SC Did India Good Service By Referring Ayodhya Case for Mediation

It would be naive to delink the apex court’s order from the electoral process underway in India.

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Opinion
5 min read
The Supreme Court order referring the Ayodhya land dispute case for mediation has to be seen from the legal framework as well as the political.
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The Supreme Court order referring the Ayodhya land dispute case for mediation has to be seen from the legal framework as well as the political. Since August 1989, when multiple civil cases related to the disputed shrine in Faizabad court were merged into a single title suit and moved to the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court, politics influenced the legal process and legal matters cast a shadow on political developments.

It would be naive to delink the apex court's order from the electoral process underway in India. The court ordered mediation to begin within a week and conclude in another eight weeks. Effectively, in the middle of India's long-winding poll process, it will be known whether mediation has been successful or not.

Whatever the outcome, it will satisfy some and leave others disgruntled, and consequently have considerable impact in constituencies yet to vote. Prior to this, the directive will play out significantly.

Already hard-nosed leaders, claiming to represent warring communities, have expressed reservations about the mediatory process. Union minister Uma Bharti demanded Hindus should not be "treated like guinea pigs" while suggesting that there is little to mediate.

On the other hand, Asaduddin Owaisi questioned Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's presence in the three-person panel, given his past position when he argued that an out-of-court settlement was the best option. The spiritual leader declared that since Ayodhya was "Lord Ram’s birthplace" and there was "such a strong feeling connected with the place" and because it was "not that important place for Muslims....it should be gifted."

Mediation Attempt Not For the First Time

This is not the first time mediation has been attempted on one of the longest-running legal disputes, termed a "matter of the faith" by the present dominant political clan in India. In January 1990, when VP Singh was prime minister, Acharya Sushil Muni, a Jain religious leader with political aspirations of sorts, cobbled a National Peace Negotiating Committee to resolve the conflict.

Although it was an interfaith committee and included Muslim spearheads of the 'save' Babri Masjid movement, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad refused to be part of the process. Their refusal is mirrored by most Hindu parties in the civil suit who rejected the proposal for mediation when the apex court mooted the idea on 26 February. In 1990, Sushil Muni failed to secure postponement of VHP's plans. Now, the Hindu groups involved in the case told the Supreme Court in writing that "….they are not ready for compromise. They cannot give up their claim on any inch of land."

The Muni was guided by the desire to carve a niche for himself in history by arbitrating on the vexed matter, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar too is possibly guided by a similar sentiment. Moreover, his premise is suspect in the eyes of the Muslims because in a March 2018 letter to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, he asked Muslims to gift land to the Hindus for the Ram temple.

The consequence of this, he claimed, would be a "win-win situation in which the Muslims will not only gain the goodwill of 100 crore Hindus, but it will also put to rest this issue for the benefit of future generations."

Clearly, a mediatory process aimed at securing the consent of Muslim litigants to hand over the disputed piece of land is destined to meet the same fate as Sushil Muni's effort. The question is, despite the futility of a compromise being worked out, why did the Supreme Court order the process? Moreover, even while knowing that the effort is to convince Muslim parties to allow the land they claim as theirs to pass into Hindu hands, why have they agreed to mediation?

Although it is imprudent to speculate on reasons behind the apex court's directive, there is ample evidence to demonstrate its seriousness in finding a lasting solution to a dispute which caused bloodshed and mayhem on several occasions.

The court specifically stated, "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."

However, the court remained silent on whether the verdict of mediators would be binding or not. It stated, "Whether the said provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 would apply in the event parties arrive at a settlement/compromise in the mediation proceedings is a matter left open to be decided at the appropriate stage."

Besides its intention to explore amicable ways of settling the dispute, the court also frowned at the repeated attempts of the Centre to hustle the judiciary into passing a verdict. Political leaders, from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, to ministers and lawmakers, often expressed exasperation at the delay in hearing appeals on the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment ordering trifurcation of the disputed land.

The Supreme Court has responded to this by getting Sri Sri onboard for the ambitious effort. This has put the Sangh Parivar on the horns of a dilemma.

On the one hand, the spiritual leader's presence will make it tough for them to criticise the move. On the other hand, large sections of its rank-and-file supporters are cynical. They will question why the government backed the proposal and will create confusion in its ranks.

Muslim Parties Emerged More Reasonable

For the Bharatiya Janata Party too, the move is not a good news because it further delays hearing on the title suit and rules out whatever chance existed of securing a favourable judgment before polls to provide electoral advantage.

The Muslim groups were smart, and in this exchange, emerged as more reasonable. Although they remain firm on the past stand against the Supreme Court's sweeping assertion that "a mosque is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam" and thereby are unwilling to withdraw their appeals against the 2010 High Court judgment, they demonstrated willingness to sit across the table and mediate in-camera.

Muslim parties in the dispute have emerged as the epitome of open-mindedness and, in the middle of elections, deny opportunity to foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar from polarising society on communal lines.

Despite this, there is no reason to expect a dramatic outcome from this mediation process. At best, it will act as the intermission in a long film for people to renew energy and come back to lock horns anew. From the political perspective, this move is welcome as it will lower temperature on an issue that has the potential to ignite thousands of homes. The apex court has done India a good service.

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