The Ayodhya Ram Janmbhoomi-Babri Masjid case is docketed to re-enter the Supreme Court for hearing on Thursday, January 10, 2019. The apex court on Tuesday set up a five-judge Constitution bench to hear the long-disputed title case, a week after Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi announced that the case would be posted before an appropriate bench.
The bench will be headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and shall comprise Justices S A Bobde, N V Ramana, U U Lalit and D Y Chandrachud.
What happened during the last hearing?
The top court, on October 29 last year, had deferred the hearing on the case to 2019, despite growing demands from the government to expedite the process and pass a law in favour of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Last October, the bench was preparing to hear the pleas challenging a UP court’s verdict, when it pushed the case to following year citing other priorities over a four-minute hearing. Following the postponement, several hardline Hindu affiliates including Sangh Parivar groups began to agitate for an ordinance to bypass the judicial process and fast-track construction of the temple on the disputed territory, even staging demonstrations across Uttar Pradesh as BJP foregrounded the temple agenda in its campaign for the Lok Sabha polls.
Here’s what led up to this
In 1992, the 16th-century Babri mosque was razed by Hindutva groups and activists, who believed that it was built on the ruins of an ancient temple marking the birthplace of Hindu deity-king Lord Ram. This caused communal tensions in the country, which is evident even today, and is believed to have changed the course of Indian politics forever.
In 2010, the Allahabad High Court heard the Ram Janmbhoomi-Babri Masjid case and directed that the disputed land in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid area be divided into three parts. Some 14 petitions have challenged this verdict that calls for partitioning the land between the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and Ram Lalla (meaning ‘infant Lord Ram’, a party to the case).
The top court was hearing these appeals when the issue of a mosque’s integrality to the practice of Islam came into question.
In 1994, during the hearing of the Ayodhya land dispute, the apex court had observed that building a mosque was not integral to Islam, and that the government can acquire land on which a mosque is built.
On September 27, 2018, the Supreme Court refused to review this observation, saying that the previous verdict bears no relevance to the issue at hand. The judgement, pronounced by then CJI Dipak Misra, said that the context in which the five-judge bench had delivered the 1994 verdict needs to be established first. Justice S Abdul Nazeer had said that whether a mosque is integral to Islam has to take religious beliefs into account, which requires detailed consideration.
This decision cleared the way for the Supreme Court to take up the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute case without any delay. The court then ruled that the civil suit on land dispute would be heard by a three-judge bench on October 29.
The postponed verdict
After the deferment, many political analysts speculated that the verdict on the decades-old title suit will not arrive anytime before the 2019 general elections. This is a secular and thoughtful move according to some; now, the BJP can neither polarise nor valourise the outcome of the hearing.
However, with a poll promise to deliver, Uttar Pradesh’s BJP unit and several BJP-affiliated groups have expressed militant interest to circumvent the hearing and clear the way for the construction of their mythological temple. Several devotees had protested against the delay before and with the latest postponement, their hopes of seeing the temple built in their lifetime have been dashed for the umpteenth time. This spawned several communally coloured rallies across UP in November, even causing Muslims living in and around Ayodhya to flee for their safety. The main petitioner, Iqbal Ansari himself wants the Supreme Court to consider concluding the hearing in this case soon.
Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that many in the country wanted the case to be heard quickly. Opposition parties stand firmly against the ordinance route. Former union minister P Chidambaram told the press, “This is a familiar story. Every 5 years, before the election, the BJP will try to polarise views on Ram mandir. The Congress believes everyone should wait until the Supreme Court decides. I don’t think we should jump the gun.” In an exclusive interview with ANI news agency last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself said he will wait for the verdict of the highest court of the land.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.