On Friday, March 8, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered mediation in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute in Ayodhya. This dispute is a manifestation of long-standing Hindu-Muslim communal tension in the country.
The five-judge bench decided that former SC judge FMI Kalifulla will head the panel; spiritualist Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Senior Advocate Sriram Panchu are the other members.
Kalifulla was previously Chief Justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in 2011. Sri Sri founded Art of Living, an NGO, while Panchu has extensive experience mediating land disputes. He is the President of Mediators India and a board member of the International Mediation Institute.
What does the judgment say?
The SC invoked Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) that provides for cases to be solved by mediation.
“Considering the provisions of the CPC, we do not find any legal impediment to making a reference to mediation for a possible settlement of the dispute(s) arising out of the appeals” said the SC.
Mediation is an alternative to court orders. The appointed mediators help facilitate communication and ensure that all parties compromise. They also aid in keeping everyone focused on the bigger picture.
In this case, the bigger picture would be communal sentiment in India and the need to resolve an issue that is a thorn in the side of both, Hindus and Muslims.
Although mediation is usually voluntary, the SC said its order demands the participation of all parties.
How the panel will proceed
The court said it was also of the view that the panel keep the mediation confidential from the public to protect the opinions of the parties and mediators, who are also free to take legal assistance if they require.
But the court does not order a gag on the media.
“We refrain from passing any specific order at this stage and instead empower the learned mediators to pass necessary orders ito restrain publication of the details of the mediation proceedings,” said the SC.
Additionally, the court asked that the panel video-tape the proceedings, as is the norm.
The order also suggested that the mediation take place where the disputed land is located—Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.
It directed the state government to organise and facilitate the process.
The court also ordered the panel to submit a progress report four weeks from the first day of mediation, which will likely start next week.
The parties have a total of eight weeks to resolve the dispute, close to the Lok Sabha elections.
Sri Sri’s appointment raises questions
Sri Sri’s appointment as mediator in this contentious conflict has raised some eyebrows.
While Shankar has consistently expressed support for a peaceful mediation in news interviews, critics have noted that his comments may be tinged with some bias.
In an interview with PTI, Shankar had said if Muslims gave up the land, they would be “gifting it to the people of India”, putting the onus of peace on the Muslim community alone.
In an India Today interview, he had also suggested that if mediation is not done, Muslim youth in the future might feel “betrayed” and create conflict.
To NDTV, Shankar added that Hindus might provoke bloodshed if a court rules against them.
“If court rules in favour of a temple, Muslims will feel defeated. They may lose faith in the judiciary and there are chances of resorting to extremism.”
While Shankar suggests that both communities are capable of violence, his words do more harm to Muslims, as he reinforces negative stereotypes about them, especially that they are militant, unreasonable, and dangerous.
However, these subtleties may have disappeared over time.
It’s also important to note that two veteran lawyers—one who specialises in arbitration and one who has presided in a state rife with communal tension—balance out his inclusion in the panel.
Sri Sri has not commented on the current media coverage of his past remarks. He, however, tweeted that moving forward collectively was in the best interest of all communities involved.
Events leading up
The SC has been considering mediation after hearing appeals against the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 verdict that gave two-thirds of the land to the two Hindu plaintiffs—Ram Lalla Virajman and Nirmohi Akhara—and one-third to the Sunni Waqf Board.
However, the parties were unhappy and appealed to the SC who suspended that ruling.
On Thursday, March 7, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S A Bobde, D Y Chandrachud, Ashok Chushan, and S Abdul Nazeer had reserved their verdict on mediation after the petitioners failed to come to a consensus. They had added that they would pass a judgment on Friday, March 8, morning.
Hindus and Muslims have been at odds over the Babri Masjid plot since 1949.
Hindus believe the site is Ram’s birthplace and that 16th century Mughal emperor Babur destroyed a temple standing there to build the Babri Masjid.
But Muslims contend that Babur built the mosque over old, temple ruins. They were also unhappy about Hindus entering the mosque and placing idols inside.
Then, in 1992, tensions reached an all-time high and resulted in mass riots and thousands of casualties. The unrest was one of the deadliest in India’s communal history.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.