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Dead and buried

History teaches us that people who continue to look backward learn no lessons. Rather, the correct and impartial reading of history will show us that the people who can learn to look forward need not be condemned to relive the past.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2003 14:14 IST

An extensive debate has ensued on the significance of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court directing the excavation of the area near the Babri masjid site. Some have raised the question about the competency and even impartiality of the Archaeological Survey of India to carry out the excavations.

Some have pointed out that there could be many conflicting and uncertain interpretations of the finds and this exercise may turn out to be a futility.

I am not competent to comment on these technical formulations. But I have no doubt that the high court will duly take note of these warnings. It should, however, be noted that one of the issues before the high court is whether or not the Babri masjid was built after a temple was demolished. Large evidence of historical literature and circulars from the Mughal court have been — and are being — produced by both conflicting parties in support of their respective stand. I can, therefore, see no extraneous motive behind high court order per se.

But then there is genuine apprehension and I can appreciate the fear of this precedent being used for divisive and mischievous purposes by the Sangh parivar in its attempts to reopen the question of other mosques at Varanasi and Mathura. I concede that there is some danger in taking such a course. But it can be resisted successfully provided the non-BJP parties look inward and do not repeat their prevarication as in the past which has allowed the situation to develop to such present dangerous proportions.

It is well-known that the RSS’s communal ideologues manufactured the question of Babri masjid in 1948. We had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and G.B. Pant (the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh). But somehow they allowed the matter to remain in limbo by virtue of a magistrate’s order, assuming it was the best option — presumably under the stress of post-Partition India. But I feel the seed of future trouble was planted when it was decided to skirt the issue rather than face it squarely.

The matter remained dormant for about 40 years. But then the older leadership was gone, and we had, on the one hand, the central government which sought to reap benefits through the shilanyas ceremony and, on the other, a weak and divided opposition unable to react strongly. This led to the deterioration of the situation.

In July 1991, the Congress government at the Centre still refused to take a principled stand on the Ayodhya issue. It compromised its position by passing the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, plausibly to foreclose any controversy in respect of any place of worship defined as temple, mosque or church. Section 4 declared that the religious character of a place of worship existing on August 15, 1947, shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.

While this was a worthwhile legislation (though it would have been more reassuring if this act was incorporated as a constitutional amendment), the pusillanimous conduct of political parties came to the fore when the act stated that since the case relating to the place commonly called ‘Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri masjid’ forms a class by itself, it was necessary to exempt it entirely from the operation of the act. Had the secular forces been strong, no such exemption would have been incorporated as it went against the grain of the Constitution that accords equal status and respect to all religions.

This passivity of the non-BJP political groups encouraged elements of the Sangh parivar to commit the dastardly act of the Babri masjid demolition on December 6, 1992. Even that tragedy did not spur these groups to take the only correct stand — that is, state that since the RSS had committed the unforgivable sin of demolishing a place of worship, it would not be allowed to reap any benefits. In common law, if a heir kills his ancestor, he forfeits his inheritance. In the Ayodhya case too, there was ‘murder most foul’ and the only response should have been that the exemption clause be deleted and the Babri masjid restored to its original Muslim owners.

But that did not happen. Various alternatives started being put forward by well-meaning but politically weak people. The easy way of letting the matter be decided by the court was taken. The Sangh parivar purportedly climbed down from its proclamation of the Babri masjid site being where Lord Ram was born — a claim that was a non-issue right from the start as there was no way such an ancient event could be proved. So it made a further dilution — namely, that a temple existed which was destroyed to build the Babri mosque. Had the nation’s secular credentials been strong, this plea should have been rejected outright and the cowardly goons who had demolished the masjid shown the boot.

Muslims, in a measure of accommodation, conceded that if it was found that the masjid was built on the site of a temple, they would give up their claim because the Koran forbids Muslims to build a mosque by demolishing any other religious place. That is the issue that the court is to decide and it is in that context that the present order has been passed.

It is somewhat curious that the non-BJP parties are still not prepared to suggest the only honourable course: that the demolition of the masjid was an act of sacrilege and no such dispute can be raised in a civilised State. Once the digging is permitted, it is near impossible to stop anyone from demanding excavations to find out whether a particular Hindu temple was built on an old Jain or Buddhist temple.

History teaches us that people who continue to look backward learn no lessons. Rather, the correct and impartial reading of history will show us that the people who can learn to look forward need not be condemned to relive the past. Consequently, they learn to live with each other harmoniously.

Legally, the Sangh parivar has no case even if a temple had been demolished to build the Babri masjid. (It is a different matter that Muslims on their own may not like to persist with their claim if that is the case, as it would be against the injunctions of the Koran.)

I say this in view of the precedent of the case of Masjid Shahid Ganj in Lahore decided by the Privy Council in 1940. Muslims failed to win back the masjid built in 1200 and converted into a gurdwara in 1760 as the 12-year period for reclamation had long passed. Whatever the nature of the title of the site under the mosque, by the very fact that the Babri masjid had existed for over 400 years, the VHP/RSS cannot claim any title to the contentious site in Ayodhya.

The legal position is clear. It is only the weakness of political will that is responsible for the Ayodhya imbroglio to continue as one of the most bitter disputes within the country. By keeping the Ayodhya issue alive, the country has been kept from addressing its most urgent task — how to meet the challenge of the growing pauperisation of the masses. And that includes both Hindus and Muslims.

(The writer is former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court)

First Published: Mar 17, 2003 15:25 IST