In Good Faith
The Supreme Court acted with both wisdom and restraint when it recently ordered a three-member panel to mediate and settle the decades old Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid Ayodhya title dispute case.
The SC has also barred both print and visual media from reporting on the mediation proceedings and asked those participating in the proceedings from speaking to the media, a move that can prevent further polarisation during election season.
By reserving its judgment on this emotive case, the apex court bought itself crucial time – the mediation will last eight weeks even as the 17th general election is expected to conclude by early May, ensuring that even if talks fail and the case moves to trial, a possibly divisive verdict will come soon after the conclusion of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Three former prime ministers have tried to solve the Ayodhya case in the past and failed. While some believe mediation is the only solution for this dispute, there are others who say only a judicial verdict can solve this dilemma which has been dominating the national discourse for three decades.
In its 2014 manifesto, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised to “explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya".
Political observers say that keeping the temple issue simmering suits the party which has been campaigning for a Ram temple in Ayodhya since 1989. Critics of the government also claim that BJP will ask voters for another term to complete the unfinished agenda.
Activists and political figures across the divide welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to appoint a three-member committee to mediate on the Ayodhya issue, albeit some did it with a bit scepticism in view of the fate of past attempts on mediation.
The three-member panel appointed by the apex court will be headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice F.M.I. Kalifulla with Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Shriram Panchu as its members while mediation proceedings will be held at Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh.
Many political observers have criticised the inclusion of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, given his earlier pro temple statements on the Ayodhya debate, along with the venue of Faizabad in political significant Uttar Pradesh which accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats.
In the past, Muslim litigants have agreed to mediation as it was not divorced from the regular hearing on the batch of petitions challenging the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment, while the Hindu litigants have opposed it, saying that the birth place of Lord Rama was a matter of faith and belief for them and they cannot take a contrary position in mediation.
The Allahabad High Court by its 2010 judgment had trifurcated the disputed site into three equal parts, giving one each to the Nirmohi Akhada, Ram Lalla and the Sunni Waqf Board.
Reacting to the development, the Congress said it has unequivocally maintained that the decision of the Supreme Court in the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid case should be final and binding on all parties.
"We respect the decision for constituting a mediation panel by the Supreme Court," party's spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said, adding that unfortunately, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has politicised a faith-based issue for their own political gains for the last 27 years.
"Since 1992, BJP has kept the issue alive so as to use in every election for political vote garnering and has relegated the Ram Mandir issue to the annals of history post election -- to be revived again in the next election. We sincerely hope that people of India are able to see through the duplicity and doublespeak of BJP," Surjewala added.
Welcoming the court's decision, Advocate Niaz Ahmed Farooqui of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind said that the mediation should be given a chance.
"It is good. There must be an attempt to resolve the issue amicably. All the Muslim bodies which are party to the case had given their consent for the talks initiative. The problem should be solved. We are positive about this and we will offer all kind of cooperation in it," Farooqui said.
Navaid Hamid, President of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (AIMMM), an umbrella body of major Muslim organisations, said he appreciates the apex court's concern for resolving the Ayodhya dispute, and added that the mediation team should be expanded.
"The AIMMM strongly thinks that though all efforts for a negotiated settlement of the dispute have failed in past and there are little chances for it in future too, but still there is no harm if the Supreme Court-monitored mediation team explores ways to resolve the dispute with a clean slate and in a non-partisan manner," he said.
"Keeping the complexity of the issue in mind and the difficulties of making a consensus for resolving the dispute, it is required that as per the mandate of the SC, the mediation committee should co-opt more members in it," he said.
However, Jama Masjid's Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari sounded more sceptical, saying he is not sure that the issue can be resolved through dialogue and insisted that the apex court should reach a decision on its own.
"We think that this issue can only be solved through the court, not by dialogue," Bukhari said.
He said that in the past too, repeated attempts had been made to resolve it through parleys but to no avail, but added that there is no harm in making one more attempt.
He said that "sincere persons from all sects" should be included in the committee and those with "vested interests" should be kept away, though he did not specify who those vested interests are.
"The Muslim parties should not adopt political or emotional approach for reaching a solution. Instead efforts should be made to resolve the matter in the light of the Shariah [Islamic jurisprudence]," Bukhari said.
Senior BJP leader Vinay Katiyar also welcomed the Supreme Court decision but underlined that the panel should "give its decision considering the sentiments of the Hindu community".
While there is hope that mediation can resolve the Ayodhya case, which has been dragging on since 1992 and has divided public sentiment along communal lines, it will require sincere efforts by all parties to reach a decision that is fair and just for all parties. At the heart of this dispute lies the struggle to accommodate majoritarian sentiments while upholding constitutional values.
So far only politics and communal violence have defined the course of the Ayodhya debate. If that continues to be the case, the loss will not be of a particular community but of a peaceful and secular nation.