January 24, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sharat Pradhan

Ayodhya: A legal reckoner

Notwithstanding the vociferous claims and counter-claims over the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, the Hindu community first attempted a legal claim over the 16th century Babri Masjid only after Independence. Until then, they had only staked claim to the platform outside the precincts of the mosque, popularly known as Lord Ram's Chabootra or Janmasthal.

This was evident from the legal records of the different cases that have now been clubbed together and are pending before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court. Broadly, these cases attempt to thrash out three issues: Is this Ram's birthplace? Was a temple demolished to build the mosque? Was the mosque built in accordance with the tenets of Islam?

While the high court is to determine who has the right to the disputed property, the case relating to the demolition of the mosque is before a special CBI court in Lucknow. Already chargesheeted are 42 Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal leaders, three Union ministers -- Home Minister L K Advani, Human Resources Minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi and Minister of State for Sport Uma Bharti -- and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

No case is currently pending before the Supreme Court, but it is widely understood that whatever the high court verdict, the matter will eventually be taken up before the apex court.

In order to understand the background more clearly, let us go back to the first suit, which was filed on January 19, 1885. It sought to gain the right over the chabootra for its plaintiff, Raghubar Das. The plantiff, who described himself as the Janmasthan Mahant, sought permission to erect a temple on the chabootra, which was then popularly accepted as the birthplace of Lord Ram. In his order dated February 24, 1885, the judge declined permission on the ground that, even though the land on which the chabootra stood belonged to the plaintiff, 'it was so close to the existing masjid that it would be contrary to public policy to grant a decree authorising him to build a temple as desired by him.' The Faizabad sub-judge who came to this decision was a Brahmin, Pandit Hari Kishan.

Das then appealed to Faizabad's district judge, Colonel J E A Chambier, who, after a spot inspection on March 17,1886, dismissed the appeal on the same grounds. He also struck down the part of the sub-judge's verdict which conceded the property to Das.

The temple that the VHP proposes to build at the disputed site
The temple that the VHP proposes to
build at the disputed site
Judge Chambier ruled: 'I found that the masjid built by Emperor Babar stands on the border of the town of Ayodhya... It is most unfortunate that a masjid should have been built on the land specially held sacred by the Hindus. But, as it occurred 356 years ago, it is too late now to remedy the grievance. All that can be done is to maintain the parties in status quo.' He went on to observe: 'This chabootra is said to indicate the birthplace of Ram Chander... A wall pierced here and there with a railing hides the platform of the masjid from the enclosure in which stands the chabootra.'

The matter went up to Oudh Judicial Commissioner W Young, who, while rejecting Das's plea, observed in his judgment dated November 1, 1886: 'This spot is situated within the precincts of the grounds surrounding a mosque erected some 350 years ago, owing to the bigotry and tyranny of the emperor who purposely chose this holy spot, according to Hindu legend, as the site of his mosque. The Hindus seem to have got very limited rights of access to certain spots within the precinct adjoining the mosque and they have, for a series of years, been persistently trying to increase those rights and to erect buildings on two spots in the enclosure, namely Sita ki rasoi (Sita's kitchen) and Ram Chander ki janmabhoomi.' Upholding the earlier decisions, the judicial commissioner only disputed the Mahant's claim to ownership of the chabootra.

The District Gazetteer of 1905 confirmed that both Hindus and Muslims were offering prayers in the same building until 1855. 'Since the mutiny of 1857, an outer enclosure has been put up in front of the mosque and the Hindus, who are forbidden access to the inner yard, make their offerings on a platform (chabootra) which they have raised in the outer one.'

With the dismissal of this appeal, the Hindus's first legal battle to gain control over the disputed area came to an end. Nothing significant was reported over the next 48 years until 1934, when a communal flare-up over the slaughter of a cow in a neighbouring village provoked an attack on the Babri Masjid. Some damage was caused to one of the three domes of the mosque; it was later repaired at government cost.

Thereafter, all was quiet until the night of December 22, 1949, when the idol of Lord Ram was surreptitiously placed in the middle of the mosque, following which hundreds of Hindus barged in and started offering prayers. Even though the crowds were pushed back and the mosque's gates were padlocked, the deity remained inside. No one dared to move it, despite a stern directive to do so from then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Gobind Ballabh Pant.

Then district magistrate K K K Nayyar expressed his inability to get the idol removed; he said he would prefer to be relieved of the charge rather than carry out the orders. Then Faizabad division commissioner S S L Dar wrote to the government, 'I have studied the situation and cautiously sounded public opinion. I am satisfied that, in view of the grave risk of riots on a large scale, it would not be desirable to attempt the removal of the idol through a government agency.' He also said 'it would not be wise to stop the bhog and aarti at the spot where the deity was placed' and added, 'I think that, with the lapse of time, the present excitement will wear off and it would then be possible to evolve some satisfactory and enduring plan to end this dilemma.'

For sometime, it seemed everyone was satisfied with the status quo and, by December 29, 1949, the additional city magistrate ordered the attachment of the property. Then local municipal board chairman Priya Dutt Ram was appointed the receiver.

Barely two weeks later, on January 16, 1950, a suit was filed by a local resident, Gopal Singh Visharad, before Faizabad's civil judge, seeking permission to offer prayers inside the mosque where the deity of Lord Ram stood installed. Civil Judge N N Chadha passed an interim injunction, with the rider that the public could not be allowed to freely offer puja or receive darshan. But the local pujari was allowed to perform the daily bhog.

However, in a written statement filed before the judge on April 24, 1950, the new district magistrate J N Ugra stated clearly: 'It has been used for a long period by the Muslims as a mosque for the purpose of worship. It has not been in use as a temple of Shri Ram Chandrajee.' He also confirmed that the 'idols of Shri Ram Chandrajee were surreptitiously and wrongly put inside it.'

The ownership of the land, though, remained a disputed issue as another local Hindu congregation, the Nirmohi Akhara, also staked its claim. In the subsequent year, five of Ayodhya's Muslims, led by Mohammad Hashim, moved a petition before the high court, seeking a vacation of the injunction order.

In 1955, a division bench of the Allahabad high court ruled that the status quo needed to be maintained, but expressed the need for a final decision to be taken within six months, 'in view of the seriousness of the matter.'

Six years later, in 1961, Mohammad Hashim filed another suit, pleading for restoration of the property to the Muslims. By 1964, the peripheral cases were settled and a date was fixed for the final hearing of this case. To this end, a new receiver was appointment in 1968. However, his role became redundant as yet another appeal was filed before the Allahabad high court in 1971. Subsequently, the case was not taken up until 1983, when the VHP launched its temple movement in a big way.

Even as the tempo of the the temple movement increased, Faizabad district Judge K M Pandey ordered the gates of the disputed site to be unlocked in the late afternoon of February 1, 1986. This was done on an application moved by local lawyer U C Pandey, who sought permission to offer prayers. Simultaneously, VHP leaders S N Katju, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, both of whom were former Allahabad high court judges, and Shirish Chandra Dikshit, former UP director general of police, met the district magistrate, seeking his permission for Lord Ram's darshan.

Judge Pandey observed, 'After having heard the parties, it is clear that the members of the other community, namely the Muslims, are not going to be affected by any stretch of imagination if the locks of the gates were opened and idols inside the premises are allowed to be seen and worshipped by the pilgrims and devotees.' But his remark that the 'heavens will not fall if the locks of the gates are removed' did not hold true; the order sparked off nation-wide rioting and communal clashes.

As a result, the Sunni Waqf Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee moved the Allahabad high court against the district judge's order. However, the order was not stayed. Meanwhile, all cases pertaining to the Ayodhya dispute were referred to the court's Lucknow bench.

The shilanayas in 1989 further aggravated the issue. The police firing ordered by Mulayam Singh Yadav's government on the violent kar sevaks in 1990 polarised Hindu votes in favour of the BJP and brought Kalyan Singh to power in 1991. Singh ordered the acquisition of 2.75 acres of land around the mosque in a bid to show his party's seriousness towards building the temple. However, BMAC convener Zafaryab Jilani promptly moved yet another writ petition to prevent any kind of construction on the acquired land.

Meanwhile, Aslam Bhure, a Delhi-based Muslim, moved the Supreme Court against the acquisition. But the apex court transferred the case to the Lucknow high court, with the directive that the status quo be maintained until the high court decided on the five writs that were, by then, pending there.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid
The demolition of the Babri Masjid
The demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992, led the Muslims to move a contempt application against the UP government; then chief minister Kalyan Singh was, as a result, awarded a day's imprisonment. January 15 was fixed for the next hearing. Meanwhile, a few days after the demolition of the mosque, the then central government headed by P V Narasimha Rao issued an ordinance and acquired 67 acres of land in and around the disputed site.

In 1994, the Supreme Court ordered the abatement of all pending suits and nullified all interim orders issued by various courts in Ayodhya-related cases. Writ petitions moved by both Hindus and Muslims against the acquisition order failed to evoke a favourable outcome as the Supreme Court ordered that the land remain in the central government's custody and the status quo be maintained until the Lucknow high court disposed of the writ petition pending before a three-judge bench. This petition aimed to determine whether a Hindu temple had existed on the disputed site prior to the construction of the Babri Masjid and whether the mosque was built on the debris of a temple.

The final hearing began on July 23, 1996; since then, both the Babri Masjid Action Committee and Sunni Waqf Board have presented a total of 17 witnesses. According to BMAC counsel Abdul Mannan, "We do not propose to put up more than two or three more witnesses, but the VHP and its allies have put up only two witnesses so far. Also, the case is getting delayed because the other parties are taking very long in their cross-examination of our witnesses."

Legal experts closely associated with the case are of the view that a day-to-day hearing could take the case to its logical conclusion within a year. "Of course, the legal battle is not expected to end here; whoever loses is bound to seek ultimate justice in the apex court," says a top government official who sees no early legal solution to the drama.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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