By Ajaz Ashraf
The only salutary aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision to appoint a three-member panel to mediate in the controversial Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, also known as the Ayodhya dispute, is that its forbidding shadow will not fall on the forthcoming Lok Sabha election. Yet, from whatever perspective the hellishly complicated Ayodhya tangle is perceived, it is very unlikely that the mediation process will succeed.
It is possible to argue that the mediation panel, comprising Justice (retd) FMI Khalifullah, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu, may have been caught on the wrong foot. This is because none of its three members, according to sources, was on the list of negotiators that lawyers representing the Muslim side in the Ayodhya dispute presented to the Supreme Court.
It is possible that the names suggested by lawyers of the Hindu side, too, were excluded from the mediation panel. Yet the inclusion of Ravi Shankar has already stirred up a controversy given Shankar’s publicly articulated position on the Ayodhya dispute echoes that of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Take the Palampur resolution that the BJP’s national executive passed on 11 June, 1989. It stated, “The BJP holds that the nature of this controversy (Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid) is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law… The sentiments of the people must be respected, and Rama Janamasthan handed over to the Hindus — if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else, by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer.”
Compare that resolution to Shankar’s stance in March 2018. In a series of media interviews then, he asked Muslims to give up their “claims on Ayodhya as a goodwill gesture.” Explaining, Ravi Shankar said, “If the court rules against (the building of) the temple (in Ayodhya), there will be bloodshed. The government may not be able to implement the court order. Do you think the majority community will accept such an order?”
The AOL founder, thus, went a step further than even the BJP, explicitly spelling out the fate awaiting Muslims in case they refused to hand over the site where the Babri Masjid had stood before it was demolished on 6 December, 1992 — and which is claimed to be the spot where Lord Ram was born.
In yet another interview, Shankar sought to menace Muslims into submission. A verdict against the Ram temple, he said, would create a “Syria in India”, shorthand for civil war, which will be “devastating for the nation in general and the Muslim community in particular.” To avoid the possibility of civil war, the only way out of the Ayodhya imbroglio was an out-of-court settlement between Hindus and Muslims, he said.
From Ravi Shankar’s perspective the starting point for an out-of-court settlement presumes Muslims relinquishing their right to the site of the Babri Masjid. After all, if the judicial verdict against the Ram temple in Ayodhya is unacceptable to Hindus, it is very unlikely they would waive their claims to it through negotiations.
Ravi Shankar’s inclusion in the mediation panel is problematic also because he is perceived to be close to the BJP. For instance, it was he who floated the idea of the United Nations hosting the International Yoga Day, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Remember the Art of Living’s World Cultural Festival held in Delhi in March 2016? It became controversial because of the fears that the venue of the festival — the flood plains of the Yamuna — could suffer environmental degradation. Despite the festival being widely panned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi graced the occasion for all of three hours. Subsequently, the National Green Tribunal imposed a fine of Rs 5 crore on the Art of Living for causing environmental damage. Ravi Shankar went in appeal against the Tribunal’s verdict to the Supreme Court, where the case is still pending.
Ravi Shankar’s close association with the BJP and the RSS has many wondering whether he has the credentials to play the mediator’s role, which demands neutrality for ensuring that disputants repose faith in the negotiation process. History tells us that just about every offer of a negotiated settlement was aborted because the RSS-BJP insisted on the pre-condition of Muslims handing over the Babri Masjid site to Hindus.
On 10 May, 1986, Syed Shahabuddin, a member of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, proposed a settlement plan. It entailed removing the idols placed in the Babri Masjid on the night of 22-23 December, 1949 and building a “magnificent temple” on the Ram Chabutra, or raised platform. The chabutra in Shahabuddin’s proposal was built by the mahant of Hanumangarhi temple after the revolt of 1857. In 1861, the district administration erected a wall to separate the mosque from the chabutra.
In 1883, mahant Raghubar Das started to build a temple over the chabutra, but the district magistrate, because of the objections of Muslims, stopped the construction. Das filed a suit in the court of Sub Judge, who disallowed the temple to be built. Das went in appeal to District Judge Col FEA Chamier, who upheld the verdict of the Sub Judge. In his judgement, Chamier noted, “The chabutra is said to indicate the birthplace of Ram Chandra.” This was re-stated by the Court of Judicial Commissioner, Oudh, in his judgement on the issue in 1886.
Until 1886, at least, Lord Ram was not supposed to have been born under the mosque’s central dome. It was perhaps why Congress leader Karan Singh, who is widely acclaimed for his knowledge of Hindu philosophy, wrote on 15 January, 1987: “There seems to be no controversy regarding the ‘Chabutra’ where in fact worship had been has been carried on for many years. I suggest that a national committee be formed to draw up plans for the construction of a magnificent temple on that site.”
The option of building the Ram temple on the chabutra was foreclosed with the Palampur resolution of 1989. Nevertheless, a series of meetings was held between the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an RSS affiliate spearheading the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and the Babri Masjid Action Committee between 1990 and 1992. The only consequence of these meetings was an abrasive set of questions both the VHP and BMAC prepared for each other to answer.
These questions were rendered irrelevant with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on Dec 6, 1992. In its place a makeshift Ram temple was built. In January 1993, the Central government acquired 66.7 acres of land in Ayodhya, including 2.77 acres on which the demolished structure had stood and where a makeshift Ram temple had been built. In its judgement upholding the acquisition, the Supreme Court held that puja was to continue at the makeshift temple, but no construction activity could be undertaken anywhere in the acquired 66.7 acres of land.
Yet attempts were made to begin the construction of the Ram temple in the area outside of 2.77 acres in March 2002. The National Democratic Alliance was then in power and AB Vajpayee was the prime minister. Whether construction could begin became a subject of informal discussion between the Shankaracharya of Kanchi and the president of the Muslim Personal Law Board. This effort fizzled out as the Supreme Court ruled on March 13 that “no religious activity of any kind by anyone” could take place in the 66.7 acres of the acquired land.
A fresh attempt at a negotiated settlement was made in 2010. On 3 August, 2010, a three-member Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, which was hearing the Ayodhya case, inquired from lawyers representing Hindu and Muslim litigants whether they wanted to reconcile. The Hindu side reportedly rejected the offer. Through its judgement of 30 September, the bench divided the disputed site between the Nirmohi Akhara sect, the Sunni Central Waqf Board and Ramlalla Virajman, or the presiding deity of the makeshift temple in Ayodhya.
Disputants went in appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court judgement. In March 2017, then Chief Justice of India JS Khehar offered to mediate for resolving the Ayodhya dispute. Explaining, Chief Justice Khehar said: “Give a bit, take a bit. These are issues best decided jointly. These are issues of sentiments and religion. The court should come in the picture only if you cannot settle it.” He withdrew his offer, perhaps, because of the outcry against it.
A dispute cannot be resolved jointly as long as one of the contending parties insists that it must take everything and give nothing in return. This is precisely what the RSS seeks to achieve through its stubborn insistence that a negotiated settlement must involve Muslims handing over the disputed site to Hindus.
Indeed, the Supreme Court-appointed mediation in the Ayodhya dispute cannot succeed unless the RSS agrees to give, as Chief Justice Khehar said, “a bit” to Muslims. But the mediation process will push the final arguments in the Ayodhya title suit beyond the timeframe of the Lok Sabha elections. This is because the panel is expected to present its final report in two months, by which time several rounds of elections would have been held. Arguments at the peak of the election campaign could have stoked passions, involving as it would have such prickly questions as to the historicity of Lord Ram.