On September 30, 2010, the Allahabad High Court ordered a three-way division of the disputed 2.77 acres of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site, giving a third each to the Nirmohi Akhara sect, the Sunni Central Wakf Board, UP, and Ramlalla Virajman, the infant Lord Ram who sits where he was placed under a tarpaulin canopy by the kar sevaks who demolished the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
The HC order was challenged before the Supreme Court, which, on May 9, 2011, stayed the operation of the decree during the pendency of the appeal, and ordered status quo on the disputed site and adjoining 67.7 acres of land acquired by the Centre in 1993. On February 25, 2013, the Supreme Court allowed the replacement of “the old and worn out tarpaulin, polythene sheet and ropes over the makeshift structure by new ones of the same size and quality”. On August 11, 2017, the court gave the parties 12 weeks to translate all oral evidence and exhibited documents in various languages. This process is now complete.
A Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer begins the final hearing on the appeals today.
History: 2.77 acres of dispute, over a century of claims
The history of litigation over Ayodhya stretches back all the way to January 29, 1885, when Raghubar Das, Mahant of the Janmasthan, filed a civil suit against the Secretary of State for India in Council, seeking permission to construct a temple over the Ram Chabutara spot as this didn’t have any covering, making it hard to navigate.
The Chabutara and Sita Rasoi, worshipped by the Hindus, fall within the ‘outer courtyard’ in the disputed 2.77 acres. This was separated from the inner courtyard —where the Babri Masjid stood — by a brick wall with iron grills, apparently put in place after Hindu-Muslim tensions escalated, resulting in riots in 1855.
The Mahant’s plea was opposed by Mohammed Asghar, mutawalli (guardian) of the Babri Mosque. He contended that the word ‘Allah’ was inscribed on the eastern door and hence, no one else could claim ownership of the property. He also claimed that the Chabutara wasn’t there until 1856.
The Faizabad sub-judge dismissed the suit on December 24, 1885, being of the opinion that granting permission to construct a temple would amount to laying the foundations of a riot. Status quo continued till December 22-23, 1949 — but on December 23, a group installed idols inside what they claimed was the disputed structure, and puja was started. The state government wanted the idols removed, but the Faizabad district administration felt that doing so would lead to communal violence.
Riots did rock Ayodhya in 1934, and certain parts of the mosque were damaged. However, these were “rebuilt and reconditioned” at the state government’s expense. On December 29, 1945, orders under Section 145 CrPC (applied where a dispute concerning land or water is likely to cause a breach of the peace) were issued by the Additional City Magistrate, Faizabad-cum-Ayodhya. An immediate attachment order was passed and Priya Dutt Ram, Chairman of the Municipal Board, was appointed the receiver.
The next round of litigation began in 1950, when a resident of Ayodhya, Gopal Singh Visharad, filed a title suit before the Civil Judge in Faizabad. Visharad claimed that his right to worship was being impeded by the state government, which had disallowed him from going near the idol. Four more title suits were filed by various parties, one was dismissed as withdrawn, and the cases were subsequently transferred to the Allahabad High Court.
Meanwhile, the Civil Judge, on January 1, 1950, passed an ad interim injunction in the first title suit, restraining the removal of the idols. The puja continued, the public allowed darshan from beyond the brick-grill wall. On January 25, 1986, an advocate, Umesh Chandra Pandey, filed an application before the Faizabad District Judge, stating that the public must be permitted to have darshan from inside and the locks on the brick-grill wall should be removed.
The appeal was allowed and respondents were directed to open the locks on the two gates. Justice SU Khan, one of the three High Court judges who decided the title suit in 2010, said, “The opening of the locks catapulted the dispute at the national (rather, international) level. Prior to that, no one beyond Ayodhya and Faizabad was aware of the dispute. The order dated February 1, 1986 triggered a chain reaction, leading to the demolition of the structure on December 6, 1992.”
The Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), seeking the restoration of the disputed structure to the Muslims, came into being after the court ordered the opening of the locks. As the BMAC launched a protest movement, Hindu organisations also began to mobilise public opinion in favour of constructing a Ram temple at the disputed site.
In October 1991, the Uttar Pradesh government acquired 2.77 acres of land — including the premises in dispute — for the “development of tourism and providing amenities to pilgrims in Ayodhya”. Five days after the demolition, the High Court quashed this order.
Subsequently, on January 7, 1993, the central government acquired 67.7 acres under the ‘Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Ordinance, 1993. The ordinance was subsequently replaced by an Act. Simultaneously, President Shankar Dayal Sharma made a reference to the Supreme Court, asking “…whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid (including the premises of the inner and outer courtyards of such structure) in the area on which the structure stood?”
The court examined the constitutional validity of the acquisition Act, and struck it down as unconstitutional. It also returned the Presidential reference unanswered. The apex court added that where the title to a place of worship was in dispute, the Centre could either apply to a court to be appointed receiver or enact a law, making itself the statutory receiver pending adjudication. Once the title is decided, the government must hand over the property to the party that gets the title.