Ayodhya Judgment – First Impressions

On 9 November 2019, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment in the Ayodhya Title Dispute. The High Court had divided the title over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site equally among Nirmohi Akhara, Sunni Waqf Board and Sri Ram Virajman. In overturning the HC decision, the Supreme Court directed that:

  1. the disputed property in its entirety be handed over to the plaintiff 1 in suit 5 – Shri Ram Virajman (deity), and
  2. a 5-acre parcel of land in a prominent place within Ayodhya be allotted by the Central or State Government to the plaintiff in suit 4 – Sunni Waqf Board.

 

Further to its first directive, the Court ordered the Central Government to formulate a scheme within three months for the setting up of a trust with the powers to build a temple at the disputed site. In this regard, it also directed that appropriate representation be given to Nirmohi Akhara (plaintiff in suit 3 which had claimed Shebait/management rights over the site) in the proposed trust.

 

Although the Constitution Bench comprising the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justices S.A.Bobde, D.Y.Chandrachud, Ashok Bhusan and Abdul Nazeer were unanimous in their verdict, one of the judges (unidentified) recorded separate reasons for his conclusions on the issue of whether the disputed site was the birth place of Lord Ram. Another notable feature of the judgment was that it was per curiam, i.e., a collective one without identifying the author (s) of the judgment - a practice which is uncommon for the Supreme Court of India.

 

Judicial Pragmatism?

As to the approach adopted by the Court in its judgment, it may be best described as a mix of “minimalist reasoning and expansive relief”. Although the Court, in the large portions of its 1045 page decision, emphasised determining the issues on the basis of legal principles, the reliefs granted belie this.

 

The reason for such an approach may be gleaned from Court’s own acknowledgment of the difficulties it was confronted with: “facts, evidence and oral arguments of the present case have traversed the realms of history, archaeology, religion and the law”.

 

Minimalist reasoning

The minimalist reasoning is apparent from the Court’s insistence on determining the appeals on “settled legal principles and applying evidentiary standards which govern a civil trial”. In line with this, the decision turned on an analysis of the title question (given in part ‘P’ of the judgment), as opposed to issues like juristic personality, which were argued at length in the bar. The Court determined the title question by holding that the Hindus held an “exclusive and unimpeded possession of the outer courtyard”. Nevertheless, it leaves open the more vexed question of who held possessory rights over the inner courtyard. Instead of arriving at a clear-cut conclusion, it states that the “inner courtyard has been a contested site with conflicting claims of the Hindus and Muslims” (page 914 of the judgment).

 

Expansive relief

Although the Court continuously favoured a minimalist approach in its reasoning, the reliefs (discussed in part Q of the judgment) went beyond the standards it advocated for in its analysis. For instance, given the uncertainty over the inner courtyard, the Court resorted to “principles of justice, equity, and good conscience” in order to mould the reliefs in suits 4 and 5 (filed by Sunni Waqf Board and Shri Ram Virajman respectively). In formulating them, Court relied on the following reasons:

  1. The High Court erred in determining the suits as partition suits and in apportioning the title. The suits were not for partition of the property and as such, it was not open for the court to grant reliefs which had no basis in the pleadings (page 917);
  2. The property is a composite one, despite its division into inner courtyard and outer courtyard by the installation of a grill-brick wall in 1857 (page 909); and
  3. On preponderance of probabilities, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Hindus worshipped in the inner courtyard even prior to 1857. As to the outer courtyard, Hindus had unimpeded and exclusive possession.

 

Based on reasons (1)-(3), the Court proceeded to grant Shri Ram Virajman exclusive title over the disputed property, despite lingering questions over the inner courtyard.

 

Following matrix provides a bird’s eye-view of how the Court answered each of the critical issues and the reliefs provided:

 

Issue/Relief

Parties

Nirmohi Akhara (suit 3)

Sunni Waqf Board (suit 4)

Shri Ram Virajman (suit 5)

Maintainability of suit

NOT MAINTAINABLE

MAINTAINABLE

MAINTAINABLE

Possessory rights over outer courtyard*

NO

NO

YES

Possessory rights over inner courtyard*

NO

UNCERTAIN; INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE EXCLUSIVE POSSESSION

UNCERTAIN; BUT ON PREPONDERANCE OF PROBABILITIES SHOWED WORSHIP PRE-1857

Relief

Appropriate role in the Trust that will manage the construction of new Ram Janmabhoomi temple

5-acre land at alternate site in Ayodhya

Exclusive title over the disputed site

*Court held that the site is a composite whole and that the division between inner and outer courtyard was artificial