On 9 November, the Supreme Court of India handed over a contentious holy site to Hindus in a three decades-old dispute with Muslims, and ordered the construction of a temple at the same spot where a mosque was razed by a frenzied mob.
While the court admitted that the destruction of the mosque was “an egregious violation of the rule of law”, it still granted legal possession of the land to the parties responsible for the “illegal” flattening of a Muslim site of worship.
It is easy to contend that the historic verdict was a clear sign of the Indian judiciary bending to majoritarian whims at a time when the right-wing Hindu populist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trampling on the rights of minorities. The destruction of Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 set a bitter communal strife between Hindus and Muslims in motion that continues to simmer today. One of the most obdurate inter-community religious disputes in modern India, it has driven competitive communalism, religious strife and political discord.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the country following the ruling, saying there was no place for fear in the new India. “The Supreme Court has shown the country that the most difficult of issues can be resolved under the law, under the Constitution.”
Modi’s statement is a clear sign of how the dispute had all the ingredients necessary to shred the delicate communal peace between the country’s majority Hindus and its 200 million-strong Muslim minority. Despite subdued celebrations by the right-wing Hindu groups and a tight-lipped silence from Muslims, the contentious ruling has already cast a shadow on other religious disputes in the country and left minorities, especially Muslims, fearing a further devolution of rights in the wake of growing Hindu assertions.
In 1528, Mir Baqi, a military officer of the first Mughal Emperor Babur, ordered the construction of a mosque in Ayodhya, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It was in 1853 that Hindus made a claim to the site for the first time, as the birthplace of Lord Ram, stating that the mosque was built after the demolition of a temple.
A platform, known as Ram Chabootra, was erected outside the mosque for Hindus to worship. The British built a fence to separate the platform from the mosque in 1859. But in 1949, Hindu worshippers placed an idol of Ram inside the mosque and spread the message that it had “miraculously” appeared. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, ordered the idol removed but a local official, known for his Hindu nationalist connections, refused to carry out the order. Hashim Ansari, a local Muslim, then approached the courts in an attempt to have the idol removed.
Later in 1959, Hindu group Nirmohi Akhara filed suit for possession of the site, claiming that they were the custodians of the spot where Ram was supposedly born. The Sunni Waqf Board also joined the court battle.
Beginning in the 1980s, a number of Hindu organisations, known collectively as the Sangh Parivar, advocated for the destruction of the mosque and its replacement with a grand temple dedicated to Rama. In 1989, right-wing Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) filed suit for possession of the land in the Allahabad high court. The group soon launched its movement to reclaim the land.
India’s current ruling party, the BJP, lent its support, making this a poll plank.
On 6 December 1992, a frenzied mob of Hindu karsevaks (Sangh workers) razed the mosque and riots broke out all over the country in the aftermath of the demolition.
The central government appointed the Liberhan commission to investigate the destruction of the Babri Mosque. The commissioners submitted their report in 2009, accusing top BJP leaders LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and others of conspiring in the demolition.
The following year, the Allahabad high court ruled that the disputed land be divided in three: a third going to Ram Lalla (under representation of the Hindu Mahasabha), a third to the Muslim Waqf Board and the remaining third to Nirmohi Akhara. All the parties challenged the high court ruling in the Supreme Court, which stayed the Allahabad court order.
While the government has hailed the Ayodhya verdict as “a golden chapter in the history of the Indian judiciary”, many say that the judicial outcome has come to represent a vindication of majoritarian interests. The ultra-right-wing VHP, which led the Hindu case, welcomed the court decision.
Principal opposition party Indian National Congress hailed the decision and urged all parties to accept the court’s verdict, noting that the party was in favour of the construction of a Ram temple. “As I said, Lord Ram is sacrifice, love, dedication, love between all communities, whatever decision has come from the Supreme Court, has closed the doors for politics of all the parties who were trying to capitalise on this politics of religion,” said party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala.
Dalit leader and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Kumari Mayawati termed the court’s decision as “historic” and appealed that all future work be done in a “harmonious environment”.
India’s left-wing parties were cautiously critical of the judgment. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) stated that while this judgment has provided a judicial resolution to this fractious issue, there are certain premises of the judgment that are “questionable.” The party said the demolition was a “criminal act and an assault on the secular principle” of the country.
“The verdict has failed to provide a convincing resolution of the dispute, and the incoherence between the premise and conclusion of the judgment makes it inconsistent and unconvincing,” read a statement from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Leading Muslim parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi cautioned about the repercussions of the ruling, and said it was a victory of faith over facts. “There are several other mosques in this country over which ‘Sanghis’ have laid claim. Now we are wondering if they will cite this judgment in those cases, too.”
A few leading Muslim parties have decided to file a review petition against the verdict. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (a body of top Islamic clerics) and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind said they would submit a review petition. Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind president Arshad Madani said the top court in its judgment said that there was no proof that the mosque was built by demolishing a temple. “If we assumed that the court had invoked Article 142 of the Constitution, which gives it special powers, for delivering this judgment, it was not based on merit and evidence and defied all reason and logic.”
More than 100 Indian academics, artists and archaeological experts have called publicly for a review of the court’s verdict to grant temple construction rights at the disputed site. “No speculation over archaeological excavations on the site, on which the court has so much relied, would have been possible without the previous destruction of the Masjid. Nor would it have been as easy for the court to hand over the site to the Hindu side if the Masjid had still stood, a statement issued through the CPM-backed Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust underlined.
It emphasised that the court’s treatment of archaeology and history appeared cavalier and one-sided, and that there was not “an iota of proof” for the court’s assumption that Muslims had ceased to pray in the mosque. “Nor is there any proof that Hindus anywhere before very late times believed that Lord Rama was born precisely at the site of Babri Masjid, which should, of course, not be confused with the belief that he was born in Ayodhya. Remarkably, the court glosses over Tulsidas’ silence on the site of his birth.”
India’s former finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, has also criticised the court’s verdict, saying that the judgment was “faulty” and “full of flaws”. The former BJP politician said, however, that the Muslim community should accept it.
“Ram has triumphed politically,” opined noted Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an article titled “The reconfiguration of Hinduism is now complete”. In a sarcastic takedown of the court’s judgment, Mehta accentuated that the “sovereignty of Ram’s empire over the hearts and minds” of Hindus is unequivocally declared.
“He has politically triumphed over all the deniers: Those who denied he existed, and those who denied that there was an attempt to erase his temples. He has triumphed because a way has been cleared for the central government to manage Ram’s land, to create a grand structure to mark his divinity. His sovereignty, and our faith in him, can now be affirmed in legalese, and etched in stone.”
In his article, “Ayodhya verdict: Abandoning our secular heroes”, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan underlined that: “If mythological or religious deities have dormant property rights that can be awoken any time their followers and legal ‘friends’ reach a critical mass, seeing that Hindus alone have 330 million gods and goddesses, we are in for interesting times.”
Patwardhan, who made Ram Ke Naam, a 1992 documentary about the events that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, added that the VHP has already earmarked their “next immediate targets” as the Kashi and Mathura disputed sites.
In their editorial, legal experts Prannv Dhawan and Parth Maniktala noted that the Supreme Court may have “averted an immediate crisis” as there was no outbreak of violence or bloodshed in the aftermath of the Ayodhya verdict. They did, however, caution that perhaps the greater crisis that the court has “involuntarily invited” is that of minorities losing their faith in the institution of the judiciary. “In an environment where the legislature and the executive are turning unashamedly majoritarian, vulnerable minorities have no choice but to repose their faith in the courts. One can only hope that the judiciary stays true to that faith.”
Similar concerns were expressed by journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani, who marks that the biggest problem with the verdict is that it has triggered “loss of faith” among Muslims in a justice system that chose a majoritarian conception of “social peace”. She underlines that the silence and non-reaction from the Muslim community to the verdict could be “fear of backlash” from the Hindu majority as well as from a system that has openly worked against them. “What can be worse for a democracy when its largest minority group does not hope for justice but fearfully settles for a verdict that they know is no less than injustice to them?”
The “regressive” verdict of the Supreme Court has clearly set a wrong precedent for further religiously dogmatic claims by right-wing Hindu groups, and compromised the justice system and the rule of law to a majoritarian agenda. The moment marks a slide of India into an illiberal majoritarian nation led by a growing authoritarian regime.