Several decades of simmering disquiet and subdued anxiety have finally ended with the Ayodhya verdict of the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court. In a sense it is fortunate that the Court has delivered a unanimous judgment of five judges. All sides and political parties that had either exploited public sentiment or indeed suffered politically had categorically committed to accepting the outcome. Initial reactions suggest that the decision has been received widely with a sense of relief that the fire of passion, real or contrived, has finally been doused, even if some people feel a bit disappointed and legally-trained professionals will continue to dissect the findings for their impact as precedents for future decisions.
Despite the predictable 1,045 pages (a modest size compared to recent trends), the judgment makes easy reading and should not be difficult to read and understand for legal experts as well as ordinary people. What, of course, stands out conspicuously is that the disputed plot of 2.77 acres along with the surrounding land acquired by the state post demolition will be handed over to a trust to be established by the government. This is not by an act of obeisance towards Ram Lalla (the deity) or in other words, by submission to the faith of Hindus but by an interesting balancing of principles of establishing title.
The Court held that the right to the inner courtyard of the mosque, claimed by Muslims, was never free of opposing claims and periodic attempts by Hindus to assert their rights. On the other hand, Muslims had themselves admitted that Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya and the chabutra in the outer courtyard was undisputedly in the possession of Hindus for decades and puja was conducted uninterrupted. Although a close analysis of the interface of competing claims might throw up questions, the fact remains that the present decision, undoubtedly made very thoughtfully by the Court, was made possible by the conduct of the Muslim side over the decades. Be that as it may, ultimately the Court made a delicate balancing effort of subscribing to legal principles and putting a closure on a festering civilisational wound. Muslims, who had all along committed themselves to acceptance of the Court verdict, now have a chance to show grace, generosity and reaching out to claim a place in contribution to true national integration and unity.
The Supreme Court might have found the Hindu case marginally more persuasive than the Muslim case, but it has done a great deal more to facilitate and inspire the Muslims to see this as a moment of reconciliation rather than defeat. There could not have been clearer condemnation by the highest Court of the land of the acts of intrusion in 1949, when the idol of Ram Lalla was placed under the middle dome of the mosque, as indeed of the act of vandalism when the mosque was demolished in 1992.
The Court was also clear that the ASI report showing evidence of previous civilisations did not prove that a temple, least of all a Ram temple, was demolished to construct the Babri Masjid. Reaffirmation of India’s secular character in the judgment should not be obscured by the baseline outcome. This is the truth that preceded reconciliation. Furthermore, the direction that five acres of other land be given to the Sunni Waqf Board is a gesture that proclaims that the Court and the nation treat all citizens as equals. It has recognised that all citizens have their respective faiths and manner of worship but that while faith has a place in our national life, it does not trump legal rights in an unqualified sweep.
The greatest opportunity that the judgment offers is a reaffirmation of India as a secular society. It is a decision that refutes the idea of Hindu Rashtra and amplifies the practical handling of sensitive religious concerns in a secular system. Upholding the purpose and effect of the Places of Worship Act, amongst other matters, is a clear indication that the secular edifice of India and the commitment of its highest Court to the constitutional principles we cherish has not only remained undisturbed but indeed been fortified. If we have all placed our trust in the Court, it is imperative that we recognise our trust has been redeemed. There is silence on one issue: Periodic attempts to find a solution outside the court room that failed does not seem to have found a place under the sun.
Perhaps there is a lesson in it for us: If this is what was to happen, could we all not have done it ourselves? Has the Court gently nudged us to rethink our approach to our national life? As we look back, we will be able to see how much we have lost over Ayodhya through the years of conflict. If the loss of a mosque is preservation of faith, if the establishment of a temple is emancipation of faith, we can all join together in celebrating faith in the Constitution. Sometimes, a step back to accommodate is several steps forward towards our common destiny.
This article first appeared in print edition on November 11, 2019, under the headline: Lessons from Ayodhya. The writer is a former Union minister and senior Congress leader
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