Supreme Court gives mediation chance in Ayodhya case
A Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi referred the decades-old Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute to a three-member mediation panel on Friday, setting aside the absence of consensus between rival claimants on such a move in the hope of reaching an amicable settlement.
Former Supreme Court judge FMI Kalifulla will lead the panel, which will have as its members Hindu guru Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu, an expert in mediation and dispute resolution.
The bench said the panel would submit its first progress report on the mediation effort within four weeks. It reiterated its February 26 order that mediation would be an interim arrangement the court has opted for until the next date of hearing on the matter, which is after eight weeks. This suggests that the final report in the case, which is of immense significance in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, may come at a time when the general elections are well underway. The summer’s elections are scheduled for April-May and the term of the current Lok Sabha expires on June 3.
“We have considered the nature of the dispute arising. Notwithstanding the lack of consensus between the parties in the matter, we are of the view that an attempt should be made to settle the dispute by mediation,” the bench, also comprising justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and SA Nazeer, said.
In the last hearing on Wednesday, all Hindu parties — except the Nirmohi Akhara, a religious denomination and one of the main parties to the civil suit — opposed mediation, while the Muslim parties welcomed it.
Hindu organisations claim the disputed site in Ayodhya is the birthplace of the god Ram and that a mosque, the Babri Masjid, was constructed in the 16th century on the ruins of a temple demolished by the Mughals. The mosque was razed in December 1992 by a mob.
The 14 petitions before the SC are challenging the Allahabad high court’s September 2010 verdict that called for a three-way division of the disputed 2.77 acres in Ayodhya between the Nirmohi Akhara, the Sunni Central Waqf Board of Uttar Pradesh, and representatives of Ram Lalla Virajman, the child deity. To ensure the success of the effort, the court ordered the in-camera mediation proceedings to start in a week’s time in Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad district, of which the disputed area in Ayodhya is a part. The top court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to arrange a venue for the mediation and a place for the three mediators to stay in, their security and travel.
The bench favoured keeping the proceedings in “utmost confidentiality”. It was of the view that the media should not report on the proceedings, but refrained from passing any gag order and left it to the mediators to pass the orders they deem necessary.
Justice Kalifulla will be free to approach the SC registry in case the panel comes up against any difficulties in executing the task assigned to it, and also inform it of any requirements to facilitate the mediation and to bring the process to a speedy conclusion. The mediators were also given the option of co-opting more members and seeking legal assistance at any stage of the proceedings.
The court rejected concerns raised over the efficacy and legality of mediation. “Considering the provisions of the Civil Procedure Code [CPC], we do not find any legal impediment to making a reference to mediation for a possible settlement of the dispute[s] arising out of the appeals,” the court said.
On whether the CPC would apply in the event of a settlement or a compromise, the court said it would decide on it at an appropriate stage. Under the procedure, if the mediation concludes in a settlement, it would be made a part of a judicial order and be binding on the disputants. Such an order is not subject to appeal.
“For the present, I can only say that if the committee has been constituted, we will take every step to resolve the dispute amicably,” Kallifulla told reporters.
Ravi Shankar said it would be good for the country if the issue could be resolved through any mediation.
“It is too premature for me to comment on the matter. But I can say that I will be meeting the panel soon and decide on the future course of action. All I can say is that I will try my best,” said Panchu.
Leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress said they respected the court’s order.
Union minister Uma Bharti asserted that she stood for building the Ram temple, while party general secretary P Muralidhar Rao said keeping the dispute pending was not in anyone’s interest.
“It is important to resolve the issue but it is more important and essential to build a grand temple at Sri Ram Janmbhoomi,” he said.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the BJP had milked the issue for political leverage. “We respect the decision to constitute a mediation panel. Sadly, BJP has politicised a faith based issue for political gains for the last 27 years,” he said.
The court on February 26 suggested mediation for the first time.