By Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett
December 7, 2012
In the months following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on Dec.6, 1992, the government of India enacted a new law to acquire a large area of land in Ayodhya that included the site where the mosque stood.
After the mosque’s demolition, Hindu activists had hastily built a makeshift temple to Ram Lalla, the statue of an infant Lord Ram that had been placed in the mosque in 1949. The new law set aside all the suits that claimed title to the site but allowed Hindu worship there to continue.
Simultaneously, through a process known as a presidential reference, the government put a question to the Supreme Court: Did a “Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure” exists where the mosque had been built in 1528?
Muslim representatives challenged the legality of the new law and the presidential reference, saying that the government could not acquire a holy site. They also claimed no temple that was being used for worship was torn down to make the mosque, as Hindus contended. The Nirmohi Akhara, the sect of Sadhus in Ayodhya that was part of the title litigation, also challenged the government’s acquisition of the land, which it claimed for itself.
A bench of five justices started deliberations in September 1993.
The solicitor general told the court that the government was committed to “the construction of a Ram temple and a mosque,” but needed the Supreme Court to decide their location.
After a year, the court declined to answer the question in the presidential reference, saying it was “superfluous and unnecessary,” even though it was a major bone of contention between the two sides.
The court, by a majority decision, upheld the law acquiring the land. But it said the government should hand over the small plot of about a quarter-acre, where the mosque and its two courtyards had stood, once the suits claiming title to the site were decided. The justices also reinstated those lawsuits, which had been transferred to the high court in Lucknow from Faizabad.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court couldn’t resist a commentary on what happened on the day of the Babri Masjid’s demolition. The Hindu community must, it said, “bear the cross on its chest for the misdeed of the miscreants reasonably suspected to belong to their religious fold.”
In early 1995, the frontlines of the dispute shifted back to the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court. The suits claiming title to the site were bundled together to be part of the same case.
On the Muslim side, there was the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Waqfs, which was responsible for maintaining Muslim holy sites, and six individual co-plaintiffs from Ayodhya and neighbouring areas.
On the Hindu side, there were three suits. One filed by Gopal Singh Visharad, an Ayodhya local, in 1950. Another, filed in 1959, by the Nirmohi Akhara, the sect of Sadhus dedicated to serving Ram. And another, filed in 1989 that added a new dimension to the proceedings. (A fourth suit, filed in 1950 by another Sadhu in Ayodhya had been withdrawn)
The 1989 suit, the most recent to be filed, was the work of Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a retired Hindu judge who lived in Allahabad, a city in Uttar Pradesh. where Ayodhya is located.
He worked late into the night for years on the filing and told his daughter, Minu, that he was typing up “the most important case in India,” she said in an interview.
Justice Agarwal was frustrated by how slowly the litigation over the site was proceeding. He believed the evidence was clear that the site belonged to Ram, his daughter said.
In his suit, he made the lead plaintiff Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman – Ram himself.
Indian law recognizes religious figures as “juristic persons.” Justice Agarwal is named in the suit as a supplementary plaintiff, Ram’s “next friend.”
The defendants were all the other parties who had previously laid claim to the site, from the Nirmohi Akhara to the Waqf board.
Ram was “extremely unhappy” with the length of time the litigation was taking as well and with the deteriorating management of the site, Mr. Agarwal’s suit said. It called for the plaintiffs to be given title to the entire premises since it was Ram’s birthplace.
The recording of oral evidence started in the summer of 1996.
The Lucknow court is a collection of tall red-brick buildings, a blend of British and Mughal architecture. It has spacious arched corridors painted yellow and light blue that lead visitors around the roughly 30 court rooms in the complex.
In most, a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, shown in contemplative pose, hangs on the wall behind the elevated bench where the judges sit.
In the courtroom hearing the Babri Masjid case, two court typists and two stenographers recorded witness statements. Three judges presided. The judges and the lawyers identified more than 80 issues for the court to decide, based on the claims made by the four parties—one Muslim and three Hindu.
The key issues were about the construction and nature of the disputed building and the land around it: Was it the birthplace of Ram, which Hindus claimed but Muslims disputed? And was the building that stood there a mosque as defined by Islamic law, as Muslims claimed but Hindus disputed?
The Muslims produced their witnesses first – a total of 33 in all. Experts in Islam testified that the Babri Masjid was a proper mosque even though the building had some unusual architectural touches like images on the pillars and no minarets.
Historians and archaeologists for the Muslim side testified that there was no historical or religious evidence to show that the disputed site was the birthplace of Lord Ram.
Eight of those expert witnesses were Hindus. They volunteered to testify, saying they wanted to stand for “facts” and defend secularism, according to the lawyers for the Muslim side.
Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the tailor who was living in Ayodhya when the legal dispute began in 1950, stood in the witness box in 1996, 46 years later.
A co-plaintiff in the Waqf board suit, he was then 75 years old, his hair gray and his face laced with wrinkles.
He started each day’s testimony with an oath, “In the name of Allah,” that he would speak only the truth.
Mr. Ansari’s memory was occasionally hazy. When he testified that he had offered his first prayer at the Babri Masjid in 1938, one Hindu lawyer during cross-examination asked: “Which month of 1938?”
Mr. Ansari shot back, “Had I known that there would be this dispute on the Babri Masjid, I would have noted and remembered it,” according to a copy of his testimony.
He remained firm on issues of faith. A Hindu lawyer read a verse from the Koran and asked him to define the word “kafir.” Mr. Ansari said the term meant “people who don’t consider God as one and don’t follow the Book,” according to his testimony.
When the lawyer asked him whether Hindus are “kafir” by this definition, he said: “Those who don’t believe in the formless God are ‘kafir.’”
On the Hindu side, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, the retired judge whose case made Ram a plaintiff, testified despite a heart problem. A special provision was made for recording his statement at his residence in Allahabad.
At the age of about 80, Mr. Agarwal spoke with gusto when describing the basis of his claim, according to lawyers on both sides. He testified both on behalf of Ram and himself, as Ram’s “next friend” in the suit.
He said that according to Hinduism, an idol is not important for worshipping but many devotees worship a statue of their deity to gain access to the divine.
His claim hinged on his contention that the site was the “birthplace of Lord Ram” and that when the Babri Masjid was built, “Ram was its owner.” He said Muslims who had offered prayers at the site in the past did so without the “permission of the owner of the land.”
When the Muslims’ lawyers asked the basis of his claim, Mr. Agarwal answered that it was the tradition of Hindu belief, which was at least 2,000 years old and was passed down through generations.
He died at his home before his cross-examination could be completed.
When Rajendra Singh, the son of Gopal Singh Visharad, took the stand, his father – who was the first to file a legal claim in the dispute — was dead. Rajendra Singh was a retired employee of a state bank, aged in his late-60s.
He acknowledged in an interview that he didn’t know much about his father’s suit. His statement is one of the shortest of the 54 witnesses on the Hindu side.
During cross-examination, Mr. Singh said he believed Ram’s birth had taken place hundreds of thousands of years ago. “This I have heard from my ancestors and I have also read about it,” he said.
Bhaskar Das, the head of the Nirmohi Akhara sect, the third Hindu plaintiff, took a different line from the other Hindus.
Contradicting their testimony, he claimed that “no incident took place in the disputed building” on the night of Dec. 22, 1949, the date the idol of Ram appeared in the Babri Masjid.
In an interview, Mr. Das maintained that nothing happened then. He added that the building had at no time been a mosque, either: “That place was always a temple owned by Nirmohi Akhara.”
During the cross-examination by a lawyer for the Muslims, Mr. Das said his knowledge about Lord Ram’s life was based on the “story” he had heard from Hindu sages.
The lawyer asked him whether that story had any description of a temple at Ram’s birthplace. Mr. Das quoted a verse from a colloquial version of the Ramayan, the sacred text of Ram’s life, written by a 16th-century poet, Tulsidas.
Citing a quote from Ram, Mr. Das chanted: “My birthplace is this beautiful city, to the north of it flows the sacred Saryu,” the river by Ayodhya.
Just funding the case took a toll on the Nirmohi Akhara, said another senior Sadhu in the sect. The sect sold a plot of land near Ayodhya to buy a jeep to ferry witnesses to the court. “We lost a lot of money in litigation,” the Sadhu said in an interview.
It took the court 11 years to hear all the witnesses.
To support their claims, lawyers for each side produced volumes of documentary evidence: more than 1,000 reference books in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, Persian and French; travellers’ historic accounts; copies of the memoir of Babar, the Mughal ruler whose troops had constructed the mosque in 1528; and religious texts, including the Ramayan.
The Muslim plaintiffs also produced inspection reports, land records, and other documents dating back to the mid-19th century.
In all, the documents occupied 21 steel cupboards, measuring about seven feet by four feet each. Witness statements alone comprised 14,000 pages. The records were kept in a dedicated court room and were regularly treated with special insecticide powder to prevent bookworms. A staff of five looks after them, said a court official.
At the start of the trial, in 1996, a large crowd of Hindus and Muslims from Lucknow thronged the courtroom. Over time, the numbers fizzled to a handful.
In breaks, Zafaryab Jilani, the lead Muslim attorney, ordered tea and biscuits for all the lawyers, who sipped in the corridor outside the courtroom as they gossiped and sometimes cracked jokes.
Several lawyers involved in the case say they are either unpaid or paid meagrely by their clients. But they say they took the case because of their own religious beliefs and the importance of the issue to their communities.
The atmosphere inside the courtroom was sombre but occasionally leavened with humour. Once a judge told a lawyer, in Hindi, “Tum bahut kam aate ho,” which means, “you are coming less frequently.”
The lawyer mistook the phrase for what could sound, in Hindi, like, “you earn a lot.”
“No your lordship, I don’t earn much,” he replied as the court erupted in laughter.
There were also moments of tension. One expert witness, a Hindu, visited the court to testify on behalf of the Muslims. A crowd of Hindus assaulted him and accused him of being a “traitor,” according to lawyers and court staff present at the time.
Overall, starting from 1989, 18 judges hearing the case either retired or were transferred, according to the lawyers involved.
It wasn’t just the judges who changed. Over time, the legal team representing the Nirmohi Akhara included three generations of the same family of lawyers.
Ranjeet Lal Verma, the lawyer for the Nirmohi Akhara today, was a law student at Allahabad University when the sect filed its case in 1959. His father was the sect’s lawyer. After graduation, Mr. Verma joined the case. After his father’s death in 1994, Mr. Verma’s son, Tarun Jeet Verma, joined him.
With the Muslims claiming that the mosque had been constructed on vacant land and the Hindus claiming it was built after demolishing a temple, the judges decided “to have a scientific investigation at the disputed site.”
The idea was to see if there was empirical evidence to settle the question of what lay beneath the ruined mosque – nothing, or a ruined Hindu temple.
In late 2002, the court called into service the country’s top archaeological research agency, the Archaeological Survey of India. Headquartered in New Delhi, the ASI was formed by the British in 1861 and today is charged with excavating and preserving ancient monuments.
The ASI was reluctant to get involved. But after the court appointed a New Delhi-based geo-physical investigation company to do the survey work, the ASI agreed to supervise it.
The company surveyed the area using earth-sensing equipment with high-powered antennas that transmitted electromagnetic waves into the ground and recorded the variations in their travel speeds after hitting different objects. The returning waves were fed into a special computer that generated maps that could show “anomalies” – perhaps structures and artifacts – beneath the soil.
In its report to the court, the company said it found “a variety of anomalies ranging from 0.5 to 5.5 meters in depth that could be associated with ancient and contemporaneous structures such as pillars, foundation walls, slab flooring, extending over a large portion of the site.”
To confirm, the site needed to be excavated, the survey report said.
The court asked the ASI to excavate about 10,000 square feet of the main disputed area, except under the makeshift temple containing the idol of Ram. The excavation should not disturb the worshipping of Ram Lalla—the infant god—and the visits of devotees, the court added.
The excavation team comprised of 14 senior ASI archaeologists, photographers and draftsman and 80 local labourers. It began in March 2003.
The court allowed the parties who were fighting in court to have observers present. The excavation team dug 90 trenches, most up to five meters deep.
They unearthed and recorded structures such as brick and stone pillar bases, masonry walls, and floors of lime. They found glazed tiles, human and animal figurines, inscribed copper coins, bone and iron objects, ear-studs and bangles of terracotta.
The ASI submitted a 272-page report with separate volumes of photos. The report’s summary said the sum of the discoveries was “indicative of remains which are distinctive features found associated with the temples of north India.”
The report also said that radio-carbon dating showed that people using “northern black polished ware” were the first people to “occupy the disputed site at Ayodhya.”
The finding pushed evidence of habitation in the area to the middle of the 13th century B.C, about 3,300 years ago from today.
The archaeologists involved in the excavation declined comment, citing restrictions placed on them by the court.
In the court in Lucknow, the Hindu parties and their expert witnesses broadly welcomed the ASI report and said it vindicated their claims that a Hindu temple was torn down to build the mosque.
But the waqf board, Hashim Ansari and other Muslim plaintiffs objected. They called the report “one-sided” and produced eight expert witnesses, six of them Hindu.
They assailed the report for its alleged “omissions,” such as the discovery of animal bones with cut marks found in different layers of the trenches that would be unlikely to come from a Hindu shrine.
The survey didn’t conclusively settle the question it was designed to address.
By July 2010, the lawyers had completed their arguments. The court set a date — Sept. 30, 2010 – to deliver the first verdict in a case that had begun 60 years before.
In the days before the verdict, the national and state governments dispatched tens of thousands of security personnel to deal with any post-verdict violence. Just in Uttar Pradesh, about 190,000 police and paramilitary forces were deployed.
The situation was sensitive. Violence had accompanied the dispute in the past and India at the time was on display to the world: The Commonwealth Games, a major athletic event, was to begin in New Delhi a few days later.
The verdict was a test of whether India had moved beyond the old wounds and divisions that had split its two largest constituencies, Hindus and Muslims.
“I think that India has moved on. Young people have moved on,” Palaniappan Chidambaram, then federal home minister, said at a press conference before the verdict. “Particularly people born after 1992 have a different world view.”
Judgment day was a Thursday. News channels offered live coverage as lawyers at the court awaited the ruling. The national government blocked the sending of mass text messages to deter any organized agitation. In the southern state of Karnataka, the government closed schools and colleges for two days.
The streets of Ayodhya were empty of civilians, according to several residents.
In the courtroom in Lucknow, there were about 25 lawyers. News crews with television cameras camped outside the court complex as paramilitary troops patrolled.
The court ruled that the quarter-acre site of the mosque and its immediate surroundings should be divided into three parts—two for the Hindu side and one for Muslims. It was a majority decision, approved by the Muslim judge and one of the two Hindus.
The location of the mosque’s central dome, where the idol of Ram Lalla sat, was given to Ram himself and his “next friend.” That was originally Deoki Nandan Agarwal. Since his death in 2002, the position had been assumed by a representative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the organization that had championed the construction of a Ram temple.
The site of the wooden platform in the mosque’s outer courtyard where Ram had been worshipped for centuries was given to the Nirmohi Akhara.
The ruling also said that the entire area of the former mosque and its inner and outer courtyards should be divided in such a way that Muslims also get no less than one third.
The judges then read summaries of their opinions. On the question of what predated the Babri Masjid, the Muslim judge observed that the mosque “was constructed over the ruins of temples which were lying in utter ruins since a very long time before the construction of [the] mosque.”
On the issue of whether the site was the birthplace of Ram, one of the Hindu judges observed: “It is held that the place of birth, as believed and worshipped by Hindus, is the area covered under the central dome of the three domed structure.”
The other Hindu judge, who was retiring the next day, went deep into the terrain of faith and spirituality: “Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”
This judge, in a dissenting opinion, said the entire area belongs to Ram Lalla.
The judges’ statements lasted about one hour. Then Tarun Jeet Verma, son of the main lawyer for the Nirmohi Akhara, emerged from the courtroom flashing a victory sign.
All four parties said the “trifurcation” of the site was not what they had sought from the court. They all appealed to the Supreme Court in New Delhi, which stayed the Lucknow high court’s ruling and agreed to take the appeals.
Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the Ayodhya tailor, was surrounded by television cameras outside his home. He appealed to Muslims to remain calm even though he was not happy with the result.
Lal Krishna Advani, senior leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which championed the Ram temple cause, told the media that the verdict was “the judiciary’s reconciliation formula.” Still, he maintained, “The judgment has paved way for the construction of the temple.”
On the nation’s prime-time new shows that evening, several commentators criticized the judgment for being too heavily grounded in faith rather than in law, while some hailed it as politically astute because neither side was granted a clear win.
The nation remained calm. Its attention returned to the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
URL of Chapter One of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-one/d/9534
URL of Chapter Two of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-two/d/9553
URL of Chapter Three of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-three/d/9567
URL of Chapter Four of the Series: http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/krishna-pokharel-and-paul-beckett/ayodhya,-the-battle-for-india’s-soul--chapter-four/d/9574