central government if the verdict goes against it. The advantage is that we have time (ahead of next general election) to defuse the damage”.
“The implementation of the court order also will be a nightmare for the government and the security agencies,” this person added.
A special bench, comprising Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Aftab Alam, ignored efforts by petitioner Ramesh Chandra Tripathi to widen the ambit of the appeal by linking it to security concerns. It passed a unanimous order dismissing the petition that sought to postpone the judgment of the Allahabad high court in the Ayodhya case. Tripathi’s petition, instead, sought a mediated solution.
Eventually, only two of the 27 parties to the case, Tripathi and Nirmohi Akhara, agreed to settle the matter through mediation. The others, including the Sunni Central Wakf Board, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, Ramchandra Paramhans, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Mohammad Hasim Ansari, wanted the matter to be settled by the court.
The Supreme Court, in keeping with the convention of not interfering in a high court’s case before the latter has ruled, dismissed Tripathi’s petition after hearing the case for a little over two hours. The court did not record any reasons for the dismissal.
Soli Sorabjee, who appeared for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said that while his clients were in favour of a settlement, they were also against any delay of the judgement. “Judges have to deliver judgements according to facts and law. If there are any security concerns, it should be handled by the state,” he said before the bench. Sorabjee also dismissed the security concerns raised by the special leave petition. “Now they are saying ‘Commonwealth Games’; tomorrow they will say ‘Obama’s visit’...the possibility of a lunatic fringe fomenting trouble should not mean that we should be held to ransom,” he said.
Attorney general Goolam E. Vahanvati said on behalf of the government that while the Centre welcomes a settlement, it wanted to end the uncertainty. “We would like the resolution of this matter one way or another.”
Both the Congress and the BJP welcomed the apex court’s verdict. “We welcome the order. The party has always held that the issue should either be resolved through mutual talks or a court order (that) should be obeyed,” Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said.
Prakash Javadekar, BJP’s spokesperson, said: “Now whatever the high court’s decision, there always is legal recourse ahead. Our position has been very clear.”
Both Dwivedi and Javadekar appealed for peace.
A second Congress leader, who too did not want to be identified, said that it would be more damaging if the verdict denied title to the Muslim groups as it could split the minority vote.
Ramchandra Guha, a historian and political analyst, said the implications were “unclear” and “unpredictable”.
“It is difficult to predict how the four players in this—government, political parties, freelance activists like VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) or RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the public—are going to behave. Government could be firm, political parties could be responsible and the public must have moved on. But the dynamics are still not clear,” he added.
The Central government seems to be preparing for the worst. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that the way India handles the security in the aftermath of the Ayodhya verdict would have “profound impact on the evolution” of the country; on Tuesday he renewed his call for calm. The government had issued appeals for peace in newspapers across the country ahead of 24 September, when the high court judgement was expected to be delivered.
The home ministry in a fresh advisory has asked all state governments to remain alert and exercise extreme caution. “The forces are already deployed and reserve personnel are kept ready for deployment in case of any emergency. At eight locations Indian Air Force choppers have been kept ready to ferry personnel to troubled spots within 10 minutes,” said a senior home ministry official on condition of anonymity.
“We have identified 32 locations which are sensitive to communal tensions. These places are in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat—mainly Ahmedabad, Kerala, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and some parts in Maharashtra,” the official added.
Sahil Makkar, Ruhi Tewari and Anuja of Mint and Reuters also contributed to this story.