The Supreme Court’s judgement forecloses the option of using the land in an imaginative new way
I was a reporter in Singapore on 6 December 1992, when I received a call from my mother. “Have you seen the TV?" she asked. I hadn’t. I looked at the wire reports. We have just killed Gandhi again, she said to me in Gujarati. The first dome of the Babri Masjid that stood in Ayodhya had fallen; members of a mob were on top of the next. The 16th century mosque with three domes was razed in a few hours.
The then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao promised to rebuild it, but the pledge was not fulfilled. Some leaders who led the movement that led to its destruction were arrested, but within years, they occupied some of India’s highest offices.
Over time, the mosque would recede from memory; writer V.S. Naipaul described the destruction as an act of “inevitable retribution" because of perceived humiliation—the belief that there was once a temple at the precise spot where the mosque had been built, and to set that wrong right, the temple had to be rebuilt, which meant the mosque had to go. Many Hindus shared that conviction, but it is impossible to say if all or a majority of Hindus at the time believed that, because in India, even minorities can run into millions. It was all about belief. We thought reason and the rule of law would prevail.
The astonishing Supreme Court judgement of 9 November 2019, which settled the dispute over ownership of the relevant real estate in Ayodhya, has raised several questions. The ruling will be held as an example by those who believe that pragmatism is a virtue and courts must take into account public sentiment, as also by those who believe in the rule of law and are left aghast by its logic.
Without venturing into whether Lord Ram is a historical figure, the court considered him a juridical person. Such “persons" do have certain rights, but as with a company (also a juridical person), those rights are limited.
The Archaeological Survey of India said there was indeed a structure beneath the mosque. The Supreme Court accepted this, but adjudged it merely to be non-Islamic; it did not ascribe any religion to that structure, nor did it find that it had been destroyed to build the mosque, which undercuts one of the main arguments of those who wanted to build a Ram temple there to set a wrong right.
Let that sink in for a moment. We do not know what that structure was; we do not know if it was destroyed to build a mosque. India is secular, the Supreme Court reassured us, and added that we should not take belief into account, but we should defer to faith.
The Supreme Court did not approve of the placing of Ram idols in the mosque in the late 1940s. It could not; India is secular, it had said. It also said that the mosque did not cease to be one merely because prayers were not offered. It noted that adherents of both faiths at various times offered prayers there, and went into past records of whether Hindus or Muslims had a superior claim to having done so for a longer uninterrupted span.
Here was an opportunity for the Supreme Court to draw lessons from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, once a Greek Orthodox church, then a mosque, and now a museum. It could have noted the uneasy truce that surrounds the history of the mosque-cathedral in Córdoba (about which Muhammad Iqbal wrote a poem), where a church became a mosque, then a church; where Muslims are seeking the right to worship, but crucially, where nobody in this century has talked of razing anything. Peaceful coexistence and sarva dharma samabhava (equal feelings towards all faiths) were the ideals of India’s founding fathers, who gave India the secular Constitution that the judges alluded to.
The 1992 flashpoint changed everything: the razing of the mosque to which my late mother had reacted with profound shock and sadness. The Supreme Court called the demolition illegal—it couldn’t be brushed aside—but those trials are still pending.
And then, the sudden leap that logic appears to have taken. The court ruled that the land belonged to Hindus on a “balance of probabilities", drawn from the likely nature of prayers offered at the site since olden days, and gave the 2.77 acres to the Union government for it to turn it over to a trust charged with the task of building a temple on the site. Almost as an act of charity, Muslims were given a larger plot in an undefined prominent part of Ayodhya to build a new mosque, with the government’s role in building that mosque left unclear.
There were other things the Supreme Court could perhaps have done. For instance, withholding judgement on who owned the plot until justice was served for the illegal destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, or permitting its dual use by Hindus and Muslims to commemorate unity in diversity, or designating the area as a public park to honour all those who lost their lives to communal carnage in India since 1947—the list of which is long and disheartening. There could be other creative ideas, too. But a judgement has now been delivered, and India is a different country.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at livemint.com/saliltripathi
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