The Five-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India that was hearing the sensitive centuries old Ayodhya land dispute announced the verdict on Friday, November 8th. Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, along with CJI-designate SA Bobde and Justice Ashok Bhushan, DY Chandrachud and S Abdul Nazeer, after concluding the hearings from all sides in the Ram Janmbhoomi-Babri Masjid case stated that the disputed holy site of Ayodhya in northern India should be given to Hindus who want a temple built there, the country’s Supreme Court has ruled.
In the unanimous verdict, the court said that a report by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) provided evidence that the remains of a building “that was not Islamic” was beneath the structure of the demolished Babri mosque.
The court said that, given all the evidence presented, it had determined that the disputed land should be given to Hindus for a temple to Lord Ram, while Muslims would be given land elsewhere to construct a mosque.
The case, which has been bitterly contested for decades by Hindus and Muslims, centers on the ownership of the land in Uttar Pradesh state. Muslims would get another plot of land to construct a mosque, the court said.
Hindus believe that centuries ago a temple once stood in the city of Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, marking the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most widely-worshipped Hindu gods.
The Court observed that “the Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which had been constructed well over 450 years ago,” it said the Muslims had failed to provide evidence of the site’s “exclusive” possession.
The Supreme Court judgement affirms “the mosque was constructed in 1528 by or at the behest of [Mughal emperor] Babur”, and that until 1949, it was legally a mosque, although Hindus would worship at a surrounding wall.
But a sixteenth century Muslim mosque stood on the site for hundreds of years, until it was demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992 following a long campaign of religious agitation. In riots that followed in Mumbai, some 700 Muslims were killed. The state government, run by a local Hindu nationalist party, was accused of directing mobs toward Muslim areas and turning a blind eye to the violence.
The bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi heard appeals and cross-appeals filed by the Sunni Central Wakf Board and the Hindu side against a 2010 Allahabad High Court ruling that had partitioned the land among the three parties — the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla, carving up the disputed 2.77 acres between the Hindus and the Muslims in the ratio of 2:1 in a manner so that the area on which the dome of the mosque once stood, before it was demolished in December 1992, went to the Hindu side.
Moreover, the judgement has acknowledged that an idol of Ram appeared inside the mosque on December 23, 1949, “not through any lawful authority, but through an act which was calculated to deprive them [Muslims] of their place of worship.” It also acknowledged that the mosque’s demolition in 1992 was a “calculated act of destroying a place of public worship,” going on to affirm “the Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which had been constructed well over 450 years ago.” The Supreme Court also acknowledged that ASI could not establish if a temple was demolished to build a mosque and yet, the ruling has gone against the Muslims.
The Ayodhya case is a land disagreement between two Hindu and Muslim groups, who both believe a 2.77 acre plot of land in Ayodhya to be a site holy to their religion. But the Ayodhya case is more than a land dispute. It’s political. And it goes to the heart of India’s identity politics.
British India had a long history of religious violence, particularly between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. When the country was divided under Partition in 1947, it was decided that India would be a secular state with no state religion — though there were some family laws that applied only to Muslims.
But by the 1970s and 1980s, Hindu nationalist leaders began embarking on tours of the country, drumming up support for a new kind of politics. They argued that Hindus had been discriminated against by “pseudo-secularism,” that Muslims had received a better deal, and that India should be a Hindu nation not a secular one. It was an idea that would fundamentally reshape India over the coming years.
The ruling Congress Party, while ostensibly secular, reacted by also beginning to take advantage of Hindu nationalism’s electoral potential. In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates of the Babri Masjid — the disputed mosque in Ayodhya — for Hindus to worship inside. That act had significant consequences.
From 1500s to the 1800s, the Muslim Mughal Empire covered much of India, during which period, the Babri masjid (the mosque in Ayodhya) was built. According to records stretching as far back as the 1850s, Hindus have been attacking the Babri masjid, claiming a temple marking Rama’s birthplace had previously stood there until it was demolished by the Mughals.
In 1949, soon after independence, a group of Hindus broke into the mosque and placed idols of Ram inside, claiming they had miraculously appeared. A legal case ensued, and in response, police locked the gates. The case proved a useful tool for the Hindu nationalist movement. A Hindu nationalist group affiliated with the BJP began a campaign to “reclaim” the site for Hindus.
In response, in 1986, Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates to Hindus. He also commissioned a TV dramatization of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, detailing the life of Rama, which aired from 1987-88. The series was wildly popular, and many considered watching the show to be a spiritual experience.
The historian Arvind Rajagopal argues it laid the foundations for the religification of Indian politics, and played into the new vision of the Indian nation being engineered by Hindu nationalists. The soap opera, he writes in his book Politics after Television, was really “an ancient epic … thoroughly scrambled with a national origin myth of more recent vintage.”
What happened to the Babri mosque in Ayodhya?
In 1990, the Hindu nationalist campaign to “reclaim” the “Ramjanmabhumi” (Rama’s birthplace) reached its zenith. L.K. Advani, then the leader of the BJP, embarked on a month-long pilgrimage around India, holding rallies agitating for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque.
He was arrested on the way, but thousands of supporters reached Ayodhya and attempted to storm the mosque. They were rebuffed by security forces, leaving 20 dead. Then, in 1992, Advani spoke at a rally in Ayodhya attended by 150,000 people. That day, a mob stormed the mosque and tore it down. The demolition led to a wave of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, according to the historian Ramachandra Guha.
At the next national elections in 1996, the BJP won its first majority in the Indian Parliament. Its manifesto included a pledge to build a temple to Rama on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya. That pledge was repeated in the BJP’s 2019 manifesto.
The parties to the dispute were the Muslim Waqf Board, which controls Islamic property in India, the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist political party close in ideology to the BJP, and the Nirmohi Akhara, a sect of Hindu monks.
The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, has expressed dismay at Indian Supreme Court’s ruling that a Hindu temple be built on a site where the Babri Mosque stood for five centuries until Hindu extremists razed it 27 years ago.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling is of a piece with the Modi government’s revocation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and the decision to incarcerate half a million Muslims in detention centers in the state of Assam,” said IAMC National President Ahsan Khan. “It is inconceivable why the Court has not applied this standard of evidence for the Hindu plaintiffs,” the IAMC said.
The fact that the ruling party – and hence the government – is committed to the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid means the path is now clear for speedy implementation of the project.
The Supreme Court has asked the government to allocate five acres for the construction of a mosque at a suitable place in Ayodhya, forgetting that the case’s significance was not about the availability of a mosque but whether it is permissible for anyone in India to use violence to dispossess a person or a community.