The Ayodhya verdict is finally out. It was delivered by a constitution bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer. Bobde will be sworn in as the chief justice on November 18, a day after Gogoi retires.
The judgement was reserved on October 16 after a marathon hearing that went on for a good 40 days. The Ayodhya hearing is touted as the second-longest hearing in the history of the Supreme Court. The Kesavananda Bharti case, adjudicated by 13 judges and heard for 68 days still holds the title as the longest hearing in the apex court’s history.
To ensure the matter was heard and resolved before Gogoi retires, the bench maintained a gruelling schedule, hearing the matter five days a week, often till 5 pm each day. The hearing began on August 6 and concluded on October 16.
The oldest title dispute case
The Babri Masjid, named after the first Mughal emperor Babur, was built in 1528 in Faizabad, now Ayodhya, nearly 700 km from the national capital and 130 km from the state capital Lucknow.
More than three centuries later, the British administration demarcated the land and segregated the places of worship to diffuse the conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities. The Muslims were allowed to use the inner courtyard while the Hindus were given space to pray in the outer courtyard. This arrangement lasted up to 1885, when Mahant Raghubar Das filed a plea seeking permission to build a canopy on Ram Chabootra.
On December 23, 1949, some people surreptitiously placed Lord Rama’s idol under the central dome of the mosque.
Three weeks later, Gopal Singh Visharad filed the first plea, kickstarting the seven-decade title dispute case. Visharad, who was district president of the Hindu Mahasabha of Gonda district, filed a plea in the erstwhile Faizabad court seeking his right to pray.
What the case is about
At the core of it, the Ayodhya matter is a property dispute. The disputed site where the mosque once stood and which some Hindus claim to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, measures all of 2.77 acres. On December 6, 1992, Hindu kar sevaks, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, demolished the mosque. The demolition sparked outrage and resulted in widespread communal violence across the country, killing nearly 2,000 people.
Journey of the legal dispute
Since 1949, when the first plea was filed, until its conclusion today in the Supreme Court, the legal dispute has seen several milestones. After the first plea in 1949, several parties filed applications in court laying claim to the disputed land.
In 1989, the Allahabad High Court directed a status quo at the site. On September 30, 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed land into three equal parts between the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and the Ram Lalla, the infant Lord Rama.
An appeal challenging the high court’s order was filed in the Supreme Court soon after. The matter languished for years until the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy filed an appeal in 2016 to allow the “rebuilding of the Ram Temple” so he could exercise his fundamental right to worship Ram.
A slew of appeals followed and several interventions were filed in this matter. However, on March 15, 2018, the apex court rejected all pleas seeking to intervene and ruled that only the original parties should slug it out.
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court heard 14 appeals and cross-appeals that were filed by over 20 contesting parties. Twenty five years after the Babri Masjid was razed, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court commenced hearing the title dispute case.
The bench considered around 533 exhibits, including texts, scripts, palimpsests and records dating back to several centuries in various languages. More than 9,000 pages were translated from languages like Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Gurmukhi, Persian, among others. Oral testimonies submitted during the hearing before the Allahabad High Court were also placed before the three judges.
On September 27, 2018, the three-judge bench referred the matter to a larger bench.
The Constitution Bench
According to the case details available on the Supreme Court website, there were 52 litigating parties. Of these, several litigants who had filed cases in their personal capacity are long since dead. Visharad, the first litigant, died in 1986, whereas M Siddiq, the original litigant from the Muslim side who was general secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i Hind, Uttar Pradesh is also dead. While Visharad is being represented by his legal heir, Siddiq was succeeded by the Jamiat’s Maulana Ashhad Rashidi.
More than 200 lawyers, led by 18 senior advocates, represented these litigants.
Earlier this year, the five-judge bench tried a last-ditch attempt at an out-of-court settlement. In March, it appointed Justice FMI Kalifulla, senior advocate Sriram Panchu and the Hindu religious leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to mediate between the parties. The failure of the mediation resulted in the commencement of the daily hearings.
The contesting parties largely argued about whether the Allahabad High Court judgement which divided the land between the Sunni Waqf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla was valid and if the title suits filed by the Sunni Wakf Board and the Nirmodi Akhada were barred by limitation, under the Limitation Act of 1908. Another important factor was whether the Ram Janmabhoomi was a juristic entity even if there was no idol present. If so, was it immune from possession claims as a juristic entity?
The hearings were marked with high tension and drama. The final day of the hearing went on even as the mediation panel led by Kalifulla submitted its report and rumours suggested an out-of-court settlement was imminent.