When the Ayodhya dispute first came up before a modern court in 1886, FEA Charmier, the district judge of Faizabad, disposed it off with a sagacious observation. “It is most unfortunate that a masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus,” he argued, “but as that event occurred 356 years ago it is too late now to remedy the grievance. All that can be done is to maintain the parties in status quo.” In some senses, the Allahabad High Court has followed that principle.
From the summaries of the verdict, it is clear that the Court has tried to set the ground for a political settlement, making possession the basis of ownership. By itself, such an order for division could have been a good starting point to lay this issue to rest – theoretically with no clear winner or loser – but the devil is in the reasoning behind it.
The issue is very simple. According to the court’s summaries – and no one has read the full 10,000 pages or so of the full judgment so far – two of the three judges seem to have given unprecedented legal sanction to belief. While ruling with Justice Khan for a three-way split, Justice Agarwal reasoned that the area under the central dome of the structure belonged to the Hindus as “the place of birth of Lord Rama as per faith and belief of the Hindus”. The dissenting judge, Justice Sharma, of course, was unequivocal that the “disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram” and that the disputed structure cannot be considered a mosque.

The political drift of the settlement order to divide the property equally is arguably an equitable basis for settlement. The problem is that if the preceding reasoning based on faith and perception becomes a legal precedent in a constitutional court of law then it opens a minefield for all kinds of other disputes.

Relying on Section 110 Evidence Act to give joint title on the basis of joint possession makes sense, as the majority decision did, but only Justice Khan stayed away from the tricky issue of sanctioning belief in law.

Beliefs are always fluid and subject to change based on the times. Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas in the area less than 50 years after the mosque was built and never mentioned the birthplace of Ram, the temple or its destruction in his Awadhi masterpiece.

The first British Gazetteer records of the area by Walter Hamilton in 1824 only mention a mass of ruins in a wide area dedicated to “Rama, Seeta, his wife, Lakshman, his general, and Nanimaun (a large monkey), his prime minister.” Hamilton was only demonstrating his colonial unfamiliarity with Hindu names but almost all other British accounts from the nineteenth century mention a then extant local belief that these temples were demolished by Aurangzeb, not Babar.

This is at odds with the historical record but that is precisely the point. Legality and facts cannot be substituted for faith or perception.

The conventional wisdom is that India has moved on, that Ayodhya does not have any great political traction anymore and that the reaction to the verdict shows that the ghosts of the pasts may be behind us now. But we cannot be complacent.

Already, there is a mood of triumphalism in the Sangh Parivar. The next step is the Supreme Court, judging by the responses from the litigants, but the demand is being made that Muslims should be “magnanimous” and let a “bhavya temple” be built. Of course, the BJP has so far been non-committal about making a grand gesture of generosity on its own part for a mosque to be simultaneously built side-by-side.

Would it not be unfair to hoist the responsibility of upholding Indian secularism on Muslims alone? The response by Muslim civil society has been sober and Muslim lawyers in the dispute have been crystal-clear that they would uphold whatever the Supreme Court decides. The discourse, however, is being pushed in a direction where they stand in danger of being accused of being churlish now if they appeal.

The language of the Parivar has been couched in political correctness but beneath it is a barely concealed glee, a sense that the verdict, by validating “Hindu faith”, has willy-nilly justified the political Ram-janmabhoomi agitation that ultimately led to 1992.

The bottom line is that the Ayodhya dispute, couched as it was in religiosity, has always been about politics: in 1949 when the idols were placed in the compound, in 1986 when the shilanyas was done under Rajiv Gandhi’s PM-ship after the Shah Bano verdict, and since 1989 when the BJP committed itself to building a temple with its Palampur Resolution.

The broader socio-political context today has changed but already Narendra Modi has talked of a new temple inaugurating a new Ram-rajya of the kind that Gandhi dreamed about. Nothing could be further from Gandhi’s ideas – the man who wanted the Rashtrapati Bhawan to be turned into a hospital and who boycotted the holiest of shrines because they barred lower castes.

The legality is up to the SC now but how the politics plays out remains an open question.