Late on Friday evening, a notice appeared on the Supreme Court’s website announcing that the judgement in the Ayodhya case would be pronounced at 10.30 am on Saturday. The apex court’s judges don’t work on weekends and only sit if there’s an extraordinary case. Most recently, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi called an urgent hearing to address the charges of sexual harassment levelled against him by a former female staffer. That hearing too was on a Saturday, although the notice was issued just an hour before the bench sat.
Today, a crowd started gathering at the court as early as 6 am. There were the plaintiffs, lawyers, journalists, but also hangers-on mostly sporting turbans and dressed in saffron.
The crowd and anticipation grew as the clock ticked closer to the 10.30 am. By 9.45 am, a serpentine queue began forming outside the CJI’s Courtroom No 1, where the verdict was to be pronounced.
By 10 am, the crowd had swelled to the extent that it choked the corridor of the Supreme Court. The registry was instructed not to give passes to any latecomers, be they lawyer, clerk, litigant, or media person. Even those who wanted to enter the top court for other work were denied entry until after the verdict was pronounced.
To while away time, lawyers and journalists took selfies in the corridor. The mood felt celebratory given the judgement was to mark the culmination of the marathon 40-day hearing that most of them had attended regularly.
At around 10.20 am, the crowd outside the courtroom started panicking because the doors were not being opened. Only 10 minutes remained before the court assembled. When, five minutes later, the doors opened, there was a mad rush as people jostled to enter. Courtroom No 1 is one of the apex court’s most spacious but there still wasn’t enough seating for everyone. So, those who couldn’t jostle their way in were left outside. Such was the crowd that none of the three doors of the courtroom could be shut. Some people stood in the doorways, the curtains ballooning over them like a Halloween costume.
The courtroom, now packed to the rafters, waited with bated breath for the judges to assemble. They came out one by one from behind a dais, led by Justice S Abdul Nazeer. A murmur went around the courtroom as the judges took their seats. Gogoi sat in the middle flanked by Justices SA Bobde and Ashok Bhushan on the right and Justices DY Chandrachud and Nazeer on the left.
“We request for some silence please,” Gogoi said. A hushed courtroom waited as the judges signed the voluminous document, which, it turned out, ran into 1,045 pages.
“The verdict will be a unanimous judgement,” Gogoi said, adding that it would take at least half an hour to read it out. “This court set up under the constitutional scheme should defer from interfering with the faith and belief of worshippers. Secularism is basic feature of the constitution.”
It took the judges around 42 minutes to proclaim that possession of the disputed site in Ayodhya, measuring 2.77 acres, would be given to the Hindus while the Centre or the Uttar Pradesh government would allocate five acres of land at a “suitable” place for the Muslims to build a mosque.
The bench ruled that the trifurcation of the disputed site, mandated by the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict, was “legally unsustainable.” “Even as a matter of maintaining public peace and tranquillity, the solution which commended itself to the High Court is not feasible,” the verdict read. Since “the disputed site admeasures all of 1,500 square yards”, dividing it would “not subserve the interest of either of the parties or secure a lasting sense of peace and tranquillity”.
The bench noted however that while the case was pending, “the entire structure of the mosque was brought down in a calculated act of destroying a place of public worship”. “The Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which had been constructed well over 450 years ago,” the court observed, adding, “While determining the area of land to be allotted, it’s necessary to provide restitution to the Muslim community for the unlawful destruction of their place of worship.”
It then ruled, “Having weighed the nature of the relief which should be granted to the Muslims, we direct that land admeasuring 5 acres be allotted to the Sunni Waqf Board either by the central government out of the acquired land or by the Government of Uttar Pradesh within the city of Ayodhya.”
Accordingly, the court directed the central government to constitute within three months a trust that would look after the construction and management of a Ram Temple on the disputed site. The government will have custody of the site until an alternative site is accorded to the Muslims. “This exercise, and the consequent handing over of the land to the Sunni Central Waqf Board, shall be conducted simultaneously with the handing over of the disputed site comprising of the inner and outer courtyards,” the bench ruled. “Allotment of land to the Muslims is necessary because though on a balance of probabilities, the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims, the Muslims were dispossessed upon the desecration of the mosque on 22/23 December 1949 which was ultimately destroyed on 6 December 1992.”
There was “no abandonment of the mosque by the Muslims”, the court observed, and it must thus ensure that “a wrong committed must be remedied”.
The judgement, which has no distinguishable author, read, “Justice would not prevail if the court were to overlook the entitlement of the Muslims who have been deprived of the structure of the mosque through means which should not have been employed in a secular nation committed to the rule of law. The Constitution postulates the equality of all faiths. Tolerance and mutual co-existence nourish the secular commitment of our nation and its people.”
On the matter of the title suit, the court said it does not “decide title on the basis of faith or belief but on the basis of evidence”. The land dispute would, thus, be settled on legal principle and not matters of faith.
The apex court further held that while Lord Rama was a juristic entity – an entity with legal rights – his birthplace, Ram Janmasthan or Ram Janmabhoomi, was not. Most importantly, the court agreed that the Hindus believe Ram Janmabhoomi is the birthplace of Lord Rama, and that the believers have worshipped there for long.
The 42 minutes it took the bench to read out the key aspects of the judgement were a test of patience for those crammed inside the courtroom. The room was stuffy, with people packed like sardines in a tin can. With barely any space to move a muscle, one journalist was later heard complaining of a stiff back.
The courtroom heaved a collective sigh of relief as Gogoi declared, “All the appeals shall stand disposed of in the above terms.” The tension that was palpable on the faces of the judges too eased into smiles.
As soon as the judges vacated the bench, a crowd spilled out into the corridor. The Hindus among them burst into chants of “Jai Shree Ram”.
According to eyewitnesses, there was also an altercation involving Rajeev Dhavan, who represented the Muslim side, and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
Then, suddenly, it was all over.
People from inside the courtroom moved onto the crowded Supreme Court lawns, where camerapersons rushed to get visuals, reporters made beelines to get bytes and some people in saffron started chanting “Jai Shree Ram”.
Thus ended the saga of the country’s oldest property dispute.