The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused requests made by Sunni Waqf Board and other appellants belonging to the minority community to defer the hearing in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute till after July 15, 2019 — that is, post the next general elections.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid by kar sevaks, a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra remained undeterred by submissions that every day of the Ayodhya title dispute hearing in the Supreme Court would invite serious repercussions across the country.
The Bench, also comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer, fixed the date for final hearing on February 8, 2018.
The appellants, represented by senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhawan and Dushyant Dave, said the dispute was not just any other civil suit but probably the most important case in the history of India and would “decide the future of the polity”.
“The appeals will have My Lords decide whether this is a country where a mosque can be destroyed. This is not just another title suit. These appeals go to the very heart of our secular and democratic fabric,” Mr. Dhawan argued.
“Government is keen to have the court hear these appeals. Don’t fall into the trap,” Mr. Dave joined in.
Mr. Sibal said the government was using the judiciary to realise its agenda for a Ram Mandir assured in the ruling BJP’s 2014 election manifesto. A hearing now fits the Sangh Parivar assurances to realise their promise of a temple through legal means, he said.
Mr. Sibal also dissuaded the Supreme Court from hearing the appeals now, saying a “decision in the case will invite serious ramifications. Now is not the right time to hear it. It will have repercussions. It is already happening. Post it after July 15, 2019, when everything is over. We will not ask for an adjournment then”.
Uttar Pradesh government said it was ready to argue and reminded the court that it had refused — in the previous hearing in August — to entertain any adjournments when it posted for opening statements today. Mr. Sibal protested, saying there were 190,00 documents involved in the case and it would only be fair on the part of the court to allow the lawyers more time to prepare.
“This case will be the most important case in India’s history. This will decide the future of India,” Mr. Sibal submitted.
“Just a case like any other” vs “Not an ordinary suit”
Justice Ashok Bhushan, on the Bench with Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, reminded Mr. Sibal that it was the appellants who had wanted an early hearing in December/January of 2017. “Your submissions are non-serious,” Justice Bhushan observed.
At one point, Sibal, Dhawan and Dave made as if to leave the courtroom when the Bench refused their pleas and turned to hear senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, for the deity Ram Lalla, who offered to kick-off the hearing by making the opening statement.
In his counter, senior advocate Harish Salve for the respondents said the court need not be bothered by any repercussions outside. That is not the lookout of the court. As far as the court is concerned, the Ayodhya title dispute is just “a case” like any other before it, Mr. Salve submitted.
“I’m not for a cause but for a client here… the strongest statement this court can make is to treat this case like any other and get on with the hearing,” Mr. Salve submitted.
But Mr. Sibal countered Mr. Salve by pointing to how a five-judge Bench led by then Chief Justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah had refused a Presidential reference in 1994 on the question whether Ram Mandir should be built in the disputed land and on the question of acquisition of land on January 7, 1993. The Bench had also pronounced a token punishment to former UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, under whose watch the monument was demolished.
“It was a rare occasion when the SC refused a Presidential reference… so this is not just an ordinary suit,” Mr. Sibal said.
Mosque as an essential part of Islam
Mr. Dhawan objected to Mr. Salve, saying the case covers religion and faith and dates back to the era of King Vikramaditya.
The senior counsel said the question of whether a mosque was an essential part of Islam had to be decided. The senior counsel referred to the 1994 three-judge Bench judgment of the Supreme Court in the Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui case, which had held that “the right to practice, profess and propagate religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution does not necessarily include the right to acquire or own or possess property. Similarly this right does not extend to the right of worship at any and every place of worship”.
“So is the mosque not an essential part of Islam? Muslims cannot go to the garden and pray,” Mr. Dhawan submitted. He said the appeals should be referred to a five-judge Bench as it dealt with an important constitutional issue.
Mr. Salve however countered that a reference to a larger Bench need to be made only as and when such an “occasion or context” arose, and not now.
Consequently, the court did not entertain, for now, the plea to refer the 13 appeals to a five-judge Constitution Bench.