When the same physical space is seen as sacred to different communities, they can become a point of intercommunal tension, and even violence. The Babri Masjid/Ram Temple dispute in Ayodhya has been such a focus for more than 150 years.
For many centuries Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh has been venerated by Hindus as the birthplace of the god Ram. Religious accounts record the creation of a huge temple (the Ram Temple), which was destroyed by Muslim rulers in 1528 in order to build a mosque (the Babri Masjid). Muslim perspectives are rather different, with the building of the Babri Masjid on empty space in a town venerated as, for instance, the burial ground of Seth and Noah. It is in this context that there has been long-running litigation about the use of the site, which raises difficult questions about the relationship between secular courts and religious faith.
The modern litigation starts in 1949, with the appearance of Hindu idols in the mosque. Amid rising communal tensions, the court ordered the mosque to be locked, excluding both communities, pending a final court decision. By 1984 the restoration of the Ram Temple had become a national issue, and in 1986, a court opened the mosque for worship by Hindus but not Muslims. In late 1992 Babri Masjid was demolished by activists equipped with construction gear. Months of intercommunal rioting followed nationally, with more than 2000 fatalities.
Although Babri Masjid had been demolished, judgment was given by the Allahabad Court in September 2010. The protracted hearing resulted in three judgments totalling more than 8000 pages.
All three judges noted the undesirability of the very long period which had passed. There was also a willingness to make findings of fact as to the intensely disputed history of the site: Khan J and Sharma J disagreed about whether a temple had been demolished to build the mosque.
The majority of the Court ruled that the site should be partitioned into three parts – roughly 2/3 Hindu, 1/3 Muslim. Khan J, endorsed by Argawal J, stressed sharing of the site between Hindu and Muslim worshippers since pre-1855, and from this found that both communities were in joint possession of the entire premises in dispute, although for convenience, they were using and occupying different portions. The dissenting justice, Sharma J, found that the land remained owned by the Hindu deities in the (pre-existing) Temple.
In May 2011 the Supreme Court stayed the verdict, describing it as “strange and surprising” that partition had been granted although not sought by any party. The Supreme Court began to hear the substance of the case on 23 March 2018. There are three things to look for in the case.
Firstly, how will the Court approach the history of the site? The judges in the High Court were drawn into the contentious historical accounts, which included the sacred rather than secular histories of the site believed by each community. Can the Supreme Court resolve what, from preliminary hearings, it is keen to see as a pure land dispute without being drawn into these debates?
Secondly, how far will the Court treat this as involving religious rights? The dispute is not comprehensible without this dimension, and it raises important constitutional issues around secularism, neutrality, and religious rights including the right to worship. Again, this may be incompatible with an aspiration to treat this as simply a property case.
Thirdly, how will the Court approach the length of time it has taken to hear the case? Numerous commentators and official reports have identified delay as a chronic problem for the Indian legal system. But even if we were to see 10-15 years delay as unexceptional, the resolution of a 1949 dispute in 2018 is. Our natural starting point is a justified scepticism about state intervention over sacred sites. Such intervention can endanger important values related to religious autonomy, separation of state and religious organisations, neutrality, and the jurisdiction of the court over findings of religious issues. This can lead to a tentativeness in responding to legal conflicts over shared sacred spaces, perhaps driven by a hope that the issue will be resolved extra-judicially, or perhaps even go away as one of the parties loses interest. But an ongoing, unresolved, legal dispute over a sacred space may become worse over time. In Ayodhya, it became lethally worse. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will resolve at least the legal element of this controversy.