Virtually setting a deadline for completion of hearing in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit appeals, the Supreme Court Wednesday asked parties to the Ayodhya dispute to try and conclude their arguments by October 18.
At the same time, it said the parties were free to simultaneously explore a negotiated settlement to the centuries-old dispute through a mediation panel it had appointed.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, heading a bench that includes Justices S A Bobde, D Y Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S A Nazeer, said: “Let us all make a joint effort to conclude the arguments by October 18.”
He told the parties that “if necessary, and only if necessary”, the bench may hear the matter for an additional hour everyday or sit on Saturdays too.
A day earlier, the bench had asked the parties to let it know when can they conclude arguments. After listening to them, it said it hopes that the proceedings are wrapped up by October 18 — the target date assumes significance since CJI Gogoi is due to retire on November 17.
As soon as the hearing began, the CJI mentioned the communication the court had received from the mediation panel comprising retired Supreme Court judge Justice F M Ibrahim Kalifulla, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu.
The mediators had sought “directions” from the bench on two letters they had received. The letters, written by Zufar Farooqui, chairman of the Sunni Waqf Board, and Dharam Das of the Nirvani Akhara, called for resumption of the mediation process.
The bench said that “the hearing of the appeals, which is at a very advanced stage, will continue without any interruption. If, in the meantime, the parties desire to settle the matter(s), including, by resort to mediation by the earlier constituted mediation panel, they may do so and place the settlement before the Court, if reached”.
It also made it clear that “the terms and the process of settlement including mediation, if resorted to, will abide by our earlier order dated 8th March, 2019, with regard to confidentiality”.
During the hearing, the bench questioned the Sunni Central Wakf Board on the “close proximity” of the Ram Chabutra to railings installed by the British at the disputed site after the 1855 communal riots to demarcate the area into two zones for Hindus and Muslims to pray separately.
It said that Hindus, while praying at these railings — which were adjacent to the mosque structure — may have been actually praying to something beyond it, to what they believed was their deity inside the dome of the mosque.
Appearing for the Wakf Board, senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan took the bench through the accounts of travellers and witnesses as well as the gazetteers cited by parties in favour of a temple. He said the gazetteers could not be totally believed. “I am not saying they should be rejected altogether, but there are gradations,” he said.
The bench wanted to know the distance between the Ram Chabutra and the main structure and concluded that it was not far from it.
Justice Chandrachud then asked: “Before 1855, there was no exclusion (both Hindus and Muslims visited the place). Why was the Chabutra set up almost simultaneously with the railings… and in close proximity to it?”.
“May be because Hindus believed that by offering prayers at the Chabutra, they were offering prayers to the deity in the mosque. The presence of the Chabutra in close proximity to the railings assumes significance,” Justice Chandrachud said.
Countering this, Dhavan said: “It’s your Lordship’s conjecture.” He said the mosque was a walled one and “the entire area was a Muslim mosque”. He said it cannot be assumed that they (Hindus) were actually praying to the central dome.
Justice Bhushan said “that has come on record”. And Justice Bobde said “there is evidence that they prayed at the railings”.
Dhavan sought to contradict this, saying it was only in the accounts of some travellers.
“There is oral evidence,” Justice Bhushan replied.
Justice Chandrachud said the Chabutra was “almost co-terminus with the railings” and asked “why does the Chabutra become the focal point after the railings were put up?” He said that till 1855, Hindus and Muslims were going to the site but then came the “upsurge” and the railings. “It is in reaction to the exclusion that this takes place,” he pointed out.
Dhavan repeated that this was only a conjecture.
Justice Chandrachud said it was “within the scope of reasonable probability” and asked “why do people pray at a railing?” Justice Bhushan said they went there because they believed it to be “janmasthan”.
Dhavan said there was no contemporary evidence that people prayed there. He then said they may have gone there “to destroy it”.
He said the matter has to be seen in the context that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were fighting for each other’s religious places. “It was a case of inter-se conflict and conquest” and “why they went to railing is something your Lordships don’t know — whether it was an acquisitive act or otherwise”.
CJI Gogoi told Dhavan to refer to the evidence he cited in support of this argument when the hearing resumes Thursday.