Noting “the lack of consensus between the parties in the matter” but underlining “we are of the view that an attempt should be made to settle the dispute by mediation”, a five-judge Constitution Bench Friday referred the vexed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjiddispute in Ayodhya for in-camera mediation by a panel headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, with the direction that proceedings be completed within eight weeks.
The bench, comprising Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S A Bobde, D Y Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer, said the other two members of the panel will be spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu. The judges said the mediators can co-opt more members if needed.
The mediation proceedings will be held in-camera in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, and will “commence within a week from today”. The bench directed the state government to “forthwith” make arrangements including the venue of the mediation, place of stay of the mediators, their security and travel.
On the timeframe for mediation, the bench referred to its February 26 order when it took up the appeals against the September 30, 2010 verdict of the Allahabad High Court which ordered a three-way division of the disputed 2.77 acres site between the Nirmohi Akhara sect, the Sunni Central Wakf Board, Uttar Pradesh and the deity Ramlalla Virajman.
“In our previous order dated 26th February, 2019, we have recorded that the dispute raised in the present cases (i.e. appeals/special leave petitions/writ petitions) should be attempted to be resolved by mediation to be held during the period of eight weeks that we had allowed to the parties to take steps to make the cases ready for hearing,” it said, adding “the panel of learned Mediators is requested to ensure completion of the process during the period of the interregnum indicated above and send a report of the progress of the mediation to this Court within four weeks of the commencement of the process”.
The proceedings will be held in-camera as per norms applicable to conduct of mediation proceedings. The mediators, the bench said, “may take such legal assistance as they may feel necessary at any stage of the mediation proceedings”.
While hearing arguments on the proposal for mediation, the bench had stressed the need to keep the proceedings confidential so that dialogue is not hampered by unwanted comments and controversies. In its order Friday, it said “the mediation proceedings should be conducted with utmost confidentiality so as to ensure its success” noting that this “can only be safeguarded by directing that the proceedings of mediation and the views expressed therein by any of the parties including the learned Mediators shall be kept confidential and shall not be revealed to any other person”.
The bench said “we are of the further opinion that while the mediation proceedings are being carried out, there ought not to be any reporting of the said proceedings either in the print or in the electronic media”. But it refrained from passing any specific order “at this stage” and left it to the mediators to pass necessary orders “in writing, if so required to restrain publication of the details of the mediation proceedings”.
The bench said the panel chairman may inform the Supreme Court Registry in case of any difficulty in carrying out the task assigned or if there was any requirement to facilitate the mediation and to conclude it at the earliest.
Some parties to the dispute had objected to the proposal to send the matter to mediation citing certain provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) dealing with representative suits. But the bench said “considering the provisions of the CPC, indicated above, 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… whether the said provisions of the CPC would apply in the event parties arrive at a settlement/compromise in the mediation proceedings is a matter left open to be decided at the appropriate stage”.
The suggestion for mediation had come from the bench on February 26 when it took up appeals. It said it could only decide on property and what it was looking at was “a possibility of healing relationships”. It sought the views of the parties on invoking Section 89 of the CPC which deals with mediation.
Section 89 says that “Where it appears to the court that there exist elements of a settlement which may be to the parties, the court shall formulate the terms of settlement and give them to the parties for their observations and after receiving the observations of the parties, the court may reformulate the terms of a possible settlement and refer the same for (a) arbitration; (b) conciliation; (c) judicial settlement including settlement through Lok Adalat; or (d) mediation”.
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, representing one of the appellants favouring the Babri Masjid, had favoured the suggestion, but senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, representing the deity Ramlalla Virajman, opposed this saying “these are matters of faith and non-justiciable. That it is the Ramjanmabhoomi cannot be subject to any compromise… What can best be done is to give alternate land for building a mosque. And we are willing to crowd-fund it”.
After hearing the parties, the bench has reserved its order on March 6 saying it was “looking at hearts, minds and healing if possible” and that a “negotiated settlement” was the “best way to restore peace”.