Mediation in #AyodhyaDispute will provide a big breather for the BJP

Temple politics has officially been on the back burner for the past month as patriotism is likely to rock the general elections narrative.

WrittenBy:Kanchan Srivastava
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India’s oldest litigation which involves 2.77 acres of a land dispute between Hindu and Muslim communities in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was referred for court-monitored arbitration by the Supreme Court today. The five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi announced a three-member mediation panel headed by former Supreme Court justice FM Khalifulla in the politically sensitive case—popularly known as Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case—which will hold the arbitration process in Ayodhya. The panel has to submit the status report in a month and the final report in eight weeks, i.e. by the first week of May.

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The verdict assumes political significance as it comes just weeks ahead of the general elections.

Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and advocate Sriram Panchu are the other two members of the panel. All three petitioners in the case—the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhada and the Ram Lalla Virajman—have welcomed the move, expressing hope that the 60-year-old issue gets resolved.

However, Hindu outfits and the UP government have expressed reservation, citing previous failed attempts of arbitration. Meanwhile, Congress leader Virendra Madan says the party always believed the issue can be resolved either through mediation or by the courts.

Two years ago, the court had suggested that the two sides explore the possibility of resolving the matter through negotiation. The court even said it was ready to mediate if they agreed. But negotiations did not take off, as all sides involved said they wanted the court to take a call.

Mediators are well-known experts

Justice Fakkir Mohammed Kalifulla, the chairperson of the panel, is from Tamil Nadu, and started practice of the law in Chennai. He was appointed a judge of the Madras High Court in 2000. Later, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court. He was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2012 and retired in 2016.

Justice Kalifulla has delivered several landmark verdicts, one of which was related to the introduction of Vedic astrology as a course of scientific study in Indian universities, which had the seal of approval of the Supreme Court. However, his tenure as Chief Justice of the J&K High Court makes his stature distinct.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation. In early 2018, he had attempted an out of court settlement of the dispute by holding talks with leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim groups. He had suggested that Muslims should give up their claims on the disputed site, expressing that it was not a place of importance for them.

Advocate Sriram Panchu is based in Chennai and has a reputation of being a world class mediator. He is a founder of The Mediation Chambers, president of the Association of Indian Mediators, and a director on the board of the International Mediation Institute. He set up India’s first court-annexed mediation centre in 2005, and has been instrumental in making mediation a part of India’s legal system.

The Supreme Court has given the panel the liberty to solicit more mediators or seek legal assistance.

Why the BJP can relax now

The decision has given the Bharatiya Janata Party a fair amount of breathing space. The party has, for some time now, been under moral pressure to bypass the tedious judicial process and construct the Ram temple on the disputed land to fulfil the election promise it made in 2014 and in previous elections.

According to Anil Tiwari, head of a UP-based news portal, this also means that patriotism will continue to rock the poll campaigns. He says: “Mediation will push back any possibility of an early beginning of the construction of the Ram temple—the top priority of Right-wing groups ahead of the coming national elections who have escalated efforts since last year with the claims that preparations are on.”

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi said no decision could be made until the judicial process is over.

The bench also ruled that the mediation process being held in-camera, its details shall remain confidential, with no publications in print or electronic media in this connection. This appears to be an attempt to keep the controversial issue off the electoral scene.

‘Healing relations’

The petition challenging the 2010 judgment by the Allahabad High Court has been pending for almost nine years. The court had ordered an equal division of the 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya.

Hearing the matter last on February 26, the bench had advocated an amicable resolution to the Ram Mandir case through mediation. “We are considering the possibility of healing relations between two communities. We, as a court, can only decide the property issue,” Justice SA Bobde had said.

The bench also said the case was not about property but “mind, heart and healing—if possible”. It said that even if there is “one per cent chance” of settling the dispute amicably, the parties should go for mediation.

The court is also considering a petition by the Centre which wants to release 67.7 acres of land acquired in 1993 around the site—except for 0.303 acres on which the actual disputed structure stood—to its original owners.

Questions over Sri Sri’s appointment

While many people don’t expect much from this exercise due to huge political interests involved, some are sceptical over Sri Sri’s inclusion in the panel. A few seers in Ayodhya have opposed his inclusion.

Mahant Raju Das, priest of the prominent temple Hanuman Garhi, told Newslaundry: “Over the past many years, we have been insisting that this issue is of faith, not only the title suit. But the courts have always maintained it was a land dispute which can be resolved only by judiciary with the help of evidences. We are happy that the apex court has finally accepted that it’s the issue of our faith and sentiments. The land under question is Lord Ram’s birthplace while Babar was an attacker. However, we are disappointed that a businessman like Sri Sri has been chosen as a mediator rather than a seer from Ayodhya.”

Mahant Ramdas of Nirmohi Akhada said, “The court should have appointed a Hindu judge as well in the panel, someone like Deepak Mishra who had presided the bench in this case. Moreover, we have little faith in Sri Sri mainly because he is accused of offering money to litigants in the case previously. He doesn’t belong to any Akhara. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das of Ram Janmbhumi Nyas would have been a better choice.”

AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owiasi has also questioned Sri Sri’s appointment, citing his previous efforts of mediation in which he suggested that the land must be given for the temple. Owaisi said: “If Sri Sri remains impartial this time, then it’s fine.”

However, Acharya Satyendra Das, the chief priest of the makeshift Ram temple in Ayodhya on the disputed land, says, “Sri Sri might have failed once, but it doesn’t mean he will not be able to lead the arbitration again. He is respected by both Hindu and Muslim communities, hence he seems to be a good choice for the job. I hope that the entire 77-acre land which has been acquired by the government is  given for the temple as it is the birthplace of Ram. This can’t be changed. A mosque can be constructed anywhere in Ayodhya or perhaps in Lucknow, as suggested by the Shia Waqf Board chief Waseem Rizvi.”

BJP leaders have accepted that they would like to give mediation a try but finding amicable solution to this complex issue is not easy. The party’s national spokesperson Prem Shukla said: “The mediation processes in 1989, 1991 and 2001  failed because the Muslim party left the processes midway. We believe all constitutional hurdles must be removed before the construction of the temple.”

He added: “The court itself said that mediation must be explored even if there is one percent chance of resolving the issue. If the panel fails to get it, the matter will go back to the court.”

In such a scenario, if mediation fails, this long pending case will turn out to be a big mess which is unlikely to be resolved soon, observers said.

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