The three judges presiding in the Ayodhya land dispute in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh have ruled that the holy site should be divided between the three applicants – two groups of Hindu faith, and one Muslim. The country has been on high alert prior to and after the judgment but, so far, the news has been accepted calmly, with Indian citizens even going so far as to crack jokes on Twitter. By VRINDA MAHESWARI from Delhi.
There was a collective hush across India on Thursday. As the litigants approached Court No 21, where the special bench of the Allahabad High Court was presiding in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, security forces tensed and the media reached a near frenzy. Barricades had been put up 200 metres from the court room, and an in camera judgment was being given. Not just any judgment, but possibly one of the most controversial and awaited judgments in Indian legal history. It was the ruling over the title suit to decide the ownership of the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
The case has been going on for more than 60 years and has a troubled history. There is a 16th century mosque, Babri Masjid (literally meaning “built by Babar”), over which Hindu extremists claim proprietorship as they say it is the birthplace of the god Ram. In 1992, the Hindu extremists attempted to destroy the mosque. In the communal riots that ensued (and which spread to areas as far flung as Delhi and Mumbai), close to 2,000 people were killed.
The site has seen communal violence and disputes over claims since the 19th century. But it was not till 1949 that an idol of Ram was placed inside the premises of the mosque. The Muslims claim this idol was planted by the Hindus. A suit for declaration of title of the site was filed in 1950. The ensuing legal battle is murky and complex; in 1959 the Nirmohi Akhara entered the fray, seeking possession of the site. In 1989 the foundations for a Ram temple were laid adjacent to the mosque, and when the BJP-government came into power in the state in 1991, it supported the extremists when they tore down the mosque in 1992, which led to widespread riots. Since then, the case has not reached any conclusion, until now.
On Thursday the three-judge special bench of the Allahabad High Court held by a 2-1 majority that the disputed territory be divided in three portions, one each accorded to the Sunni Wakf Board (which handles Sunni mosques in India), the party representing “Ram Lalla” (literally, baby Ram) and Nirmohi Akhara (a Hindu denomination which claimed it had worshipped Lord Ram on the site for generations). The “muslim” area is to be no less than one-third of the premises. The text of the judgment and the various details of the case can be accessed here. Judge Sharma dissented, and dismissed the Sunni Central Board of Waqfs’ suit on many grounds, one of which is that it is barred by limitation.
The verdict specified that the land where the Lord Rama idol, under the dome of the Babri Masjid, was the birthplace of Ram (the Ram Janamsthan) and was accorded to the Hindu side. Justice Khan, however, reiterated that no temples had been destroyed for the building of the mosque. The parties have been held to be joint possessors, though status quo has to be maintained for the next three months. The Sunni Waqf Board has decided to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court; this comes as no surprise to most people. The High Court decision has mockingly been referred to as the “semi final” in the past.
The government had banned bulk messaging to stop extremists from inciting violence by spreading false information. More than 200,000 security personnel have been deployed in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone. The country, already on high alert owing to the approaching Commonwealth Games, saw high police security in sensitive areas like Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. In fact, sniffer dogs and bomb disposal squads did the rounds of the courts before the judgment was pronounced. Markets, offices and schools remained open in the troubled state but the very low turn-out was an indication of the underlying apprehension and outright fear among the people.
Some people might question the extent of security precautions being taken; it was, after all, merely an adjudication in a title suit dispute. But given the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots that broke out the last time the dispute reared its ugly head in 1992, the government is probably correct in erring on the side of caution. The continued peace across the country has come as a welcome relief to most people, who are used to the hot-headed responses of their countrymen.
Elaborate arrangements had been made available and a special tent had been put up to cater to the throng of more than 500 journalists who had gathered opposite the court to get sound bites and breaking news of the judgment. The resultant madness and irresponsible journalism has disappointed many, including this writer.
Prior to the decision, the News Broadcasters Association had released a statement saying it is “incumbent on the broadcasters to take extra care in the telecast of news relating to sensitive matters” and had advised them not to show anything provocative, inflammatory or sensational. The Allahabad High Court had also stated that it didn’t want to gag the press but wanted the guidelines to be followed. It is anyone’s guess whether continuously showing footage of the lawyer of one side loudly proclaiming his side’s victory and talking about the opposing side’s religion in demeaning terms is considered adhering to the guidelines; it is the opinion of this writer that it is not the case.
Most political parties and leaders had called for peace and calm prior to the judgment. Radio and television were full of broadcasts of people advocating calmness and requesting the public not to be hotheaded or violent, whatever the judgment. Most people, however, did not expect violence. Many believe that the country has become more mature and the increased police security will ensure a lack of violence. The Twitterverse is full of jokes regarding the issue (“Yo Ayodhya verdict, I’mma let you finish, but Triple H vs Chris Benoit vs Shawn Michaels was the best triple threat match of ALL time”; “If I were Lord Ram, I would have picked a nicer place to be born, like Hawaii”, “INDIAN WINS BIG OUTSOURCING CONTRACT! Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel issue to be resolved by Allahabad High Court!!!!” to quote but a few). It is of course much easier to joke about the topic now that the immediate threat of violence has passed. And the ludicrousness of the situation is perhaps best reflected by these quips.
Religion is a personal matter, and the court finding the assumed birthplace of a god as the legal basis for a title suit declaration might seem ludicrous. But this is not the first dispute of its kind, nor will it be the last. Especially in a country as fragmented and diverse as India, religion has an especially strong cleaving effect. What is most disturbing about the judgment and the hype surrounding it is the “us vs them” sentiments that seem to be emerging in a lot of people; it is a slippery slope from such a feeling of alienation to the rise of communal disharmony. And in such divided times, that is something to be worried about, whether you are in India or outside. For now, the decision has been made, and till the Supreme Court comes out with a final and binding outcome on the matter, it will rest. Maybe the gods long gone can rest in peace and the rest of the country can move on with its life. DM
Photo: Paramilitary troopers patrol a road in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya September 30, 2010. A court ruled on Thursday the site of the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya would be divided between Hindus and Muslims, in a ruling that could appease both groups in one of the country’s most divisive cases. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta
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