The Ayodhya case that the Supreme Court is hearing is being falsely and simplistically projected as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. It is not. It is a typical property dispute in which land, a built structure, and the possession of land are being fought over by three parties.
Each of the three parties — the Sunni Wakf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and the Ram Lalla Virajman — have fought the case on very distinct arguments of law, memory and faith.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad-supported Ram Lalla Virajman makes a faith-based argument that Hindus believe in the unquestionable divinity of Lord Ram and that the court must respect the sentiments of the Hindu community. The Nirmohi Akhara relies on the memory of the conflict to argue that it has an ultimate right over the land. And the UP Sunni Wakf Board evokes the centrality of law to make a case for the land (not the mosque).
Ram Lalla Virajman’s case: faith + archaeology – history
The Wakf Board and the Ram Lalla Virajman may officially claim to represent the Hindus and Muslims of India, but the Nirmohi Akhara’s presence as a legitimate stakeholder in the case undermines this obvious communalisation of the Ayodhya dispute. (It is, in fact, ironic that the Allahabad High Court in its judgment eventually accepted the Wakf Board as the ‘representatives of Muslim interests’).
The legal history of the conflict also confirms that the VHP’s self-representation as the sole spokesperson of the Hindus is factually wrong. The VHP did not have legal standing in the Ayodhya case before 1989. It filed a petition on behalf of the deity, Ram, before the Allahabad High Court only on 23 October 1989, claiming that “the entire premises (disputed site and the area around it)…belong to the…deity therefore defendants should be prohibited from interfering in the …construction of new temple building”. (A.G. Noorani, 2003. The Babri Masjid Question 1528-2003: A Matter of National Honour. Vol. 2, Delhi: Tulika, p. 217). This is what is known as the Ram Lalla Virajman.
This legal intervention had three outcomes. First, it legitimised the VHP’s claim as a stakeholder in the title suit. Second, the Hindutva demand to have a grand Ram Mandir found a legal recognition. It was now possible to raise the issue of the construction of a new temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid within the framework of the title suit.
But more importantly, the VHP was now able to legalise its faith-centric argument in favour of a Ram Mandir.
However, the Ram Lalla Virajman doesn’t rely solely on Hindu faith for its legal argument. The ASI report on Ayodhya excavations from 2003 forms the outer layer of its argument. It claims that the archaeological findings prove there was a Hindu religious structure beneath the Babri Masjid. Hence, it claims, the Hindu belief that a temple of Ram was demolished to build the Babri Masjid is a ‘scientific’ fact.
Nirmohi Akhara’s case: Faith + collective memory – Hindutva
The Nirmohi Akhara rejects the Sunni Wakf Board’s land ownership claim completely. But it does not go with the Ram Lalla Virajman for the sake of Hindu unity either. During the recent court proceedings, the lawyer representing the Nirmohi Akhara criticised the Ram Lalla Virajman for transforming the idols of Ram into a legal party in the Ayodhya dispute.
The Nirmohi Akhara makes three central arguments. First, the members of the sect are the real worshippers of Ram. Second, all pujas have been done by the pujari appointed by the Nirmohi Akhara in the past. Hence, they have an inalienable right over this pious land as ‘shabait’ (devotee). Third, the Nirmohi Akhara has had possession over the land, including the mosque, since 1934. For this reason, its ownership claim must be recognised.
This is, of course, a faith-based argument. However, unlike the Ram Lalla Virajman’s position, faith in Ram is not presented as an absolute truth. Rather, the Nirmohi Akhara invokes the collective memory associated with the land to justify its claims.
In this sense, the Nirmohi Akhara challenges the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s grand Hindu politics on two counts. First, it opposes the VHP’s claims on historical grounds, arguing that it has been the main contender since 1934. Second, it also turns down the Hindu nationalist project of the Ram Lalla Virajman by highlighting the localised nature of the conflict.
UP Sunni Wakf Board: Law + history – archaeology
The UP Sunni Wakf Board is the only party that formally claims to represent Muslim interests. But it does not argue for reclaiming the mosque or its reconstruction. Nor does it adhere to its old position — once a mosque always a mosque — as the main legal argument.
The Sunni Wakf Board, instead, concentrates on the land on which the Babri Masjid once stood and its legal status as an Islamic wakf property. The emphasis on land saves the Wakf Board from two possible challenges.
First, the Muslim politics of the Babri Masjid was not about taking over the structure of the mosque for regular prayers. Muslim leaders were keen to use Babri Masjid as a case to protect other historic mosques across India that are targeted by the radical Hindutva groups. (Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, a 1990 book by Arun Shourie, Sita Ram Goel, Jay Dubashi, Harsh Narain and Ram Swarup, contains a list of 2,000 mosques that it says stand on top of demolished temples).
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, was an outcome of this politically strategic call by Hindutva groups. Since the Babri Masjid was treated as an exception in this Act, the Muslim elite lost interest in the Babri Masjid issue after its demolition in 1992. That’s the reason why the Sunni Wakf Board focuses entirely on the land, and that too, in an overtly legal sense.
The second challenge is very specific. The Sunni Wakf Board always presents the Historians’ Report as scientific evidence — partly because this report substantiates its legal-constitutional position, and partly because it gives historical legitimacy to Babri Masjid’s wakf status.
This adherence to scientific history, nevertheless, is very selective. The Sunni Wakf Board has been very uncomfortable with the court-appointed archaeological excavation in Ayodhya, although it has not yet offered any systematic critique of the ASI report. The lawyers of the Sunni Wakf Board have argued that the ASI report was filled with “palpable and inherent infirmities and inconsistencies”.
It is clear that each party identifies its own comfort zone and makes conscious efforts to redefine the ownership of land into a conflict of civilisations between Hinduism and Islam. The courtroom, in this schema, has been transformed into a theatre, where different narratives of conflict are enacted in a way to sustain the conflict.
The author is a Fellow at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Studies, France (2019-2020) and Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.