An oft-heard refrain in the twin towns of Faizabad and Ayodhya is “baatcheet and bhaichara”(dialogue and harmony) can resolve the dispute. The belief in dialogue is strong on both sides, though slightly shakier among the Muslims, who feel betrayed by governments and courts since the Ram Lalla idol was first implanted inside the Babri mosque in 1949.
Several attempts to resolve the dispute through dialogue have failed. This is the first time that negotiations are going to take place under the Supreme Court’s (SC) supervision.
The Court has wisely used mediation to exhaust all possibilities before it takes up the case for hearing sometime in mid-May. However, it seems intriguing that, instead of a neutral place, it has chosen Faizabad as the venue for these talks. Besides being Ayodhya’s larger twin city, it is a communally sensitive place. Though the Court has stated that there would be no media reporting of the negotiations it has stopped short of explicitly writing this into its order. For instance, even before formal proceedings have begun, some media reports have cited “sources” to assert that the three-member panel has reached Faizabad, with details of the venue where talks will take place.
In 1855, a similar effort had taken place in Faizabad to resolve a dispute between the Bairagis of Hanumangarhi and local Muslims, who alleged that a mosque atop Ayodhya’s pre-eminent temple had been razed to the ground. James Outram, the British resident in Lucknow, and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, Awadh’s last king, had then agreed to form a Tripartite Commission of Inquiry to resolve the dispute after a pitched battle claimed the lives of scores of people — the British force had remained a mute spectator to the incident. The Commission had held public meetings in Ayodhya and the premises of Gulab Bari, the tomb of Shuja-ud Daulah, Awadh’s second Nawab. After consulting various witnesses and self-verification of the claims of Muslims, the Commission had concluded that no mosque existed atop the Hanumangarhi, and with this the matter had come to an end. It was in the context of this dispute that the Babri Masjid was first mentioned in colonial era records.
The mediation panel comprising of a former justice of the Supreme Court, a senior lawyer specialising in alternative dispute resolution and a spiritual guru with pro-temple leanings are going to presumably spend considerable time in Faizabad and Ayodhya. As someone who has attempted to weave together the rich historical tapestry of the city for Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord, here is a list of places that they must visit to familiarise themselves with the layered history of these twin towns.
They must begin at the makeshift Ram Lalla temple, sitting atop the debris of Babri Mosque, taking care to visit the shops outside the Ram Janmabhoomi that continue to sell communally charged DVDs that glorify the VHP-led movement to “liberate” Ram’s birthplace in the 1990s.
A visit to Hanumangarhi temple will afford the panel a panoramic view of the town, and also an appreciation of Ayodhya’s syncretic history. Hopefully, they would also learn that, in 2016, Mahant Gyan Das of the temple, had invited local Muslims to break their Ramzan fast and offer namaz inside its premises. This had led to huge protests by VHP and groups affiliated to it, forcing the intervention of the district administration. About a km from Hanumangarhi stands the 300-year old Alamgiri mosque that made headlines that very year, because its reconstruction was allowed and funded by the priests.
The panel should also plan visits to Jain places of worship. It is believed that four of the first 10 Jain Tirthankars were born in Ayodhya. To learn about the Buddhist history of Ayodhya, they must visit the Mani Parbat from where Buddha is believed to have preached. Today, Mani Parbat has become part of the local Ramayana lore. It is said to be a fallen portion of the hill that contained the sanjeevani herb that Hanuman was transporting from the Himalayas to the battlefront in Ram’s war with Ravan. Right behind Mani Parbat lies the mazaar of Hazrat Sheesh Paigambar, said to be the son of Adam and Eve. The mazaar is worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims. Besides this dargah, there are at least 18 other important dargahs in Ayodhya including that of Badi Bua, revered as Ayodhya’s patron Sufi saint.
A visit to some of these sites would reveal the layered histories of Ayodhya.
It is expected that mediation will confine itself to the main litigants to the dispute such as the Sunni Central Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and the deity, Ram Lalla Viraajmaan. If this turns out to be the case, then the panel has its task cut out. It has to successfully inspire parties with contrarian stands to agree to a middle-ground. While the Hindu parties and groups like the VHP assert that “no force on earth can remove the deity from the disputed site”, the Muslim parties have often said that they would not like to rebuild the mosque at the same site where it once stood — perhaps herein lies an opening which can be explored. The Nirmohi Akhara can be convinced to withdraw its claims to the land by giving it joint control over the management of the temple along with the government.
This new mediation process must be conducted in the spirit with which the Supreme Court has ordered it, that of healing hearts and minds. Without the spirit of accommodation and trust, the talks are bound to fail, and become a platform to further polarise the country, currently in the middle of one of its most crucial general elections.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 29, 2019 under the title ‘Ayodhya’s histories’. Singh, a Delhi-based journalist, is the author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord.