The Supreme Court has shown uncharacteristic alacrity by deciding to hold daily hearings in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case. It is possible the court is doing this to resolve the decades-old issue before Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi retires in November. But the Supreme Court has shown little and sometimes no interest in taking up cases involving gross violation of human rights.
Law is a strange creature, often taking a form that the powerful don’t like because of the unintended consequences. Sometimes, even the five senior judges of the Supreme Court can’t control or anticipate these consequences.
But what the current five most senior judges of the Supreme Court can certainly do is not let anything come in the way of putting an end to one of India’s most controversial cases. This, and not another round of mediation, could actually bring closure to the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid dispute. The judges must leave no room for any political party to play politics in the matter. The dispute has not only lingered too long, but it has also claimed many lives over the years – also making and breaking several political careers.
Don’t fall for mediation
On Monday, the Ayodhya mediation committee told the Supreme Court that Hindu and Muslim groups want to resume talks for an amicable solution.
But the Supreme Court knows that mediation among parties to the dispute had failed to settle the matter before, and there is nothing to suggest it won’t fail again.
While many consider it as a civil dispute over who owns the 2.77 acres of land, it is religion that is at the heart of the matter and it comes with all the pulls and pressures associated with the tussles between two or more religions. And not just religion, it is now a deadly cauldron of politics mixed with religion, with hundreds of years of contested history and tales of invasions etched in public memory.
Which is why the Supreme Court must not allow the case to be derailed by the mediation committee’s latest attempt.
The application filed by the committee suggests that just as the constitutional bench hears the case, the mediation could also go on alongside. But it would be a bad idea to let this happen. Apart from the fact that there is a very bleak chance of the mediators succeeding, any such move will also result in the Supreme Court inviting criticism for changing its stance too often.
Unofficially, there have been several attempts to get Hindus and Muslims to settle the issue amicably. And the first time the Supreme Court backed a formal mediation was when a bench headed by then-CJI Jagdish Singh Khehar in 2017 mooted the idea of out-of-court settlement among rival parties because “these are issues of religion involving sentiments”.
However, lack of interest among parties ensured that the plan remained a non-starter until March this year, when the court proposed a court-monitored mediation process between the parties. The court appointed a panel, which was headed by former Supreme Court judge Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla and included Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu, and gave it eight weeks to find an amicable resolution.
In August, it became clear that the panel was unable to make all sides reach a consensus. The bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi indicated that the mediation had failed.
There is little to suggest there has been any change of heart in any of the parties to merit another shot at mediation.
Only one way out
So, will mediation succeed where everything else has failed?
The answer is a big no. The battle lines are clearly drawn and there is little incentive for either side to agree to a pull-back from the stated position. Even if the Hindu litigants agree to some mediated give-and-take settlement, will the BJP and the Sangh outfits, which have over the years turned the Ram temple into a political, vote-catching, emotive issue, agree?
Similarly, it’s difficult to see Muslims accept any softening of claims by their representatives in the case without a fresh round of claims and counterclaims.
Statesmen-politicians like P.V. Narasimha Rao (before demolition) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (who set up a special Ayodhya cell in his office in January 2002) tried to get all sides to sit together and thrash out their differences. But they failed miserably.
The Supreme Court has also tried the mediation route and failed. It is incumbent upon the court to settle the matter judicially, and do so swiftly.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.