Babri Masjid Dispute: All eyes on India’s Supreme Court

The verdict in Babri Masjid case will decide if it is law and reason, or faith that becomes the basis of governing principle, writes Iftikhar Gilani

Babri Masjid Dispute: All eyes on India’s Supreme Court
India’s Supreme Court recently wrapped up hearings and reserved its verdict on the world’s oldest civil dispute: the question whether the site of Babri Masjid in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh (UP) belongs to Hindus or Muslims.

The issue first reached a district court in 1853, when Hindus first claimed the site. The plea was rejected by the district judge of Faizabad. The issue again reached court in 1949. This time by Muslims asking for the removal of an idol of Lord Ram which was placed inside the mosque by a group of Hindus who scaled the wall in the dead of night. Since then the issue, which has devoured hundreds of thousands of lives in communal riots over the past century and a half, has been awaiting a final judicial verdict.

The demolition of Babri Masjid by a frenzied mob is seen as a turning point in Indian history. Late Muslim leader Javed Habib would often count it as among five major incidents that turned the history of South Asia. They included 1857 war of independence, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in 1920, the 1947 partition of India, creation of Bangladesh 1971, Indira Gandhi’s military action in 1984 on the Golden Temple of Sikhs and the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid.

It is now expected that Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who is retiring on November 18, will deliver the verdict before demitting office. The apex court had admitted an appeal against the judgement of Allahabad High Court in 2011. A five-judge bench heard the case continuously for 40 days, scrutinised 11,500 documents, many of them in Persian and Sanskrit. As many as 15 huge trunks stashed with documents arrived from Allahabad for this purpose. The verdict of the high court was over 8,170 pages, with 14,385 pages as annexures. In the 40-day hearing, Advocate Rajiv Dhawan, who was representing Muslims, repeatedly referred to the issue of Lahore’s Shahid Ganj Gurdwara. Located in crowded Landa Bazaar, the history of the gurdwara has a striking resemblance with the Babri Masjid dispute.

While the Muslim argument was that the issue was a mere title suit and even if in anytime of history, a temple or ruins existed beneath the mosque, the courts must apply the law of limitations, under which an adverse possession has to be claimed within 12 years and in some cases within maximum 30 years.  But Hindu groups insisted that it was a matter of faith, beyond the scrutiny of existing laws.

Hindu parties offered differing narratives of when the mosque was constructed. According to one view, agreeing with the Muslims, the mosque was constructed by Mir Baqi, a military officer in the Mughal Emperor Babur’s army in 1528. The other version claims that the mosque was constructed during the reign of Aurangzeb in the 17th century. According to 1864 British General Alexander Cunningham’s report, the city of the Ayodhya of Rama was destroyed in 1500 BC and remained desolate till King Vikramaditya rebuilt the city half a century before the birth of Christ. Till then neither Hindus nor Muslims had come to India.

There was an interesting argument between Justice DY Chandrachud, a member on the bench and representative of Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu party contesting the case. The judge, while referring to history said, “During the last two millennia, many civilisations have settled and resettled on river banks. They have built upon pre-existing structures. How can you prove that the alleged ruins or the demolished building was religious in nature?”

To this, Rajeev Dhawan chipped in and said the Ghaggar river, which is a tributary of the Sarayu river has changed course at least twice in the last 500 years. How can you pinpoint a city on the banks of a river which has changed course? The Hindu group is claiming that Lord Ram existed as prince of Ayodhya some 800,000 years before Christ.

When the bench asked Nirmohi Akhara to present land records, the khasra number with mahant’s name listed as the owner, they replied that it was ‘Nazool’ land, but tax records show it as in possession of a temple. When asked to present tax records, the representative of Akhara said they had been lost in a robbery in 1982. The judges expressed surprise the robbers found Khasra-Khatauni records so valuable.

Dhawan and other lawyers representing Muslims repeatedly drew parallels with the Lahore Shahid Ganj Gurdwara, which was a mosque till 1799. Constructed by Kotwal of Lahore Abdullah Khan, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1653, Shahid Ganj was converted to a gurdwara when the Sikh Army captured the city after defeating Afghans. “A unit of the Sikh Army camped in the mosque and soon converted it into a gurdwara [Sikh place of worship],” says historian A. G. Noorani, who has also authored a two-volume book Destruction of the Babri Masjid – A National Dishonour, a compilation of documents, primary source material and related cases.

In 1849, when British took control of Lahore, Muslims pleaded for the return of the mosque. A year later, custodian of the mosque Noor Ahmed knocked went to court, pleading that the mosque be restored, as it was forcefully converted to a gurdwara. He succeeded convinced judges by producing documents that the site was originally a mosque prior to 1799 and regular prayers were being held there, till entry of Muslims was barred by the Sikh Army. But the court, using the law of limitations, rejected the plea and questioned the delay of 51 years for claiming the mosque. On June 25, 1855 Ahmad brought another suit against the Sikhs which was also dismissed. The issue reached the higher judiciary which upheld the order of the Lahore judge. The London-based Privy Council, the highest court of appeal during British era also disposed the case and rejected Muslim claim on May 2, 1940.

Between 1850-1935, Lahore and adjoining areas of the Punjab province witnessed communal riots between Sikhs and Muslims on the Shahid Ganj. In 1935, British Governor of the Punjab Sir Herbert Emerson suggested that the site be handed over to the Archaeology Department to be declared as a protected site as a mid-way to settle claims. When the issue was being discussed, a Sikh mob in the dead of night demolished the structure, removing all traces of a mosque.

Noorani, whose many references were presented in the court, documents that when Muslims took a procession from Badshahi Mosque to reach Shahid Ganj, police fired on the crowd. Many Muslims died and curfew was imposed in Lahore and vast areas of the Punjab. In 1925, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act was passed and the Shahid Ganj Gurdwara was included as a Sikh shrine.

“In 1936, when Unionist Party in alliance with the Muslim League assumed power in the Punjab, legislative assembly members presented a resolution to overturn court’s judgement. But Pakistan’s founder M.A Jinnah put his foot down and said that it would open Pandora’s Box all over India,” said Noorani. Otherwise a strong critic of Jinnah, the historian appreciates him for not using the emotive issue of the mosque to further his politics.

The writer is a journalist based in Turkey