IT COULD well be five to 10 years before the Supreme Court begins to hear the 60-year-old Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute of Ayodhya. Hundreds of thousands of pages of court documents will need to be translated from Hindi and Urdu and Persian and Arabic before arguments begin. There will be most likely a new generation of lawyers handling the case for the 25-odd parties in the dispute.
While granting a stay on the Allahabad High Court judgment of November 2010, as expected, the Supreme Court’s comments were sharp. The judges wondered how the disputed land of 130 feet by 90 feet could be partitioned into three when none of the parties had demanded a partition. It was clear from the judgment of at least two of the three judges of Allahabad High Court, Sudhir Agarwal and SU Khan, that the partitioning was a result of a desire to uphold communal harmony, and not make any party look like a winner.
The legal basis of that was tenuous. But the judges had a choice to make: between a narrow legal reading of the dispute or an answer to the larger questions asked of the court. Since the dispute goes back to a time when the legal system was different from what it is today, going by a narrow legal reading was not without hazards. The judges took the long view, and there were no riots. That in itself was an achievement. So, when the Supreme Court calls the Allahabad High Court judgment strange, it is only a comment on the narrow legal aspect.
Each party in the case welcomed the Supreme Court stay, although for varying reasons. The Muslim parties want the entire land to go to the Sunni waqf board, the VHP wants all the 70-odd acres for a grand Ram temple, and the Nirmohi Akhara — closer to the Congress and devoid of the pelf of VHP — wants a negotiated settlement that gives it the management of a janmabhoomi temple.
The Supreme Court will have to choose from contradictory and fragmented historical evidence
As and when the Supreme Court begins to hear the case, a lot will depend on how it views the arguments on three issues. One, are the petitions of the Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni waqf board invalid because they do not meet the criteria on time limitations? While the Akhara filed its suit in 1959, about 10 years after the government had attached the structure, the waqf board filed its suit in 1961, a few days before the time limitation of 12 years was to end. But as lawyer PN Mishra proved, arguing on behalf of the Dwarka Shankaracharya, the law of limitation in case of an attached property is six years, and not 12 years, as believed earlier. By this logic, even the VHP-sponsored 1989 suit should be time barred. But limitation does not apply to a minor, who is supposed to be unaware of its rights. Ram Lala is not merely a legal entity; he is also a minor, and hence not time barred.
Two, only the 1989 suit of Ram Lala demands the title to the land. The 1959 and 1961 suits are for “declaration and possession”. A title claim of a deity is not easily dismissed in Indian law, because matters of religion have to be understood on their terms, not in rationalist arguments. A lot will depend on how the apex court views this. Three, the court will have to choose from contradictory and fragmented historical evidence.
The Muslim side will most likely be better prepared this time, as it has already hired a team of lawyers. But how old will they be by the time the hearings start?
Sopan Joshi is a freelance journalist