The appropriation of history is a continual process in any society. However, in a multi-religious society like India, appropriations drawing exclusively on communal identities engender endless conflicts. The appropriation of history with regard to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute has been at the core of a violent political movement — one which has claimed the lives of many Indian citizens.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of India ordered the parties in the Ayodhya title dispute to go for in-camera mediation. The court also appointed a panel of mediators headed by a former Justice of the Supreme Court. The court’s decision to look for a mediated solution, as opposed to a contested one does not come as surprise. In order to understand the court’s decision, it is imperative to first understand the history of the conflict.
The most contested piece of real estate in India
Deep within the lanes of Ayodhya is a 0.313-acre piece of land — arguably the most contested real estate in India. Hindus consider it the birthplace of Lord Rama, the Ram Janmabhoomi. It is believed that nearly 500 years ago, in 1528, Babur's general Mir Baqi destroyed a Ram temple to erect at the spot a mosque, called the Babri Masjid.
Shortly after partition and the Independence of India, in December 1949, idols of Ram and Sita appeared at the ‘Janmasthan’. The Hindus claim that this was a miracle, and proof of their claim that the place was the birthplace of Lord Rama. Contrary to this theory, the FIR recorded at Ayodhya police station on December 23 states that three individuals (Abdy Ram Das, Ram Shukla Das and Sudarshan Das), along with some 50-60 people, had trespassed the mosque in order to install the idol.
In January 1950, one Gopal Singh Visharad (a member of the Hindu Mahasabha) filed a civil suit, asking for worship without obstruction and a perpetual injunction against the removal of the idols. In 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara filed a suit praying that the entire mosque be handed over to it. A suit claiming right over the mosque was filed by the Sunni Central Waqf Board in 1961. These cases have meandered through the Indian legal maze over the past five decades and are now before the Supreme Court.
"Ek Dhakka Aur Do..."
The dispute took a militant turn in the 1980s, when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its different offshoots took over the cause. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad took the case forward in the mid-1980s and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP's) weak performance in the 1984 elections (only two MPs) made the issue more attractive to the saffron party as well, with its president Lal Krishna Advani taking up the mantle of leading the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya in place of Babri Masjid.
In 1990, soon after the V P Singh government announced its decision to implement the Mandal Commission’s report, the BJP sought to rally and consolidate the Hindu vote by focusing on the Ram Janmabhoomi question. Advani announced a yatra from the ancient temple of Somnath to Ayodhya. Around the same time, thousands of kar sevaks descended on Ayodhya. A pitched battle with the police and paramilitary forces ensued. At least 20 kar sevaks died. Their deaths were used to stoke religious tensions in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1991 elections, the BJP doubled its vote share to almost a quarter of the total votes cast.
While the BJP made political inroads, its sister organisations laid the groundwork for the final assault on Babri Masjid. The mosque was reduced to rubble on December 6, 1992. In the immediate aftermath of the demolition, riots broke out across the country. India Today reported that “every possible refinement in human unkindness and poignant twists of fate were on display”. The worst hit was the city of Bombay. Nearly 800 people were killed in the riots that started just a day after the demolition. Curfew was imposed, and the army was called in. But it took 10 days for the city to limp back to its feet. The peace only lasted two months. In March 1993, a series of bomb blasts rocked South Bombay, and more than 300 more people died.
The decade after the demolition of the mosque saw the status quo at the site itself. The Sangh, however, remained committed to the construction of a temple. The VHP organised tours of Ayodhya for kar sevaks from across the country. One of these was attended by volunteers from Gujarat. On their way back home, the volunteers are said to have asked Muslim vendors at the Godhra railway station to chant slogans in the name of Ram. The vendors who apparently refused were assaulted. The events that followed are too well known to be repeated. Over 2,000 Muslims were killed, and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless in the riots that followed.
After this violent turn, the dispute over the land has progressed through the courts at a glacial pace, with no end in sight. The BJP and its affiliate organisations have expressed dissatisfaction over this slow progress and, as elections approach, the government has faced pressure from these organisations.
The Supreme Court’s order for mediation
It is against this backdrop of violence and these organisations getting restive that the Supreme Court has directed the parties concerned to settle the issues in mediation. Section 89 of the Civil Procedure Code mandates that in all cases where it appears to the Court that an element of settlement may be acceptable to the parties, the court might inter alia refer the parties to mediation.
A mediation is a party-centred and structured negotiation process where a neutral third party assists the parties in amicably resolving their disputes. Even though the mediator facilitates their communication and negotiations, the parties always retain control over the outcome of the dispute. There is no decision taken in the process — there are no winners or losers. It is up to the disputing parties to reach an agreeable solution. In court-directed mediation, the agreement arrived at is enforceable as a judgment of the court.
Mediation in the Ayodhya title dispute case
The mediation process remains confidential. In this case, the court has directed an ‘in-camera’ process to ensure that the progress of the negotiations is known only to the parties concerned. This has been done to ensure that the process is not affected by external pressures. The court has appointed a panel of three mediators to steer the process. All three are men of eminence. The chairman, Justice Kalifulla, has served at the Supreme Court with distinction. Sreeram Panchu is a senior advocate who has pioneered mediation as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism in this country. Sri Sri Ravishankar has come a long way from his initial days with Mahesh Yogi. That said, doubts regarding his impartiality remain. The panel has to hold sittings in Faizabad and submit a status report within four weeks and try to resolve the issue within eight weeks.
Mediation is not simply arriving at a negotiated consensus over a piece of land. A trained mediator like Sreeram Panchu will know that the process involves a resolution of underlying emotions and sentiments. The land dispute has emotional overtones that threaten future peace, if they are not resolved in a wholesome manner. Hindus must walk away with a sense that their hurts from a bygone era have been assuaged. Muslims must walk away with a sense of not having been coerced by majoritarian bullying, but having secured an equal stake in the safety of their lives, property and places of worship. There cannot be a perceived loser, but a peaceful India must emerge as the winner.
A hope for peace
A Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya conundrum is unlikely to result in a solution. Rather, it is more likely to exacerbate existing fissures in our society. If the title is vested in the Hindu side, it may well be seen as another instance of an organ of state succumbing to majoritarianism. If the title is vested in the Muslim side, it is unlikely that the mosque can be rebuilt without major repercussions on the ground. All said, mediation appears to be the most suitable course.
More than 25 years ago, the Supreme Court hearing the previous round of the Ayodhya case ‘wondered’ why the parties could not come to a negotiated settlement of the dispute. However, no attempts at mediation were ever made. Thousands of lives have been lost over the dispute in Ayodhya. This is the first attempt that has been made at professional mediation. One hopes that the parties concerned approach with open hearts and find a solution that leads to lasting peace.
The authors are lawyers who practise in the Supreme Court. They tweet @sanjayuvacha & @parahoot