Ayodhaya – The Judicial Verdict and After

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KS Dhillon*

The long awaited verdict delivered by the Lucknow bench of the Allahbad High Court in the decades old title suit between some Hindu and  Muslim organizations over  the  ownership  of  a  piece  of  land, known  as  the  Babri  Masjid-Ramjanambhumi complex  in Ayodhya has evoked mixed reactions not only in India but throughout South Asia. While a substantial section of the Hindus have welcomed the judgment as a validation of their long held claim to the property on the implicit belief that it is the birthplace of Lord Ram, the Muslims have been left somewhat confused at the implied repudiation of their entitlement to a part of the ancient site where  a historic mosque stood for several centuries before it was  wantonly demolished by a frenzied mob of Hindu zealots, egged on by their top leaders, in the full glare of TV cameras.  While   still hoping against hope that a settlement , acceptable to both the contending parties, will emerge through out-of- court negotiations, Muslim groups have at the same time decided to approach the apex court as a measure of abundant caution as, indeed, have the Hindu claimants. The unseemly jubilation and gloating that generally marked the reaction of rightist Hindu politicians to the verdict even before the full text of the judgment had become public could must have obviously  alarmed the Muslims as it exposed the real intentions of the majority community. Major sections of the Indian intelligentsia as indeed the liberal component of the legal fraternity, regardless of religious affinities, have a different take on the verdict. They are deeply disturbed with the verdict on several counts, especially its long-term ramifications in the matter of evaluation of evidence in cases involving questions of religion, faith and devotion. The verdict is also short on judicial propriety inasmuch as it goes beyond its remit in adopting a political, some would say even a panchayati, approach in adjudicating an essentially legal title suit. Although it would not be quite appropriate to view this verdict as unjudicial as it has been characterized by some jurists, it is difficult to get around an unsettling feeling that at least one of the three judges appeared to be heavily soaked in religious fervour while weighing the evidence regarding the authenticity of Ram’s birth place. One cannot help entertaining an uneasy feeling that the three- judge bench was perhaps also instinctively divided on religious lines.

Some of the grounds on which the verdict can be questioned readily come to mind. First of all, one would find it difficult to ipso facto accept the court’s logic about the validity of faith as a key evidentiary factor to adjudicate the issue of ownership of the disputed property on the ground that a vast majority of Hindus believe the site to be the authentic birth place {janambhumi} of Lord Ram. This would set a dangerous precedent in a land where the vast majority of people implicitly believe in countless myths and legends as a matter of faith. It is also a negation of  the  spirit  of  scientific inquiry  and  intellectual  detachment  that forms the bedrock of Indian, as indeed of all modern, constitutional polities. Administrative or judicial processes, based solely on faith and religiosity, are unsustainable in a modern polity since, by its very nature, faith is chiefly rooted in patently irrational and unempirical constructs. If faith were indeed the determinant of historical events then can we deny historical legitimacy to umpteen mythical beliefs and legends current in this land? Would that not be a dangerous hypothesis? Further, the confidence reposed by the court in the report submitted by the archeological department, ostensibly based on excavations carried out by that agency, about whether a temple did indeed exist at the disputed site and whether it was, in fact, demolished by Babur to build a mosque at the site is, itself, not beyond controversy. Several eminent historians and archaeologists, both Hindu and Muslim, have raised serious doubts over the way excavations were conducted as also about the accuracy of the conclusions sought to be drawn from them. Whether Babur did travel to that part of the country in his brief reign in India also remains in deep doubt as there are no records to show that he ever traveled beyond Agra.

What then is the historical validity of the designation attached to the mosque? The court could at least have tried to resolve this paradox if only to clear the air about who actually built the mosque, allegedly after destroying a temple. It may be recalled that such desecrations were not uncommon in mediaeval India as indeed in many other parts of the world such as Spain. It could have been a local dignitary or, as is generally believed, an army general. Several places of Buddhist congregation are known to have been demolished by Brahminical groups to build Hindu temples. Even more surprisingly, the judgment appears to have virtually ignored the wanton act of destruction of the historical mosque, named after the founder of the great Mughal empire in India, just two decades ago even though the vile act was telecast live over many television channels. Suffering as it does from such serious inadequacies; the verdict fails to carry conviction with the Muslim minority as indeed with large sections of socially vigilant Indians. In the event, it naturally fails to lead to a closure to the feud that has vitiated the communal environment in the subcontinent for decades and still has vast potential to do so, despite the very welcome post-judgment initial restraint shown by the two communities. One cannot gloss over the long history of communal strife in the country and the well-known propensity of our politicians to exploit differing perspectives in matters of religion and faith among their constituents for narrow political ends. All this talk of India having moved on and 2010 not being 1992 is fine but communal tempers in South Asia still largely operate on short fuses and we  cannot afford to be complacent in the matter. All the more reason, therefore,  to not be taken in by the laboured show of moderation and restraint put up by the rightist Hindu leadership  as their professed aim firmly remains the building of a magnificent Ram temple at the site without showing any accommodative spirit in respect of the mosque that occupied a part of the disputed territory for over four centuries. The devious manner in which Hindu idols were surreptitiously placed inside the central dome of the mosque which was subsequently securely locked up under court orders in December 1949 also needed to be examined by the court for adjudicating the context of adverse possession

Having entered these caveats, let us now proceed to look at some positive end-results of the verdict that might possibly pave the way for a potential reconciliation, with or without a nudge from the Supreme Court where the case is now certainly likely to end up. Despite the considerable credibility gap that the verdict apparently suffers from, it does seem to specify a road map for certain initiatives to be taken by the leaders of the two communities, even while the Supreme Court proceeds to deal with the appeals. The track record of our higher courts of justice in the matter of quick disposal of cases is not  too encouraging and we can safely assume that the final decision will not be forthcoming for the next few years. This interlude can be used to good effect to build bridges and minimize the trust deficit between the two communities. Belonging as they do to a community, enjoying a huge majority in the country, Hindu groups will have to shoulder the major responsibility for undertaking a focused mission of reconciliation and building up a relationship of trust and sincerity between the two faiths. In any case, it is high time that sustained inter-faith dialogue processes are initiated all over South Asia in order to cool down the rising tempo of religious passions in the wake of escalation of terrorist violence, triggered by growing religious fundamentalism, in this extremely diverse region. Minorities are inherently hostage to multiple insecurities in a land where they are so heavily outnumbered and it is for the majority community to address the fears and sensitivities of their countrymen from the minority segments. Sectarian profiling and frequent assertions of a claimed monopoly over nationalism and patriotism by large sections of the Hindus and calling into question the loyalty of the Muslims to the country does little to enhance the self-assurance of the Muslims. Nor do the oft-repeated demands for proving their love for the motherland by participating in the mass singing of Vande Matram and performance of Surya Namaskars alleviate their collective insecurities and fears built over years of social discrimination and isolation. The brash display of glee and triumphalism by BJP and RSS leaders on the day of the judgment was a grave error. For it was just the right moment to demonstrate magnanimity and poise in order to kick-start a durable process of peace and reconciliation by giving the Muslims a stake in finding a mutually acceptable solution to the vexed question. Combativeness and hostility can never be conducive to national regeneration and progress. Our experience of the last several decades shows that neither peace nor development is achievable in an atmosphere of antagonism and strife. We have also seen how even a small minority can destroy communal harmony and hold up national renaissance for decades and render entire generations of young people pathetically insecure and vulnerable to terrorist brain- washing. Look at the Sikh militancy of the 1980s and the current phase of unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, not to speak of the continuing Naga insurgency ever since independence. Indian Muslims are seeking fresh avenues to join the national mainstream and are no longer content with the conservative and fundamental tag that has defined them so far.  It is of the utmost importance that the majority community extends a helping hand in this endeavour in right earnest.

Hindus and Muslims have to jointly seize the initiative to make the best of the opening provided by the Allahbad High Court to find a mutually acceptable way out of the long festering impasse over the mandir-masjid  imbroglio.  The  leadership  of  the  two  communities has to firmly resolve against using the aspirations of their peoples to achieve political ends. In other words, the entire issue will have to be determinedly and consciously depoliticized. The Muslims have to stop looking for support from extraneous sources. They must realize that the key to their problems of insecurity and existentialist anxiety lies within the national cultural matrix and a reasonable degree of integration with the rest of their countrymen. The  welcome sentiments expressed through a resolution passed by the Muslim Ulema at a recent conclave in Deoband is a refreshing development. The idea of India is unbounded and comprehensive enough to provide for any number of differing belief systems, cultural specificities, linguistic and ethnic diversity et al. The key attributes that have defined and buttressed Indian ethos and culture over centuries – tolerance, acceptance, assimilation and inclusion – have remained absolute and immutable despite recent efforts by sections of the fundamentalist fringe among both communities. To let this historic moment pass by and let the forces of conflict and confrontation occupy the centre stage will be suicidal. Whether the Indian political and religious leadership live up to the colossal challenge remains to be seen.