Variously described as an example of “judicial statesmanship” (Soli Sorabjee) and “an astonishing, one-sided judgement” (Rajeev Dhawan), the Allahabad High Court’s Ayodhya verdict is likely to be one of the most furiously debated judicial conclusions in the history of Modern India. It appears to have evoked both hope and disquiet, depending, perhaps, on one’s expectations, politics and ideology. Interestingly, the one adjective used uniformly across the legal divide to capture the essential character of the verdict was that it was “panchayat-styled justice.”
But polemics aside, as we wade through the thousands of pages that make up the three distinct perspectives of the court, the verdict must be assessed by the benchmark set by one of the judges himself. Does it, as Justice S.U. Khan asks movingly in his prelude, succeed in clearing the “innumerable landmines” from the 1,500 square yards where “angels fear to tread”?
A panchayat, by definition, seeks to keep peace in the village by brokering a compromise between maximalist positions. Understood in this manner, the judgement seems to aim at being politically astute rather than legally brilliant. And indeed many questions are being raised about whether a dangerous precedent has been set by the specificity with which matters of faith seem to have become points of law. Could the majority judgement not have reached the same conclusion without, for instance, being evidentiary in approach?
In other words, could the decision to divide the property between Hindus and Muslims have been based more on a deference to religious beliefs and sensitivities on both sides than on any stated empiricisms? These are issues that will be deconstructed by legal experts in the weeks to come. For the rest of us, the real question is the one posed by the judges themselves: can the verdict provide an opportunity for national healing?
The answer to that question lies in a series of things that must not happen in the aftermath of a verdict that in any case will get locked by the Supreme Court. We also have to appreciate that the judges were left to play the role of sarpanch, because the men and women who should have— our politicians— failed to initiate a process for any real reconciliation. And in our understanding of where we go from here, we must take our cue from how the country responded in the immediate aftermath of the verdict — dignified, sober, restrained, and mostly, eager to move on. To build on this national mood, here are some essential prerequisites.
Petty triumphalism and gloating by those who see themselves as “victors” after the judgement is not just a loathsome response but one that is counter-intuitive to public expectation. The first discordant and ugly note was struck by the individual lawyers for several Hindu groups who violated every tenet of legal decency by rushing out of court into the glare of television cameras, flashing the victory sign, proceeding to oversimplify a complex judgement into dangerous generalisations. The court should not have permitted this to be the first dissemination of the verdict in the public domain. It smacked of the worst sort of small mindedness.
And it is this lack of grace that we must not allow our politicians in the days to come.
So far, the BJP and even the RSS have been essentially restrained and responsible in emphasising that the verdict must not be posited in terms of victory and defeat. But, should the party have been so quick in using the verdict to talk about a “grand mandir” at Ayodhya? If, as the party argued, the Allahabad High Court had paved the way for national reconciliation, then could the BJP not have shown a little more magnanimity of response? For instance, L.K. Advani, whilst talking about a Ram Mandir, could have also been more specific in welcoming the building of an adjacent mosque. Both Justice Khan and Justice Agarwal have underlined the “very unique” historic tradition of Hindus and Muslims offering prayers alongside at the site before the 1857 mutiny. The BJP could have focused more than they did on this syncretic history of India’s religious edifice.
Equally, if any Ram Mandir is to built in a spirit of “reconciliation” then the truth of the demolition of December 6, 1992, must be addressed first. Yes, the thuggish and shameful demolition was not legally connected to the four title suits being determined by the Allahabad High Court. But since the judges showed enough innovation in their decision to divide the property between the communities, an observation — at the very least — about the demolition would have added more moral fibre to their good intentions.
The Congress, whose own history is far from above-board when it comes to Ayodhya, has also been strangely wishy-washy in taking specific action against the perpetrators of the demolition. It is important to underscore that this verdict — with its varied perspectives on what the nature of the structure was — does not change the fact that there needs to be accountability for the appalling breakdown of the law in 1992. We must understand that the Babri Masjid per se was not as important to the Indian Muslim, as the demolition made it.
And finally, while justice for 1992 remains a live issue, Muslim leaders too must allow their community’s younger generation to embrace new priorities and dreams and not keep them locked into narratives of the past. Their rhetoric too needs to be responsible and non-inflammatory in these sensitive times.
In short, grace and generosity of response is what we expect from all the stakeholders. That, and a reminder that in Ayodhya, the flowersellers outside the Hindu temples are all Muslims, as are the men who craft the Hindu icons that the devout worship. That is the India we know and love. That is the India we must preserve.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV n email@example.com The views expressed by the author are personal