As a three-member bench of the Supreme Court begins hearing the final arguments in the Ayodhya dispute from February 8, it is instructive to recall how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party have defied previous court orders in their campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid and erect a makeshift temple on the site they claim is birthplace of the deity Ram.
Their actions underscore the problems inherent in implementing whatever judgement the Supreme Court may pronounce in the Ayodhya title suit, which pertains to whether Hindus or Muslims own the land on which the Babri Masjid stood, until it was destroyed by Hindutva mobs on December 6, 1992. Hindutva supporters claim that a temple that once stood at the site had destroyed by the Mughals, and the Babri Masjid was built in its place in the 16th century.
Underpinning the challenges faced by the court is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s traditional position that matters such as the Ayodhya dispute should be outside judicial purview. This is the line the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive spelt out in Palampur on June 11, 1989: “A court of law can settle issues of title…But it cannot adjudicate as to whether Babar did actually invade Ayodhya, destroy a temple and build a mosque in its place. Even where a court does pronounce on such facts, it cannot suggest remedies to undo the vandalism of history.”
In its attempt to undo what it believed were the slights of the past, the Sangh Parivar has frequently acted in bad faith. Among the earliest instances of this dates back to 1989, when the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court transferred the five title suits related to the Babri Masjid from Faizabad to itself. On August 14, it issued an interim direction that the status quo should be maintained with regard to the mosque site.
Soon, however, the RSS affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad announced a plan to conduct a shilanyas, or foundation laying ceremony, for the Ram temple in Ayodhya on November 9 that year. This gave rise to fear that the High Court’s interim direction could be violated, sparking a breakdown of law and order.
To secure permission for the shilanyas, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad gave an undertaking to the Uttar Pradesh government that it would abide by the August 14 directive of the High Court to maintain the status quo. This implied that the shilanyas would be conducted outside the Babri Masjid site.
Yet, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad disingenuously chose Plot No 586 near the mosque for the ceremony. This plot has been claimed by the Sunni Waqf Board, which says it had been a Muslim cemetery. This prompted the Uttar Pradesh government to ask the High Court whether its order applied to this plot as well.
But even as the matter was being heard, activists of the Sangh Parivar enclosed Plot No 586 and planted a saffron flag on it. On November 7, 1989, the High Court clarified that its interim order applied not only to the structure of the Babri Masjid but to the entire property in dispute, of which Plot No 586 was also a part.
The shilanyas was conducted on November 9. Whether it happened on Plot No 586 or outside it was contested. The administration claimed the site of the ceremony was 100 feet away from the plot and, therefore, the August 14 order of the High Court had not been flouted. But the administration’s claim was not judicially determined.
In June 1991, the BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh. On October 7 that year, it issued a notification to acquire 2.77 acres of land adjacent to the Babri Masjid complex. The purpose, the notification said, was to develop tourism and provide amenities to pilgrims visiting the Ram Janmabhoomi, or birthplace of Ram.
The notification was challenged in both the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court. The High Court allowed the state to acquire the land, but prohibited it from building any permanent structures on it. In November 1991, the Supreme Court deemed the statements made by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh to the National Integration Council as representations made to the apex court. Singh’s statements included an undertaking that his government would “hold itself fully responsible for the protection of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid structures” and that the court orders regarding the acquisition of land would be fully implemented.
In February-March 1992, several structures, including temples, which stood on the acquired piece of land were demolished. To counter the charge that its intent was malafide, the government that April filed an affidavit in the Allabahad High Court claiming its objective was to renovate and reconstruct the Ram temple and develop the adjacent grounds as Ram Katha Park. “The first essential step to be taken in that direction is the clearance of the site of Ram Janmabhoomi of several structures and encroachments thereon,” the affidavit said.
The state government could argue that it had not violated the High Court’s order since it had only razed structures and not erected any. In reality, though, it turned out to be a ploy to build a platform during a karseva – a campaign of service for a religious cause – launched in late July 1992. In response to an application against this, the High Court ordered on July 15 that no construction activity could be carried out on the acquired land without its permission.
In its judgement in Mohd Aslam Obhure, Acchan Rizvi vs Union of India, State of Uttar Pradesh, 1994, a case of contempt of court, the Supreme Court narrated what had happened in Ayodhya in July 1992: after the High Court issued its order on July 15, Faizabad’s district magistrate and senior superintendent of police met Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal on July 18 to have the construction of the platform stopped. Singhal told the officers that at a meeting the previous day, 50 sadhus had decided against stopping the construction and asked the two officials to meet members of the Temple Renovation Committee, which was overseeing the work. Court records show the construction work continued till July 26.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court sent a committee to examine the structure that had been erected and it reported that a classical temple could be built “related to this configuration”. The court was convinced that substantial work had been carried out at the site, involving machinery and professional workmen, not just sadhus as the Sangh Parivar had claimed.
Following the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s announcement to perform another karseva on December 6, 1992, an application was made to the Supreme Court, in the contempt petition already filed by a man named Acchan Rizvi, on November 2. It requested the court to pass orders restraining the state government and the Sangh Parivar from undertaking fresh construction work on the acquired land in violation of court orders.
In response, the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Kalyan Singh told the Supreme Court that it was in negotiations with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu outfits participating in karseva and sought one adjournment after another. For instance, on November 20, the government’s lawyer, KK Venugopal, now India’s attorney general, told the court that the state government was “second to none in its anxiety” to ensure the enforcement of the court’s orders. He, however, argued that any coercive action against karsevaks would be counterproductive as various groups were negotiating to reach a settlement. On November 25, Venugopal cited the state government’s affidavit in which it had accepted responsibility to prevent the court orders from being violated. To fulfil its responsibility, Venugopal said, the government had decided to open direct negotiations with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu leaders. Again, the state government was granted an adjournment.
On November 28, the government told the Supreme Court it had made progress in its negotiations with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The court was also told that the “karseva would be a symbolic occasion for carrying on certain religious activities to assuage the feelings of the devotees and will not be exploited for any constructional activity, symbolic or otherwise”.
The court, accepted the government’s assurances and allowed a symbolic karseva. On December 6, tens of thousands karsevaks demolished the Babri Masjid and erected a makeshift temple, thereby altering the status quo. Nearly two years later, the Supreme Court sentenced Kalyan Singh, by now out of power, to a “token imprisonment of one day” and a fine of Rs 2,000 for contempt of court.
As many have pointed out, the RSS has several other affiliates, in addition to the BJP, which is styled as its political arm. This helps maintain the fiction that the BJP has no control over other RSS affiliates and, in the manner of other political parties, must engage them in negotiations. In reality, though, they all belong to the Sangh Parivar of which the RSS is the head. Their actions are coordinated to achieve their goals.
Given this history of the Ayodhya dispute, it isn’t certain a judgement that does not ideologically suit the RSS-BJP will be implemented.
In fact, even the Congress has tacitly admitted its reluctance to take a course of action that does not favour Hindus. About a month after the Babri Masjid was demolished, when the Congress headed the Central government, a Presidential Reference was made to the Supreme Court seeking its opinion on “whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid…in the area on which the structure stood?”
The judgement on the Reference came in M Ismail Faruqui vs Union of India, 1994. The court asked the solicitor general, whether its opinion would be binding on the Union government and, specifically, whether the mosque would be rebuilt if the “question posed by the Reference was answered in the negative”. The solicitor general gave a statement in writing, “In the light of the Supreme Court’s opinion and consistent with it, government will make efforts to resolve the controversy by a process of negotiations.” It was clear to the judges that their opinion would not be binding on the government, but used as a springboard to negotiate a settlement between contending parties. They, therefore, rejected the Reference in 1994.
When the Supreme Court eventually delivers its judgement in the Ayodhya dispute, the task of implementing it will pose several challenges and will be unlikely to heal the wounds of the past.