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India’s supreme court hands Babri Mosque land to Hindus

29th Nov 2019

Sajeda Haider

India’s Supreme Court brought an end to the country’s most bitterly fought case by handing over the land on which a mosque stood for 450 years to Hindus to build a temple.

The verdict, which was as controversial as the case, acknowledged that the mosque had been illegally desecrated first in 1949 and then illegally destroyed in 1992 and yet the court handed over the disputed 2.77 acres of land on which the mosque stood to the Hindu claimants because they believed this was the exact spot on which one of their most revered deities, Lord Ram was born. As compensation, Muslims were given 5 acres to rebuild the mosque in an unspecified area of the town.

The Babri Mosque in the small temple town of Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It has been at the centre of Indian politics since 1989 when the current ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided it could be used to consolidate Hindu votes behind them in the north and bring them to power. They were right. It is the one issue which has managed to divide the country and polarize voters on religious lines – and bring the BJP to power in virtually all states of the country as well as at the Centre.

Ayodhya is a holy town for Hindus, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram and the seat of his kingdom which he is meant to have ruled over thousands of years ago according to Hindu scriptures. There are some 6,000 big and small temples, some dating back centuries devoted to Ram and his family in Ayodhya, a town no bigger than an English village. There are also about two dozen mosques in Ayodhya catering to the Muslims who live there.

The mosque was built in the 16th century in Ayodhya during the rule of Moghul Emperor Babar by his lieutenant Mir Baqi. Hindus believe that the mosque was built there by Muslim invaders after destroying a Hindu temple that marked the birthplace of Ram. The modern-day dispute began on the night of December 22, 1949, when an idol of Baby Ram was surreptitiously placed inside the mosque by a group from the a far-right Hindu Mahasabha, Hindu organization. Instead of removing the idol, the local administration locked the doors of the mosque and left it inside. And so began India’s longest and most politically volatile property dispute.

A few of the local Muslims went to court demanding that the idols be removed and the mosque be returned to them. The Hindus who had put the idol inside the mosque claimed that as this was the birthplace of Ram and there had been a temple there earlier and therefore this was once again a temple and demanded permission to worship.

The dispute remained in the courts with very few people aware of it until 1984 when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), a sister organization of the BJP, decided to raise public support to get access to the mosque. In 1986 a local lawyer appealed to the court to remove the restrictions for Hindu worship inside the mosque. Around the same time Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, wanted to appease Hindu voters who were accusing him of favouring Muslims, ordered that the locks on the Babri mosque be opened and all Hindus allowed to go inside for worship. From then on the mosque began to function as a temple.

The court case was still contested, when in 1989 the BJP decided to make it a priority in their election manifesto declaring they would remove the mosque and in its place, build a grand Ram temple. For the next three years, the BJP launched a massive campaign across the country to raise awareness about the Babri Masjid/Ramjanambhoomi dispute, with the subtext that Hindus were still being subjugated by Muslims and they would be the saviour of the Hindu community. The mosque was depicted as a symbol of oppression by Muslim invaders.

The climax of the campaign was reached on December 6, 1992, when thousands of BJP workers gathered in Ayodhya and tore down the mosque, which was under the protection of the Supreme Court, while their leaders watched and egged them on. After destroying the mosque, BJP workers then went about flattening the rubble, erecting a makeshift temple and replacing the idols. The destruction of the mosque sparked riots across India and more than 2,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

The event became a watershed moment in independent India’s history, the incident attacked the very foundation of the Indian Constitution which gives equal right to all its citizens to practice the faith of their choice and tore apart the social fabric of the country.

As the case bounced from court to court, in 2003 the Archaeological Survey of India was ordered to excavate under the site where the mosque once stood. In five months the ASI made 1,360 discoveries which claimed that there was a 10th-century structure under the mosque. Muslims groups disputed the findings arguing that in the interim report there was no mention of any evidence of a temple and only mentioned it in the final report which was submitted at a time of national tension and therefore making it suspect.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the 2.77 acres should be divided into three and a part given to all three of the litigants – the Muslims represented by the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmoi Akhara the original Hindu litigants and deity of infant Lord Ram represented by the Hindu Mahasabha.

All three of the parties appealed the judgment in the Supreme Court where it languished for another 9 years. During this time, the BJP grew from strength to strength electorally and came to be identified with muscular Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Religious and social tensions deepened and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, became extremely vulnerable. Restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows – considered holy by Hindus – led to mob lynchings of Muslims who were transporting cattle. To date, none of the killers have been brought to book and the families of the victims find themselves in jail under false cases of cow slaughter.

Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state has been bifurcated and demoted to a Union territory, while its 7 million people virtually imprisoned in their own homes for more than 100 days without any mobile telephone, the internet or contact with the outside world.

Under such circumstances, finally, on November 9 India’s highest court gave its verdict. While accepting that the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a “serious violation of the law” as was the placing of the idols within the mosque in 1949, it gave the entire disputed site to the very people who had violated and broken the law.

The day prior to the announcement of the verdict the Government issued orders to the media not to publish or show images of the Babri Masjid or its demolition. The police were told to monitor social media platforms for any inflammatory content and hundreds of young men were detained, mostly Muslim, amid fears of violence. However, the Muslims remained calm and refused to be provoked once the verdict was announced.

“Only a fool will speak his heart at this moment because the security forces are everywhere and are watching us closely,” said a Muslim youth in Ayodhya. “There is fear, sorrow and anger among Muslims. They are not saying a word because they feel helpless. There may be peace on the streets, but there’s simmering unrest in their hearts”, said Anil Kumar Singh, Associate Professor at Saket Degree College in Ayodhya.

Apart from the Muslims, many liberal Hindus are also upset with the verdict. “Mob violence should not be permitted to reap dividends as the rule of law is a basic feature of any working democracy. Secularism was the basic feature of the Constitution. The spirit of secularism has been damaged by this verdict,” said a Hindu civil servant who didn’t want to be named.

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