THE chief justice of India, Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, says he would prefer that the Ayodhya dispute be settled outside the court, mutually, between the perpetually unyielding Hindu and Muslim petitioners. The apex court is currently studying the Allahabad High Court’s decision of 2010, which had insinuated that there was in fact a birthplace of Lord Ram as claimed by Hindu militants at the disputed site where the 16th-century Babri Masjid once stood. World-renowned historians and archaeologists have desisted from supporting such claims for want of basic evidence.
A progressive judge was earlier dealing with the dispute for years at the Allahabad High Court. He retired with his unalloyed belief that matters of faith were essentially non-justiciable in a secular court such as the one he presided over. A secular court must ideally protect everyone’s religious beliefs as well as the right to remain aloof from all of them. Religious courts would begin from the premise that they are carrying out God’s command, which has its own set of consequences as one can glean from the poison-spewing clerics having the run of Jinnah’s dream nation.
The Ayodhya dispute, therefore, given India’s secular constitution put together by 85 per cent Hindus in the constituent assembly, boils down to a temporal standoff — the rival claims on the land in question between those who say that the mosque was arbitrarily built on what they believe to be the birthplace of Ram and those that want the courts to prevent their forcible eviction from the land on which the mediaeval mosque stood until Dec 6, 1992.
Justice Khehar has offered to personally mediate the complex case if accepted by the parties. There could be no doubt that the judge has offered his help with good intentions. A range of thoughts cross the mind nevertheless about why the apex court would not prefer to explore a legal route and settle the case one way or another as India’s secular law mandates.
A rival fact begs discussion. It is not easy to enforce the law in India, with or without the state’s patronage of rogue parties. Remember that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was carried out as a brazen snub to the Supreme Court’s authority. Its standing orders forbade any changing of the status of the disputed monument in Ayodhya. The world knows who all were complicit in disobeying the binding orders, and who led the mobs to wilfully undermine the highest and most revered institution of the Indian state. Among the leading campaigners for the temple movement was Prime Minister Modi. Would his government now allow his mentor L.K. Advani, named in the case, to be tried or punished?
Justice Khehar has described the dispute as a sensitive issue. What happens when he retires though, as early as August this year? Will there be a mechanism backed by the apex court and the government for him to continue as a mediator whose imprimatur is honoured by all when he finds a solution? And what will we do if the solution, in which he suggests a little bit of give and take, widens into a full-blown assault on law and justice as it did in 1992?
We have after all chosen to accept the route, willy-nilly, of vigilante squads and Hindutva zealots swarming through Nehru’s India. They are not dissimilar to the bigots that Pakistan and Bangladesh are struggling to tame after unwittingly releasing them from the bottle, beginning with the reign of the two Zias. What is happening in India is a third or fourth carbon copy of what we have seen elsewhere. Uttar Pradesh, for example, is a smudged copy of the moral policing in Iran. They too enforce dress codes there and are particularly severe on young men and women whose hands even brush each other in public squares. If the so-called anti-Romeo squads of UP (Shakespeare would be turning in his grave) are bodily lifted from the streets of Islamic Iran, the threat by another BJP chief minister to hang (without recourse to law, naturally) people who kill cows, brings to mind the ‘laughing assassin’ of the early days of the Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah Khalkhali would roam the streets with a crane from which he hanged countless innocent men and women without ever losing the smile on his bearded face. There is a somewhat similar atmosphere in India in which Justice Khehar has offered to stick out his neck on behalf of reason.
A less discussed highlight of the mandir-masjid controversy is that it has created a dialogue (or a standoff) between overtly religious parties, both garnering their constituencies with right-wing agendas that leave out India’s open-minded middle ground to worry for the future helplessly. Muslims claim to seek justice, their demand framed in a legal petition. The Hindutva case is framed in religion, which Hindus insist on passing as historical fact.
In these days of right-wing ferment, be it Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Christian ferment, any demand for justice does seem laughably anachronistic. The Palestinians have a just cause, as do the Kashmiris, the Latinos, the blacks, the tribespeople of Chhattisgarh, or the liberal students of Indian universities, for example, at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. They have all been wronged and the world has put them together in a slot labeled ‘terrorists’. What they face is death, or eviction or slander.
If Justice Khehar can buck the trend, and prevent Ayodhya from mutating into Mathura and Kashi and a larger national inferno, India’s Muslims, but above all the overwhelming majority of secular Hindus, should give him a chance. The future cannot be worse than it looks.