NEW DELHI — The Supreme Court of India granted the site of the demolished Babri Masjid to the Hindu parties to build a temple, while ordering that the Muslim litigants be given a 5 acre alternative site to construct a mosque.
For now, the ownership of the 2.77 acres that comprised the mosque’s structure and courtyards shall be give to the government for a period of three months. The government shall use that time to set up a trust of Hindu representatives who shall decide what to do with the land.
The unanimous verdict, delivered by a five judge bench, brings to a close one of the longest running land disputes between Hindus and Muslims in India.
The night before the verdict Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted the verdict will not be a victory or loss for any side, but the fact remains this is a victory for him and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Hindu nationalist party has since the eighties demanded a temple devoted to Hindu god Ram to be built on the exact spot where the Babri Masjid had stood since 1528.
Senior BJP leaders whipped up religious passions to the point of frenzy in the late eighties and early nineties, which eventually led to Hindu mobs demolishing the mosque on 6 December, 1992, located in the temple town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
The Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute preceded the demolition by decades, but the destruction of the mosque and the communal violence that followed is inextricably linked to the property case in the minds of most people.
The demolition and subsequent riots plunged India into its darkest period of communal strife since the Partition which displaced 15 million people and left more than a million people dead. It also fundamentally altered Indian electoral politics, offering a platform for Hindu nationalism, which until that time was more of less or confined to an ideology.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, BBC’s former bureau chief, Sir William Mark Tully, who was one of the first journalists to report the demolition, spoke of Britain’s role in leaving behind a colonial legacy riddled with religious faultlines that plague India to this day.
Recalling how the UP police did not even attempt to stop the mobs thronging the mosque with sticks, tridents and sickles on the morning of 6 December, 1992, Tully said, “It’s a political religious case. It’s been made an issue by the BJP in order to promote Hindu nationalism. So whether you call it a property dispute or a land dispute, we all know that fundamentally it’s an issue which has been created for political purposes.”
The verdict today was delivered by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and including one Muslim judge S. Abdul Nazeer.
A History Of Disputes
The controversy around the Babri Masjid has existed since late nineteenth century. In December 1949, people who are yet to be identified, but believed to be linked to the Hindu Mahasabha, snuck in and placed idols of Ram under the middle dome of the mosque.
In 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed land into three equal parts - Ram Lalla, the Sunni Waqf Board and the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu denomination which worships Ram. The Supreme Court today dismissed the petition of the Nirmohi Akhara, but said that it would be given representation in the trust if the Centre agreed to it.
The Muslim side says that a general named Mir Baqi constructed the mosque during the reign of Mughal emperor Babur in 1528 and it has been with the Muslims ever since then. The Hindu side says that Mir Baqi demolished a temple devoted to Ram in order to build the Babri Masjid. The Muslim side says there is no evidence to show a Ram Temple existed at the same spot or that it was demolished.
While reading out the judgment today, Justice Gogoi said the verdict has relied on the report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which had concluded there were one or more temples built from the 10th century onwards and stood there until the Babri Masjid was constructed in the 16th century. The report was refuted as erroneous and biased by observers and independent archaeologists. The Allahabad High Court, however, accepted the ASI’s findings.
For Hindus, litigating against the 16th century mosque was never just a property dispute even when it made its way into India’s court system in 1949. But it was in the 1980s that the Congress Party and the BJP communalised the issue.
Ahead of the verdict, Zafaryab Jilani, who represented the “Muslim parties” for 33 years, told HuffPost India that he had hoped the Supreme Court would decide the case on its merits, and not aastha or faith. For years now, rightwing forces in India have said the temple should be built on the former site of the Babri Masjid simply because it was the “aastha” of millions of Hindus living in a Hindu majority nation.
“The demolition of the Babri Masjid May have no legal relevance, but it has every relevance as a social and political issue,” said Jilani.
Even if this is a property dispute that predates the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the implications of this verdict are not lost on Muslims in India. As Jilani put it, “If we surrender, no mosque will be secure in the country and no minority community will see safe.”
The days ahead of the verdict were marked by appeals for calm from Hindu and Muslim groups and prominent individuals on both sides.
Before he died in 2017, Mohammad Hashim Ansari, who was the oldest litigant in the title dispute on the Muslim side, told HuffPost India, “We had agreed before Independence that a temple would stay a temple, a mosque would stay a mosque, and a pond would stay a pond.”
Earlier this year, his son, Iqbal Ansari, said that he hoped for a peaceful resolution. “We have faith in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Three decades since the demolition of the mosque, the BJP is most dominant party in India, winning two fiercely contested national elections since 2014, and Narendra Modi, under whose watch the worst communal riots since the demolition of the Babri Masjid swept Gujarat in 2002, is the most popular leader in the country and its vast diaspora.
In almost every election since the demolition, the BJP has promised to build a Ram Temple on the disputed site if it comes to power.
“This is everything for the BJP,” said Ashutosh Mishra, a professor of political science at Lucknow University.
How the BJP would benefit, Mishra said, was “immeasurable,” but Modi would get the credit for orchestrating a “paradigm shift.”
“The slogan used to be Modi hai to mumkin hai, but now people will say Modi hai to namumkin bhi mumkin hai,” he said. “The moment they start building the temple there will be a groundswell of support for the BJP like never seen before.”