Judgment Summary: Ayodhya Title Dispute

Ayodhya Title Dispute

Ayodhya Judgment in Plain English

On November 9th 2019, the Supreme Court of India (‘Court’) delivered its unanimous per curiam judgment in the Ayodhya Title Dispute. The decision disposed of multiple appeals filed against the decision of the Allahabad High Court in 2010, which divided the title equally among Nirmohi Akhara, U.P. Sunni Central Board of Waqfs and Shri Ram Virajman (for a detailed overview of the parties and their claims, please refer to our ‘Know the Parties’ explainers, which may be found herehere and here). There was also an additional opinion – titled ‘addenda’ – on the issue of whether the disputed structure was the birth place of Lord Ram, as per the faith and belief of the Hindus.

In order to determine the questions raised in the appeals, the Court framed 16 issues in total (with multiple sub-issues under them – found at page 82 of the judgment). These issues may be broadly categorized as follows:

  1. Maintainability of the suits: (a) whether the suits are barred by limitation? (b) whether the 1885 suit filed by Mahant Raghubar Das attracts the doctrine of res judicata to the suits filed by the Hindu parties? (c) whether Nirmohi Akhara has the rights of management over the disputed site?
  1. Determination of title: (a) was the disputed site, Ram Janmabhoomi, a juristic entity? (b) was there a temple beneath the disputed structure? (c) if yes, whether the existence of a temple beneath the disputed structure will give title to the Hindu parties? (d) was there a dedication of the disputed property to the Almighty by Babur, making the land inalienable? if not, was there continued use of the disputed site for prayers by the Muslims, making it a waqf by user? (e) possessory rights over outer courtyard and inner courtyard

Upon a determination of these issues, the Court overturned the High Court’s judgment and granted the following reliefs:

  • Title awarded to the deity, Shri Ram Virajman, and a perpetual injunction issued against the other parties from interfering in the construction of a new temple at the site, subject to the following conditions:
    • Possession of the site shall remain with statutory receiver under the Central Government, until a notification is issued vesting the property in a trust, or similar such body, to manage the construction of a new temple. The Union Government has 3 months from the date of the judgment to formulate a scheme under Sections 6 and 7 of the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993.
  • Sunni Waqf Board allotted alternate 5-acre site in Ayodhya for the construction of a mosque
  • The Union Government is directed to give adequate representation to the Nirmohi Akhara in the trust formed under the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993.
  1. Maintainability of the suits

(a) All suits except suit 3 is within the limitation period

One of the primary questions before the Court was whether each of the suits (find the details of the suits here) was filed beyond the legally permissible time limit – i.e., whether they were barred by limitation. The effect of a suit being beyond such time limit is that the Court may not then examine the substantive arguments raised in such suits. In its judgment, the Court found that all except one – suit 3 (filed by Nirmohi Akhara) – was filed within the limitation period.

Suit 3

As to suit 3, Court noted that the cause of action had arisen in January 1950, when the receiver took custody of the disputed structure. It may be noted that the Akhara has throughout claimed that the disputed structure is  a temple over which it had shebaitship rights. Nevertheless, the suit was only filed in December 1959, more than 9 years after the cause of action had arisen. Despite such delay, Akhara had claimed that it was within the limitation period as it was a suit for possession and such suits have a limitation period of 12 years.

Court rejected Akhara’s argument that it is a suit for  possession falling under either Article 142 or Article 144 of the Limitation Act, 1908. In doing so, it observed that for either of the two Articles to apply, the suit should have been filed for restoration of possession (page 300 of judgment). Instead, the suit was filed against the order of the Magistrate passed under Section 145 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898. Such an order, the Court observed, is an exercise of the Magistrate’s preventive jurisdiction to maintain the party in possession. Thus, the Court held that the suit by Nirmohi Akhara was a suit for restoration of management and charge, and not one for possession. By virtue of this, the applicable limitation period for the suit was 6 years (as provided under Article 120 – a residuary provision) and not 12 years as claimed by the Akhara, held the Court.

The Court also rejected Akhara’s argument that the action of the Magistrate amounted to a ‘continuous wrong’ and therefore the limitation period continued to reset. It noted that it was ‘inherently fallacious’ to argue that the order of a Magistrate would give rise to a wrong, let alone a continuous wrong (page 316).

Suit 4

In so far as suit 4 filed by the Sunni Waqf Board, Court noted that the cause of action had arisen on 23 December 1949, when there was desecration of the disputed structure. Thereafter, the suit was filed on December 18th 1961.

Court observed that although the pleadings may give an impression that it was a suit for declaration, a complete reading of it would indicate that it was one for possession. It pointed out how the plaintiff in suit 4 had specifically pleaded that they were in possession of the disputed site till the date of desecration and ceased to be in possession thereafter.

This clearly indicates that the suit was one for possession and falling under Article 142 with a limitation period of 12 years, held the Court. Given this, the suit was held to be within limitation period.

Suit 5

Although suit 5 was only filed in 1989, much later than all other main suits, Court held it to be within the limitation period. It gave two reasons for doing so: (i) the cause of action arose out of the Plaintiff No.1 in suit 5 (Shri Ram Virajman) not being impleaded in any of the earlier suits, and (ii) the interests of the deity, Plaintiff No.1, were not being protected by Nirmohi Akhara which was pursuing its own personal interest in suit 3 (pages 479-480 of the judgment). Court found specific instances of how Nirmohi Akhara, in its written statement filed in 1989, had acted against the interest of the diety. Thus, Court held that, unlike the other suits, the cause of action for suit 5 had arisen at a much later point in time.

As to the maintainability of suit 1 (filed by a devotee named Gopal Singh Visharad), Court held that it was maintainable since it was not filed for the assertion of a private right but for a right in common with and for the benefit of the other Hindu devotees (page 242).

(b) 1885 suit does not attract res judicata

Court was emphatic in its rejection of the argument that the 1885 suit filed by Mahant Raghubar Das brought about a bar on filing suits 3 (Nirmohi Akhara) and 5 (Shri Ram Virajman). The argument of the Sunni Waqf Board in particular was that the 1885 suit was filed by a ‘Mahant’ belonging to the Nirmohi Akhara and this created a legal impediment to the filing of suits 3 and 5. The reason for such a legal bar is the principle of res judicata, which places a restriction on parties to a legal dispute from recontesting the issues in such dispute once it has been conclusively settled by the court in a previous suit.

Court though held that none of the conditions required for applying res judicata was attracted by way of the 1885 suit. Specifically, Mahant Raghubar had initiated the suit to assert a right that was personal to him, observed the Court. Thus, such a suit cannot bar Hindu devotees at large, who were not represented by the Mahant in the 1885 suit. Moreover, the prayers, and the issues in 1885 suit were all different from the suits from which the appeals were filed (pages 502-503).

(c) Nirmohi Akhara does not enjoy shebaitship

A shebait is an entity entrusted with representing a deity and managing its rights. The shebait has the right to sue for the recovery of property on behalf of a deity. A central issue as to the maintainability of both the Nirmohi Akhara and Shri Ram Virajman’s suits was whether the Nirmohi Akhara is the de facto shebait (manager) of the Lord Ram idols and disputed property. The Court had to decide which party enjoyed the right to legally represent the deity. While the Nirmohi Akhara claimed shebaitship, D.N. Agarwal (plaintiff 3 in the deity’s suit) claimed to represent the deity as its ‘next friend’.

In its judgment, the Bench framed the following two questions to test the locus standi (legal right to file a suit) of the ‘next friend’ in suit 5: (i) is the Nirmohi Akhara the de facto shebait? (ii) has the Nirmohi Akhara always acted in the interests of the deity? Court observed that if the answer to both were ‘yes’, then no other party could sue on behalf of the deity.

Next, the Court established the conditions for demonstrating shebaitship – in particular, de facto shebaitship. The Nirmohi Akhara claimed de facto shebaitship, as it lacked a deed entrusting it with management of the deity. Citing the precedent in Sankaranaryanan Iyer (AIR 1949 Mad 721), the Court stated that the Akhara must demonstrate exclusive possession of the debutter property and continuous exercise of all management rights. It emphasised that the Akhara must show the continuous and uninterrupted exercise of possession and management over a sufficient period of time.

Further, elaborating on the conditions for demonstrating shebaitship, the Court distinguished between the contours of de jure (legal) and de facto (in practice) shebaitship. Importantly, the Court established that a de facto shebait may be removed without demonstration of “misconduct” (see, Gopal Kishnaji Ketkar [AIR 1954 SC 5]). In effect, this meant that the ‘next friend’ in suit 5 did not have to demonstrate that the Nirmohi Akhara was guilty of “misconduct”.

After having established the conditions for shebaitship, the Court held that the Nirmohi Akhara had failed to prove de facto shebaitship of the idols and disputed site. It emphasised that there was a positive burden on the Akhara to demonstrate shebaitship. It held that the Akhara had failed to show exclusive possession of the inner courtyard. Further, it found that the Akhara did not demonstrate continuous management of the idols in the outer courtyard. It concluded that the Akhara lacked de facto shebaitship, even though the next friend in suit 5 never had historically disputed the Akhara’s shebaitship.

Thereby, the Court concluded that the ‘next friend’ in suit 5 enjoyed the right to sue on behalf of the deities.

  1. Determination of title

(a) Ram Janmabhoomi does not have juristic personality

A central issue that came before the Court with regards to the determination of title was whether the Ram Jamnabhoomi site was itself a juristic person with legal rights. Sr. Adv. K. Parasaran on behalf of the plaintiffs in suit 5, had argued that the land itself had legal personality and that therefore it was not subject to the possession claims of other parties. His argument being that a juristic entity cannot be owned, nor is it divisible.

In order to assess the claim, the Bench first defined what artificial legal personhood entails, by relying on both Indian and comparative case-law. A juristic person is recognised by law as a subject which embodies rights, entitlements, liabilities and duties (page 127). The Bench then established that historically, artificial legal persons have either been a collection of natural persons (e.g. corporation) or an inanimate object (e.g. a ship). It stressed that different types of juristic entities are given different legal rights. Crucially, it held that which legal rights a juristic personality enjoys is dependent on the purpose for which the court granted it rights in the first place.

Turning to the contours of Hindu juristic entities, it observed that traditionally legal personhood has been granted to Hindu idols. The bench established that, “recognition of juristic personality was…devised by the courts to give legal effect to the Hindu practice of dedicating property for a religious or ‘pious’ purpose” (page 161). In essence, the law treats a Hindu idol as a manifestation of a pious or charitable purpose. Hence, the Court identified that Hindu idols are given legal rights in order to: (a) protect against the mismanagement of endowed property; (b) protect the interests of devotees. Importantly, the Hindu idol entrusted with legal personhood can be vested with movable and immovable property. The Bench clarified that the deity itself is not a juristic entity.

Before answering whether the disputed site itself had juristic personality, the Court established that the idol (plaintiff 1 in suit 5 – Shri Ram Virajman) had legal rights. Relying on witness statements and historical travelogues, it recognised that Hindu devotees have continuously believed that the idol is the embodiment of Lord Ram, the resident deity of Ram Janmabhoomi. It held that conferring legal rights to the idol served to protect the interests of the devotees and was not dependent on the existence of an express trust. It concluded, that if Hindus could establish continuous possession, than the property could be vested in the idol.

On the other hand, the Court held that the Ram Jamnabhoomi itself could not be conferred with legal rights. First, it emphasised that land, were it given legal rights, would be an entirely different type of juristic entity than a Hindu idol. The question became not whether the land could be vested in the idol, but rather whether the land itself had legal rights. The Bench held that were it to confer the land with legal rights, it would in effect be extinguishing competing claims for the title purely on the basis of the faith and belief of Hindu devotees. After all, a legal personality is not subject to title claims. The Bench observed that to resolve the dispute in this manner would be against the secular nature of the Constitution.

Further, the Bench observed that to recognise immovable property (such as land) as a juristic entity, would be to alter the essential characteristic of immovable property (see, The Mosque, Masjid Shahid Ganj [AIR 1940 PC 116). Unlike a juristic entity, immovable property is subject to ownership and division. The Bench reiterated that the purpose of conferring an inanimate object with legal rights in the context of Hindu endowments, is to legally protect endowed property. It observed that to confer upon property legal rights, would be to afford said property “legal impregnability by placing it outside the reach of the law”. Hence, it concluded that granting land legal rights has “no nexus to the limited purpose for which juristic personality is conferred” (page 218).

(b) It is uncertain whether there was a pre-existing temple beneath the disputed structure

One of the primary arguments of the Hindu parties to assert their title was that the disputed structure was constructed over a Hindu temple. But, the Court unequivocally held that there was no specific finding in the report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report that the underlying structure was a Lord Ram temple.

Moreover, ASI has also not opined whether a structure was demolished for the purpose of building the disputed structure. Thus, ASI report leaves open the critical question of whether a temple was demolished for the construction of the disputed structure even though it clearly demonstrated the presence of successive structural activity underneath the disputed structure.

(c) Even if there was a pre-existing temple, it is not sufficient to claim title

A significant turning point in the judgment is the Court’s holding that presence of a pre-existing temple by itself is not sufficient to establish the title claim of Hindu parties. It did so by observing that the factual background of the title dispute spanned multiple centuries and legal regimes. Within this, the existence of a temple was traced back to as early as the 12th century.

Court noted that Municipal courts (as opposed to international courts) cannot uphold the rights/liabilities existing under a previous sovereign unless it is explicitly recognised by the subsequent sovereign. If the argument of the deity in suit 5 is to be accepted – that there was evidence of ancient temple underneath and this vests title in the deity – it will have to be shown that all subsequent sovereigns have recognized such title. Court then pointed out that the deity had not produced any evidence to show that even if there exited a temple beneath, subsequent sovereigns recognized the title and rights that flow from it (page 767).

Thus, the mere existence of a structure beneath does not lead to a legally enforceable claim, held the Court. Even if a temple existed, it has not been established that any rights associated with the temple were recognized by subsequent sovereigns.

(d) There was neither a dedication of waqf nor the creation of a waqf by user

Sunni Waqf Board had relied heavily on the argument that the entire disputed site was dedicated by Babur for the purpose of public worship, thus creating a waqf. The implication of such a dedication is that the dedicated property then becomes inalienable. Failing such an argument, the Board had also argued that the disputed site had become a ‘waqf by user’, i.e., by virtue of continuous prayers being offered at the site, it had attained the status of a waqf property. Nevertheless, the Court rejected both the arguments

Court’s rejection of these arguments was based on the lack of evidence produced by the Board. For instance, it held that the Muslim parties had failed to establish a specific grant/dedication of the land (page 841), prior to annexation of Oudh or transfer of power to colonial administration. In so far as dedication by use was concerned, it observed that Sr. Adv. Rajeev Dhavan (counsel for the Board) had admitted that there was no evidence of offering of namaz prior to 1856-7.  In fact, the Court went on to observe that there was sufficient evidence to show that outer courtyard was being used without contest by the Hindus (page 855), negating the argument of continuous use.

(e) Possessory rights over inner and outer courtyard

After answering the above questions, Court proceeded to address whether either of Sunni Waqf Board or Shri Ram Virajman had established a title to the disputed property by virtue of having continuous possession over the property. As the Nirmohi Akhara’s suit was not maintainable, the question then became whether the deity or the Sunni Waqf Board had had possession of the site.

The Court held that the site was a composite whole. It said that the installation of a railing by the British in 1857 did not bring about a legal sub-division of the property into inner and outer-courtyard. Nevertheless, it relied on the division as a tool for analysing the two parties’ possession claims.

Outer courtyard

With regards to the outer courtyard, the Court held that Hindus have enjoyed continuous, uninterrupted exclusive possession of it. It held that there was sufficient evidence to show that Hindus had continuously worshipped in the outer courtyard. Specifically, it pointed out the consistent pattern of possession and worship in the outer courtyard post erection of the railings by the British in 1857 (page 836). Moreover, Court found the existence of specific points of Hindu worship (Ram Chabutra, Sita Rasoi and Bhandar) in the outer-courtyard. The opening of additional doors by the British for entry into the outer courtyard due to the rush of Hindu devotees also was taken as indicating the consistent pattern of worship (page 837). All these cumulatively were found to have negated the claim by Muslims that they had settled possession of outer courtyard.

Inner courtyard

On the other hand, it held that the inner courtyard was disputed and that neither party had succeeded in demonstrating exclusive possession. It held that while the inner courtyard contained the mosque, the Sunni Waqf Board had failed to establish that it had been dedicated as waqf by continuous usage (‘waqf by user’). Further, while it held that namaz never permanently ceased between 1857 and 1949, on the preponderance of probabilities, there was evidence to show Hindus asserted the right to pray in the central dome of the mosque. It noted that prior to 1857, evidence suggested Hindus had worshipped in the inner courtyard. Specifically, it pointed to the admission by Moazzin of the Mosque in 1858 that previously, the symbol of Janmasthan had been inside the disputed site for hundreds of years and the Hindus performed puja inside the three-domed structure (page 885). Thus, the Court found that prior to 1856-7, there was no restriction on worship for Hindus in the precincts of the inner courtyard (page 891).

After an evaluation of the evidence adduced by both parties, Court held that “the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims”. It then awarded the title to the entire site to the deity.