Babri Masjid case: When matters of faith prevail over rule of law

This piece is concerned with tracing the extraordinary legal journey the dispute over the land took, through multiple litigations. Here in part 1, we cover three phases where the pre-colonial case, placing of Idols in the inner sanctum till the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.

babri masjid- ayodhya
babri masjid

The three-part series is a brief history of the Babri Masjid- Ramjanmabhoomi dispute. Its written by a collective of lawyers and activists called “People for Peace and Justice”. 

The destruction of Babri Masjid on December 6th, 1992 became a major flashpoint in post-colonial India, signifying the arrival of the Hindu communal Right into National Politics.

The Supreme Court today in its verdict on the 2.27 acre of disputed land in Ayodhya directed that Hindus will get the disputed land while the Muslim faith to get an alternate site for the construction of the mosque.

This piece is concerned with tracing the extraordinary legal journey the dispute over the land took, through multiple litigations.

The dispute went through Six phases of litigation, the first, in the colonial period and the rest post-colonial. Here, the emphasis is on events after Independence, wherein Indians ceased to be colonial subjects and became right bearing citizens, shortly the Constitution of India came into effect, wherein India committed itself to be a Secular State.

With the exception of the colonial phase, this piece demonstrates that all legal phases went on to Judicially legitimize several crimes that eventually lead to a historic mosque being converted into a temple1, by ignoring very basic foundational principles of our legal system. Thus, the focus is limited to legal principles, less on archeological evidence of whether a temple existed under the mosque or not. Before moving ahead, it is important to have a look at the map of the disputed area, 2 which reveals that an outer courtyard containing idols (Ram Chabutra) co-existed with the Mosque then before its demolition.

Phase 1- Colonial Era

The first suit relevant to the disputed area was filed in 1885, by the Nirmohi Akhara Chief priest Mahanth Raghubar Das in the first suit in the  Trial Court/Sub-Judge, Faizabad; seeking permission to construct a temple over Chabutra Janam Asthan (Ram Chandra’s Birthplace). It must be noted that this claim was made for an area outside the current disputed area.

The Court was of the opinion that granting permission to construct a temple would result in riots between the two communities. This judgment was appealed by the plaintiff, wherein the first and second appellate court upheld the trial court verdict, stating some important observations in the Second appeal:-

“The Hindus seem to have got very limited rights of access to certain spots within the precincts adjoining the mosque and they have for a series of years been persistently trying to increase those rights and to erect buildings on two spots in the enclosure: (a) Sita ki Rasoi(b) Ram Chandar ki Janam Bhumi….. The Executive authorities have persistently refused these encroachments and absolutely forbid any alteration of the ‘status quo’.

Phase 2- Placing of Idols in the Mosque

On 23rd December 1949, a radio message sent at 10:30 am by District Magistrate Faizabad to the CM of UP stated that:-

‘A few Hindus Entered Babri Masjid at night when the Masjid was deserted and installed a Deity there. DM, SP, and force at the spot. Situation under control. Police Picket of 15 persons was on duty at night but did not apparently act’

Large scale worship of the idols placed under the central dome of the mosque caused communal disturbance around the area. The City magistrate, then attached the disputed property7 to the court to ensure no communal violence takes place and locked the disputed structure. But no action was taken to remove the idols.

Phase 3- Civil Suits Filed by parties claiming title over the disputed land

Subsequently, in 1950- two civil suits were filed by Hindu Parties claiming title to the disputed land. In one of the suits, the trial court passed an interim order ensuring that no one interferes with idols placed under the dome. However, the disputed structure was closed and no entry to the structure was possible. This order was then confirmed by the High Court, completing the first step of judicially legitimizing the crime committed on 23rd December 1949. The stand of the Uttar Pradesh government in these suits, was that the place was used as a mosque till 1949. In 1959, Nirmohi Akhara filed a suit claiming title to the disputed structure, followed by the Sunni Wakf Board in 1961. (SWB)

Phase 4- Opening of Locks by District Court Faizabad

While these suits were pending, on 1st February 1986, the district judge, Faizabad on an application from a private individual (not a party to the suits), passed an order for unlocking the gate of the inner courtyard of the Babri Masjid to allow free access for Puja.

Shockingly, no Muslim parties to the suits were made a party to this hearing. The Sunni Wakf Board, UP, in whose records the Masjid stood as a Waqf board property was not even informed.

The district authorities maintained the ‘sanctity of law’ by complying with the order, and with a stroke of a pen a historic mosque built more than 500 years ago was converted into a Hindu Temple.. The Government of UP, who was a defendant in this matter, did not choose to appeal this order or apply for a stay.This completed the second step of judicially legitimizing the crime committed on 23rd December 1949 by violating foundational principles in law; a person not a party to the civil court regarding the disputed area has no the right or capacity to bring an action in a court (Locus standi) and that the Sunni wakf Board was not heard at all; a violation of principles of Natural Justice.

Ram Lalla as a petitioner and the Demolition of Babri Masjid

In 1989, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, the ‘next friend’9 of the Ram Lalla (Deity), now treated as a separate legal personality, filed another suit claiming title to the disputed structure. Subsequently, all the suits were transferred to Allahabad High Court and were ordered to be heard together.

Meanwhile, the movement to construct a Ram-Temple gathered momentum, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), who formed the state government in UP in June 1991.

On 6th December, 1992, around mid-day, a crowd addressed by leaders of the VHP and BJP, climbed the Babri Masjid structure and started damaging the domes, and within a short period of time the whole structure was demolished. This became a trigger for communal riots, not only in UP but all over the country.

This prompted the imposition of President’s Rule, and the Acquisition of disputed area by the Central Government.

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