Ayodhya suit

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The refusal by the Supreme Court to refer some selected questions of law in Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute to a larger Bench appears to have set the stage for final hearing in the appeals against the Allahabad High Court’s compromise judgment of 2010 in the main suit. The court intervention last week was expected to have an immediate consequence in the form that could upset the previous judgments of the Allahabad High Court and settle the contentious issue before the next general elections in the country scheduled for next spring. Moreover, two-judge majority opinion fixing October 29, 2018 as the next date of final hearing also means that a final verdict in the case is not far off and it could have a bearing on the political events in the run up to the next Lok Sabha elections. Going by the sequence of events, the final hearing should have begun a year ago, but was delayed because of the reason that some parties wanted the reference to a larger Bench so that certain observations in a Constitution Bench decision in Ismail Faruqui in 1994 could be reconsidered. The immediate apprehension of the parties involved in the dispute was that the recent remarks by the highest court that ‘a mosque is not essential part of the practice of Islam’ and that the namaz or prayer can be offered even in the open could influence the outcome of the appeal. Apart from this, some observations made in the past by the court did not make any specific mention whether it was necessary to have a specific place like a mosque to offer prayers or not. The observation and remark assume significance in the backdrop of the arguments that a specified place like a mosque was required for offering prayers by the followers of this religion. Justice Ashok Bhushan’s main opinion has sought to ignore and sideline the controversy by declaring that ‘the questionable observations’ were to be treated only as observations made in the context of whether land on which a mosque stood can be acquired by the government. Such remarks and observations should not be taken into account while deciding suits and appeals. It is difficult to find fault in this approach, as it is a fact that the respective claims of the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Wakf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla, the deity, can only be tested against evidence adduced during trial and not by pronouncements on the significance of places of worship or practices in a particular religion. Apart from this, there are other apprehensions of the minority community that such observations on a sensitive religious issue can be possibly exploited by one side to gain legal advantage. Similar apprehensions have also been expressed in the legal fraternity on the observations by a court presiding officer. In the dissenting opinion favouring a reconsideration of Ismail Faruqui, Justice Abdul Nazeer notes that its observations have permeated the High Court judgment. Ismail Faruqui was a ruling on petitions challenging the validity of a Central law that acquired the land on which the Babri Masjid stood before it was razed by a frenzied mob on December 6, 1992. The unfortunate turn of events in the following days is a dark patch in the history of the country. The judgment was notable for upholding the rule of law by restoring the title suits that had been declared as having ‘abated’ in the Act. The court also declined to have specific observation and answer to a Presidential reference on whether a Hindu temple stood on the disputed site before the mosque was built. Any observation made in the course of such a decision is bound to have a profound impact on the lower courts. It is easy to contend that courts should work to their own timelines and not be influenced by such things as election season. But in the life of this nation, the Ayodhya dispute has gone through dark political phases and been more than a mere legal issue. The onus is on the Supreme Court to dispose of the appeals at its convenience without giving any scope for the exploitation of religious sentiments. Moreover, the highest court should also look into the aspect how one or the other political party has exploited the religious sentiments of the people in garnering votes on this issue.