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A case for law students
April 22, 2003
A forecast was made on February 14 this year for rediff readers that a miracle would be needed for the Supreme Court to grant the Vajpayee government's second plea that 43 acres of the undisputed land acquired by the central government under the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993, be returned to its original owners viz the VHP-controlled Ram Janambhoomi Nyas. Though that forecast was spiked by kindly, cautious legal eagles, the apex court's decision on March 31 proved the prediction was right. It ordered a status quo on 2.77 acres of disputed land (on which the Babri structure once stood) as well as the adjacent plots of land (the ownership of which was not in doubt) that together formed the bundle of 67.703 acres acquired under the above Ayodhya Act.
The relevant sentence of the latest SC judgment is '...the manner or extent to which the adjacent land could be used would depend upon the final outcome of the pending dispute.' It also said 'the order made by this Court on March 13/14 2002 should be operative until disposal of the suits in the Allahabad high court not only to maintain communal harmony but also to fulfil the other objectives of the 1993 Acquisition Act.' (The Hindu, April 1, 2003).
And what precisely are the objectives of that Act about which the apex court has now reminded us? The fourth paragraph of the 'Statement of Objects and Reasons' issued for the enactment of the said Act of 1993 stated as follows:
'As it is necessary to maintain communal harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst the people of India, it was considered necessary to acquire the site of the disputed structure and suitable adjacent land for setting up a complex which could be developed in a manner wherein a Ram temple, a mosque, amenities for pilgrims, a library, museum and other suitable facilities can be set up.' (AIR, 1995, SC, M Ismail Faruqui v Union of India page 616)
What the Act intended to achieve was the building of a Ram temple as well as a mosque amidst a religious-cum-social public park. It was meant to be the fulfilment of then prime minister Narasimha Rao's promise to the Muslims of re-constructing the destroyed structure while simultaneously granting a Ram temple to the nation's Hindu majority -- a typically Congress concept of 'secularism.'
To achieve that objective, Rao's government needed to do away with the long-standing dispute over the ownership of the site of 2.77 acres on which had stood the structure that, according to the government's White Paper of February 1993, was designated in old government records as 'Masjid Janmasthan' but had commonly come to be described as 'Rama Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid.'
To banish that intractable legal dispute to history once and for all, the crafty Narasimha Rao got his Acquisition Act to abate 'any suit, appeal or proceeding... pending before any court, tribunal or other authority in respect of the right, title and interest relating to any property' included in the bundle of 67.703 acres to be acquired by the central government under the said Act. This abatement was done through Section 4(3) of the Act of 1993.
But the Supreme Court's majority verdict (three out of five judges) of October 1994 ruled that such abatement by law of all pending suits and legal proceedings 'without providing for alternative dispute resolution mechanism' amounted to 'an extinction of judicial remedy' and 'negation of rule of law.' The court therefore held Section 4(3) as unconstitutional and invalid. [ibid, paragraph 98(1), page 644]
The verdict also held that though Section 4(3) was unconstitutional, it was severable and 'its invalidity is not an impediment to the remaining statute being upheld as valid.' (ibid, paragraph 65, page 637). No reason for this point of view was given. The minority verdict of two judges not only found Section 4(3) but also the entire Acquisition Act as unconstitutional.
Despite the Act itself (and therefore its stated objectives) being declared valid, Narasimha Rao's grand plan of a multi-purpose complex at Ayodhya got stalled without that abatement clause. There was no way he could have built that path-breaking complex by leaving out an island of 2.77 acres of land, the fate of which was undecided as to whether it would hold aloft a Ram temple or a mosque for Muslims.
The Congress was dislodged from power in the 1996 Parliamentary election and Rao himself has passed into history. What remains is the temple-masjid dispute along with its bitterness and potential for communal frenzy; what also remains is the bundle of 67.703 acres of land in government's custody, unutilised despite the undisclosed amount of cash compensation paid at market rates for its acquisition.
What remains moreover is the rest of the Acquisition Act and the Supreme Court verdict of 1994 with its conflicting interpretations by contesting parties, by various legal eagles and newspaper columnists.
What also remains is an enduring mystery. If the basic, very fundamental objective of the Acquisition Act was to ensure communal harmony through a multi-purpose complex accommodating a Ram temple as well as mosque, how and why did the majority verdict talk of returning excess land to its original owners?
The following three excerpts from that verdict indicate that a multi-purpose complex envisaged by the Acquisition Act was not in the apex court's vision eight-and-a-half years ago.
Why did the three majority judges veer away from the Acquisition Act's fundamental objectives of communal harmony through a multi-purpose complex incorporating a Ram temple as well as mosque? Why did the focus shift to 'returning land to original owners' after adjudication of the disputed area?
What happened for the Supreme Court to revert the other day to 'the other objectives of the Acquisition Act' -- without the disputed area?
All in all, a classic case study for the student of law.
Tailpiece: If the objective of a government-owned multi-purpose complex is revived, as reminded by the latest apex court order, the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas and other Hindu land owners around the disputed area may well kiss the last goodbye to their erstwhile land -- unless a new law comes to their rescue.