There were myriad ways to frame these alternative settlements. The primary difference between them was that one would have been based on the principle of joint or co-ownership, and the other on single ownership. In off the cuff responses, all parties would have contested joint ownership. But, the award would have been eventually accepted if the matter was not fanned further by political forces.
The single-ownership verdict, which the Supreme Court pronounced, leaves one party deeply unhappy, although this may not be expressed immediately for fear of retribution. Yet, it will be difficult to quash the sense of being dispossessed by a pillar of the state they reposed faith and trust in.
The unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court, as well as the September 2010 individual verdicts of three judges of the Allahabad High Court, recognised that till December 1949, Muslims used the inner compound as a mosque to offer namaz under the three domes. In the same period, the outer portion of the structure was used by Hindus to offer prayers and perform rituals at Ram Chabutra, Sita Rasoi and Bhandara.
Justice SU Khan of the high court commented in his judgment this was a “very unique and absolutely unprecedented situation that inside the boundary wall and compound of the mosque, Hindu religious places were there which were actually being worshipped along with offerings of namaz.” The road to that idyllic past could never have been easy, but a direction was indicated when the high court directed a three-way split of the land. But, the Supreme Court has overturned this formula terming it “legally unsustainable.” Besides, the apex court contended, “even as a matter of maintaining public peace and tranquillity, the solution… is not feasible.”
The question arises here, if joint ownership was unworkable, how can single ownership guarantee public peace? Ironically, the Supreme Court verdict was delivered on the death anniversary of late president KR Narayanan. Months after he swore in Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister, Narayanan termed the Babri Masjid’s demolition as “the greatest tragedy India had faced since Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.”
The Supreme Court has not denied that the Babri Masjid was desecrated in December 1949 and subsequently demolished in violation of the status quo orders of the apex court itself.
Yet, the principle of rightful restitution has not been addressed by the court. This cannot but lead to elation among large sections of people, especially Hindus.
Likewise, many, and not just the minority communities, may view the judgment as an instance of the judiciary giving shape to its reasoning to justify a preferred conclusion. Without doubt, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was the BJP’s primary vehicle to emerge from political sidelines to centre stage. This “victory” is a watershed in the ascendant graph of the party and will further consolidate its political constituency and push back troubling economic matters.
Because the award of disputed land for construction of the Ram temple comes after a large number of Hindus made peace with status quo at Ayodhya, the kudos to BJP will be greater. Barely three months after the Centre’s move on Jammu & Kashmir and Article 370, this verdict ticks two of the three most contentious issues on the agenda of BJP and affiliates. After construction plans of the Ayodhya temple are finalised, only introduction of the Uniform Civil Code remains.
And it is probably a matter of time before this is taken up as priority. The BJP has already rolled out its next political campaign on “small family being an expression of patriotism” to harness the sentiment that there is a conspiratorial dimension in higher population growth among Muslims. The NRC and Citizenship Amendment Act are already on the to-do list.
This judgment is politically opportune. A fortnight ago, BJP was on the back foot, following poorer-than-expected performances in Maharashtra and Haryana. There was consensus that the electoral high of Lok Sabha polls was in the past and people were turning restive. This sentiment emboldened the Shiv Sena, providing it with confidence to talk tough.
The developments forced the BJP to rein in ambitious leaders in Bihar, asking them to refrain from criticising Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Additionally, the setback to BJP buoyed sentiments within the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, due for polls in January-February.
The Ayodhya verdict brings BJP’s brand of muscular cultural nationalism back on centre stage. A second wave of civilisational assertion or majoritarian triumphalism is a certainty. The BJP’s challenge is to prevent elation, finding expression the way it did after 2014.
Back then, waves of attacks on minorities and places of worship caused alarm within India, as well as outside. The Supreme Court may have given considerable weightage to matters of faith while adjudicating, but BJP must provide evidence of being guided solely by law and constitution.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, boisterous kar sevaks returned home shouting “
yeh to bas jhanki hai, Mathura Kashi baki hai (Ayodhya was merely the trailer, the real story will unspool in Mathura and Varanasi)”. As first step to ensure the apex court’s decision does not fan fires, the BJP and affiliates must convey that this slogan is in the past.