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Supreme Court’s fresh push for Ayodhya mediation brings back 160 years of failed attempts

The Supreme Court last Tuesday urged the parties in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case to give another shot to an out-of-court settlement.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court’s suggestion for an out-of-court settlement in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case last Tuesday has brought up memories of multiple failed attempts in the past, dating back to the British administration in 1859.

The top court was hearing a batch of pleas on the issue when the idea was floated by the five-judge Constitution bench.

“We are seriously thinking over giving mediation a try since the dispute is not about anybody’s private property,” the five-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had said on 26 February.

“Even if there is one per cent chance of an amicable resolution, it should be given a try,” Justice S.A. Bobde, one of the five judges on the bench, added.

The bench said the mediation would be monitored by the court, and would be ‘in-camera’ (private). This could be a way to “heal” relationships, the top court said.

The bench, also comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer, said it could invoke powers under Section 89 of the code of civil procedure (CPC) empowering any court to try “settlement” and try to “effect a compromise between the parties”.

However, both Hindu and Muslim parties expressed their apprehension over the court’s suggestion, pointing out that past attempts had failed. The difference was that while Muslim parties said they were not opposed to it, the Hindu parties were.

Also read: What about Babri Masjid? How land became more important than the mosque in Ayodhya

Official attempts at mediation

In March 2017, Justice J.S. Khehar, then-Chief Justice of India, had also proposed mediation to settle the one-and-a-half-century-old dispute. CJI Khehar proposed to mediate the issue himself. However, that proposal was junked.

Since the dispute first surfaced in 1855, at least nine attempts have been made to mediate in the case, of which three were initiated by prime ministers Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 1859, the British made the first attempt to broker peace. After clashes were reported at the site, the administration erected a fence around the disputed site. The British then segregated the areas of worship, with Muslims using the inner court while the Hindus staked claim on the outer court. This arrangement lasted for 26 years when in 1885, Mahant Raghubar Das filed an application, seeking permission to build a canopy on Ram Chabootra.

In 1990, then-prime minister Chandra Shekhar made the first established attempt at mediation. His attempt came after volunteers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) partially damaged the 16th century mosque. However, after trying for a year, the talks failed.

In 1992, 10 days after the mosque was demolished by kar sevaks, PM Rao set up an inquiry commission headed by retired judge M.S. Liberhan to look into the issue. The report created an uproar in Parliament when it was submitted 17 years later to the Manmohan Singh government.

In October 2001, almost nine years after the mosque was demolished, Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up an Ayodhya Cell in his office, appointing IAS officer Shatrughan Singh to head it. The Ayodhya Cell would monitor “negotiations” that were already taking place at the time. However, nothing came of that.

Also read: What Liberhan panel said about Babri Masjid demolition conspiracy, and those involved

Interventions by parties

In September 2010, PTI reported that the Allahabad High Court dismissed a plea filed by retired bureaucrat Ramesh Chandra Tripathi, also a defendant in the matter, who sought to defer the judgment in the title dispute case to allow a chance for an out-of-court settlement. The high court dismissed the plea after none of the parties involved in the matter showed any interest.

“The application lacks bona fide and is a clear attempt to divert, deviate and also create obstruction in the final disposal of the matter after more than six decades without there being any reason whatsoever,” two of the three judges on the bench noted while dismissing the plea.

Tripathi then knocked the doors of the Supreme Court. On 23 September 2010, the apex court admitted the plea and stayed the pronouncement of the verdict slated for the next day. According to a report in India Today, though Justice R.V. Raveendran wanted to dismiss the plea, Justice H.L. Gokhale was in favour.

In light of the disagreement, the matter went before a three-judge bench led by then-CJI S.H. Kapadia, who then dismissed the plea on 28 September, two days before the verdict was finally pronounced.

In 2015, Mohammed Hashim Ansari also made a last-ditch attempt. The oldest litigant in the case, Ansari made at least two attempts to negotiate with the Hindus, but passed away at the age of 96 in 2016 before any headway could be made.

Also read: An IAS officer writes about how he rebuilt Ayodhya after Babri Masjid demolition

Mediation by spiritual leaders

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, was one of the few Hindu leaders who was involved in the mediation process before and after the Babri Masjid was demolished. The seer made his first attempt at brokering peace in March 2002, when the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas (RJN) and the VHP announced their intent to hold a bhoomi pujan on the disputed land.

It is said he gained major headway when he managed to get written undertakings from the VHP and a commitment from the RJN that they would abide by the court’s decision. The VHP also agreed to give safe passage to the Muslims if the disputed site was restored to the latter. However, the Hindu groups retracted in light of the apex court ruling that prohibited the puja, and directed a status quo on the disputed land.

The Shankaracharya tried once more a year later. This time, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, also one of the contesting parties, shot down the seer’s proposal when he wrote: “A point was made that Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya — all three belong to the Hindus, and keeping in mind the larger interest of the country and communal harmony, if not today, but at some time or other, these places have to be given to the Hindus. The Muslims have to mentally prepare themselves for this.”

The Dalai Lama also tried to resolve this issue in 2004, but he too failed.

More recently, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar made an attempt at an out-of-court settlement. In February 2018, speaking to the press in UP’s Balrampur, he said the court could not solve this dispute amicably because the issue was an emotional one, and that an out-of-court settlement would be the best solution to this vexed issue.

Sri Sri and UP Shia Waqf Board chairman Waseem Rizvi both tried to mediate and counsel the warring parties, but they too failed.

Also in February 2018, Maulana Salman, an executive of the AIMPLB, also suggested an out-of-court settlement when the board met to deliberate on this issue. He even met Sri Sri to form a proposal, but his suggestion was instantly shot down.

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