New Delhi: The Supreme Court pronounced in a historic judgement on Saturday that a temple be constructed for Hindus on a 2.77-acre site in Uttar Pradesh's Ayodhya town, which has been the epicentre of independent India's biggest religio-political wrangle, while Muslims should get an alternative land to build a potential mosque.
The five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, ruled unanimously that the spot, where frenzied right-wing mobs destroyed the four-centuries-old Babri Masjid in 1992, should be handed over to a trust that the Centre must constitute in three months to oversee the construction of a temple, subject to conditions.
The highly anticipated ruling is the outcome of a legal tussle that began in 1950 — shortly after idols of deities were surreptitiously placed inside the structure — with Hindu groups saying the mosque had been built on top of a temple that had stood on the precise birthplace of Lord Ram, while Muslims contested this. However, the earliest recorded instances of violence over the land go back to the 1850s.
The demolition of the mosque in 1992 triggered communal riots that engulfed several parts of India, killing more than 2,000 people and changing the country's politics forever, as it accelerated the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been at the forefront of the Ram temple movement along with its affiliates.
In the judgement running into 1,045 pages, the apex court said a report by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) provided evidence of the remains of a building "that was not Islamic" beneath the demolished mosque. The bench, also comprising Justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer, noted that the faith of Hindus that Ram was born at the site of the now-razed masjid is undisputed, and the existence of structures like Sita Rasoi, Ram Chabutra and Bhandar Grih are testimony to the religious fact of the place. However, the title cannot be established on the ground of faith and belief and they are only indicators for deciding the dispute, the five judges also said.
CJI Gogoi, who headed the panel and is set to retire on November 17, read out the judgement to a packed courtroom, while outside some lawyers and Hindu activists chanted "Jai Sri Ram" and blew conches as a mark of celebration.
On September 30, 2010, the Allahabad High Court had ruled that the disputed land be split into three parts: the site of the Ram Lalla idol would go to the party representing Ram Lalla Virajman (the installed infant Ram deity), Hindu ascetics' outfit Nirmohi Akhara to get Sita Rasoi and Ram Chabutara, and the Sunni Waqf Board to get the rest. All three parties then appealed against the decision in the Supreme Court. On October 16, the apex court concluded hearing 40 days of arguments on the pleas, after an earlier attempt for an out-of-court settlement through mediation was unsuccessful.
"On the balance of probabilities, there is clear evidence to indicate that the worship by the Hindus in the outer courtyard continued unimpeded in spite of the setting up of a grill-brick wall in 1857. Their possession of the outer courtyard stands established together with the incidents attaching to their control over it," said the top court in its ruling on Saturday.
"As regards the inner courtyard, there is evidence on a preponderance of probabilities to establish worship by the Hindus prior to the annexation of Oudh by the British in 1857. The Muslims have offered no evidence to indicate that they were in exclusive possession of the inner structure prior to 1857 since the date of the construction in the sixteenth century," it said.
The top court rejected the claim on the land by the Nirmohi Akhara, saying it is not a shebait or devotee of the deity of Lord Ram.
"Suit 5 has been held to be maintainable at the behest of the first plaintiff (the deity of Lord Ram) who is a juristic person. The third plaintiff (next friend) has been held to be entitled to represent the first plaintiff," the court ruled. "Suit 3 filed by Nirmohi Akhara has been held to be barred by limitation."
According to the judgment, five acres of land will also be allotted in Ayodhya to the Muslim community.
"Justice would not prevail if the court were to overlook the entitlement of the Muslims who have been deprived of the structure of the mosque through means which should not have been employed in a secular nation committed to the rule of law," the court said.
"Having weighed the nature of the relief which should be granted to the Muslims, we direct that land measuring five acres be allotted to the Sunni Central Waqf Board either by the Central Government out of the acquired land or by the Government of Uttar Pradesh within the city of Ayodhya," it said.
Ahead of the verdict, security was tightened in Ayodhya and other parts of India, especially in places that have witnessed communal tensions in the past. People traveling in cars and buses to the town were thoroughly checked at security barriers as commandos took up positions in bunkers at strategic points. Several politicians, religious leaders and eminent citizens appealed for peace and harmony before and after the judgment. There were no reports of unrest, though authorities cracked down on those sharing provocative posts on social media and messaging services.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the judgment and said it had settled a long-standing dispute. "Every point of view was given adequate time and opportunity to express differing points of view. This verdict will further increase people’s faith in judicial processes," he said in a tweet.
(With agency inputs)