The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the vehement submission of Sunni Waqf Board and others that hearing of appeals in the sensitive Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute be conducted in July 2019 after the general elections and fixed February 8 to hear them.
A special bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra also “prima facie” declined the demand put by a battery of senior lawyers including Kapil Sibal and Rajeev Dhavan that the appeals be either referred to a five or seven judge bench, keeping in mind the sensitive nature of the case and its ramifications on the country’s secular fabric and polity.
The bench, also comprising Justices Ashok Bhusan and S A Nazeer, asked the advocates on records, dealing with as many 14 civil appeals against the 2010 judgement of the Allahabad high court in the land dispute, to sit together and ensure that all requisite documents are translated, filed and numbered before the apex court registry.
In case of any problem, they were directed to consult the registry, it said, while fixing February 8 to hear the appeals against the Allahabad high court order. The special apex court bench is hearing a total of 14 appeals filed against this judgment in four civil suits.
A three-judge bench of the Allahabad high court, in a 2:1 majority ruling, had in 2010 ordered that the land be partitioned equally among three parties -- the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.
Tuesday’s hearing witnessed high drama with lawyers representing the Sunni Waqf Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee, virtually threatening to walkout of the proceedings as the bench asked senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, representing the deity Ram Lalla Virajman, to commence his submissions in the case.
When the bench headed by the CJI rejected their contention that the matters be sent to a larger bench saying “no, no...”, Sibal, appearing for Sunni Wakf Board, said “I do believe that any decision in this case will have very serious ramifications and the appeals should be referred to a five or seven judge constitution bench. Do not say ‘no, no, no’. Please hear the matter keeping in mind the ramifications...”
He said, “Please fix the matter in July 2019 and we assure that we will not seek any adjournments... justice should not only be done, it should seem to be done.”
The bench countered: “What kind of submission is this? You are saying July 2019. Should it not be heard before that?”
Another senior advocate Dushayant Dave, appearing for one of the parties, questioned the “hurry” in hearing the appeals and referred to the fact that the issue of Ram Temple was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto.
To this, the bench retorted: “You say it should not be heard ever only because it was not heard in last seven years.”
At the outset, Sibal said the pleadings in the cases were not complete due to the voluminous records running into over 19,000 pages.
Till date, the registry has “given us documents in two separate discs -- on September 18, 2017 and on November 7, 2017 respectively. However there are many exhibits and several pleadings which are not contained in these discs and which are still awaited,” he said, adding that the high court had relied upon 781 judgments and they have to be compiled.
Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Uttar Pradesh Government, and senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, representing the deity, Ram Lalla Virajman, opposed the contention and said the pleadings were complete and the requisite documents have been filed and supplied.
Moreover, it was made clear by the court that it would commence hearing from December 5, they said.
Sibal sought time saying the pleadings were not complete as many were still awaited. “How do you prepare cases if they (pleadings) are not complete,” he said.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for a Hindu ‘mahant’, opposed the contention saying the parties were supposed to commence arguments.
“Last time also you (Sibal) had said the same thing. Today again you are saying the same thing,” the bench said, adding “you (parties) tell us what was the case before the high court”.
Sibal and others including Dhavan again sought time, saying time be granted to enable them prepare the case.
The submission was supported by Dave who said the court should not fall into a “trap”. He sought the setting up of a larger bench as was done in the case of Justice C S Karnan to send a message across.
“What kind of argument is this,” the bench remarked.
Dhavan said that a three-judge bench cannot hear these appeals in view of a judgment which had held that mosques were integral to Islam and this case also pertained to a mosque.
Salve and the ASG took strong exception to the submission questioning the “hurry” on part of the apex court in hearing the appeals in the matter.
“I take exception to the submission that the apex court was in a hurry. Seven years have gone by and the bench is not told that it was in a hurry,” the ASG said.
Dhavan went to the extent of saying that the hearing will not be over by October next year (when the CJI would demit office). However, he quickly retracted when the bench again said “what kind of a submission is this”.
“When original suit was finished in 90 days by the Allahabad high court, why should it take longer than that here,” the bench asked.
“Both the sides had a message for this court. But we know what to do. Don’t give a message to this court by telling us what message we will send out,” the bench said.
Salve said he was “disturbed” to hear such arguments and the fact was that the appeals were pending since 2010.
This court has dealt with many sensitive issues earlier and the ramifications outside are not going to decide as to when the matter will be heard, Salve said, adding that the issue whether the matters needed to be heard by a constitution bench can be decided later if such questions arise in future.
The top court had on August 11 asked the UP government to complete within 10 weeks the translation of the evidence recorded for adjudication of the title dispute in the high court. It had said it would not allow the matter to take any shape other than the civil appeals and would adopt the same procedure as was done by the high court.