Ayodhya dispute: Fighting for India’s soul

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The Ayodhya land dispute case is not just a religious dispute but also one of the longest political debates in India. The dispute has been the center of communal politics. The case has been continuing for almost 30 years in the courts, with both the communities fighting for the title over the disputed land.

On 18th September, 2019, the Supreme Court expressed hope that the arguments in the land dispute case would be concluded by 18th October. The Court also advised the parties to stick to the schedule in completing their arguments and urged them to make it a joint effort to conclude the case as soon as possible.

What is the history of the Ayodhya Dispute?

The dispute commenced in 1857 when the British took charge of India. Back then, the administration allowed the Muslims to offer prayers inside the Babri Masjid mosque and the Hindus were allowed to perform puja outside the mosque. However, after Independence, many Hindus demanded the site be returned to their community and entered the mosque building and placed the idols of Ram and Sita inside the mosque.

The Hindus claim that the site, where the Babri Masjid stands, is the birthplace of Lord Ram. They also claim that there existed a temple on the very same site.  On December 06, 1992, a Hindu mob tore down the Babri mosque, which led to a nationwide communal fury. Intervention by courts led to the site being sealed off.

In 1993, the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act was passed for the acquisition of the disputed land by the Central Government. The constitutional validity of this legislation was challenged in the Supreme Court by Dr. Ismail Faruqui.

In the historic ruling in this case, the court upheld the validity of the Act and allowed the Centre to acquire the land where the Babri Masjid stood.  This case is also famous for the ruling of the Court that a mosque is not an integral part of Islam and that prayers could be offered anywhere.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court disposed off the civil suits that were filed by the religious groups staking claim to the disputed land. By a 2:1 majority, the court ruled that the Ayodhya land be divided into three parts among Sunni Waqf Board, the plaintiffs representing Lord Ram and the Nirmohi Akhara. However, all the parties appealed against this order. When the appeal against the 2010 ruling came up before a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, the Court refused to refer the case to a larger bench.

Why the Supreme Court ordered mediation for the Ayodhya Dispute?

All the legal battles for the site have always been a dispute wrapped in myth and disputed history. On 8th March 2019, the Supreme Court referred the Ayodhya land dispute case to mediation and appointed a three-member panel for mediation consisting of one retired Muslim Supreme Court judge, a senior advocate and a Hindu spiritual guru.

For all the legal bodies involved, the reference of the dispute to mediation shows a sense of emotional awareness that surrounds the dispute. The method of mediation, however orthodox, seeks to balance the emotional dilemmas and find a middle ground in favour of all the parties.

Section 89 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 mandates that in all cases where it appears to the Court that an element of settlement may be acceptable to the parties, the court might, inter alia, refer the parties to mediation. In a case like this, which is suffused with emotions, a win-lose, right-wrong approach would only escalate the situation, leading to religious extremism.

Also, there exists the issue of politicians exploiting the religious sentiments. Mediation, inter alia, emphasizes on maintenance and preservation of long-term relationship between the adversaries. This particular aspect makes mediation a preferred option for the parties in this case than adversarial adjudication. This Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) technique can afford the parties an opportunity to vent out their emotions, while resolving the dispute that exists.

The Supreme Court’s mandate for mediation is received with optimism by a majority of the interested bodies and barring a few, most the religious groups are interested in finding a negotiated deal. But, just like any other issue, this also has a lot of critics who are skeptic about a mediated outcome.

The critics believe that a court-referred mediation is a futile activity as both the parties have their own religious beliefs and would not budge from their hardened positions. The right-wing Hindu party, Shiv Sena was less convinced about the mediation process that they demanded that the Central Government should “start the construction of the Ram Temple.” Hence, for the critics, the Supreme Court is only prolonging the matter by referring it to mediation.

The method of mediation finds its roots in almost all religious contexts. The potential that this method holds for narrowing down the scope of dispute makes it a viable option in the Ayodhya land dispute case. To make sure that no external factors influence the judgment, the Court directed an “in-camera” mediation proceeding which would remain confidential and would be known only to the parties concerned, thereby keeping the sanctity of the method intact.

What was the outcome of the mediation process?

Unfortunately, the efforts to mediate a final settlement between the parties failed. The question about the efficacy of the mediation process came to light after an application was filed by one of the original claimants to the land title case, claiming that the mediation committee was making no progress. The application pleaded the court to resume the hearing of the matter.

From August 6, 2019, the Supreme Court again started hearing the appeals on a day-to-day basis.

What lies ahead?

The present Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who is heading the bench hearing the Ayodhya dispute, is scheduled to retire from the office on November 17, 2019. Therefore the 18th October deadline has been set for concluding the arguments, lest the case be re-heard by a new bench.

As sensitive as this case is, prolonging the judgment would only make the situation worse. Thousands of lives have been lost over the dispute and yet, a Court judgment is unlikely to resolve this conundrum. Recently, the Court asked the mediation committee to resume the mediation process and hoped that the parties would seize the golden opportunity to develop a climate of constitutional fraternity in the society.

Though the hearing of the appeals would continue, the mediation committee can approach the court with a settlement that may be reached, any time before the final verdict is pronounced. If the mediation is a success, it will also put the ADR mechanism at the forefront. However, one can only hope that all the parties approach the situation with an open heart and find an answer which leads to lasting peace.

This is article is brought to you in collaboration with Saksham Grover from Delhi Metropolitan Education, Guru Gobind Singh IP University.

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