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NEW DELHI : The centre moved the Supreme Court on Tuesday seeking permission for release of what it called the “non-disputed" land around the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site to its original owners.

The “non-disputed" land, acquired by the government in 1993, comprises some 67 acres but, according to the centre, would not include 0.313 acre of land that it said is disputed. It does, however, include parcels of land given by the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Uttar Pradesh to the Ram Janmabhoomi (RJB) Nyas, a trust promoting and overseeing the construction of a temple in Ayodhya.

In its appeal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government sought modification of the apex court’s order of 2003 directing a “status quo" on the excess land.

The legal application comes two days before a meeting of the Dharma Sansad (congregation of Hindu priests) in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), during the ongoing Ardh Kumbh. The two-day meeting, scheduled to take place on Thursday and Friday, is set to demand the construction of a temple at the Ayodhya site.

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(Graphic: Paras Jain/Mint)

“BJP had always maintained that Ram temple will be built on Ram Janmabhoomi. Whatever legal measure is required, BJP will try for that. PM had clarified that people want temple but the matter is sub judice and measures will be taken accordingly. The application is also a legal decision. The government is not touching the disputed land," said human resources development minister Prakash Javadekar.

The move comes just two months before the 2019 general elections. Additionally, UP is politically important for the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as it won 73 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2014 general elections.

The government said it is seeking the modification pending the final decision of the Constitution bench hearing the main title dispute: while parties succeeding in the original appeals get “proper access to and enjoyment of rights in the disputed land", it said, the rest could be handed back to the RJB Nyas and other owners from whom it was acquired.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad urged the court to hear the issue expeditiously after cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

The Congress Tuesday questioned the timing of the centre’s plea. “We have nothing to do with this matter which is yet to come up in court. The court will decide, application will be allowed, dismissed or modified—that is between the Supreme Court and the applicant...suddenly 16 years later they say, just two months before election, to give that land to anybody and for that purpose please modify that order. I have given you the facts, you judge for yourself, ultimate judge is Supreme Court," senior Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters on Tuesday evening.

A new Constitution bench formed on 25 January was slated to hear the issue on Tuesday but this was cancelled as one of the judges on the bench, justice S.A. Bobde, was on leave that day. The next date for hearing has not been given.

The case has been on the back burner despite attempts by senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, an intervener in the case, to get an early hearing.

The earlier Constitution bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices S.A. Bobde, N.V. Ramana, D.Y. Chandrachud and U.U Lalit was set up on 8 January. A new Constitution bench had to be formed after Lalit recused himself.

Anuja contributed to this story.

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