Sunday, October 03, 2010

The verdict a nation waited for

For more than 60 years now, a quiet (but of late, very vocal) court battle was being waged between, essentially, Muslims and the Sunni Waqf board on one side, the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu denomination of devotees of Hanuman, and various Hindu groups under the umbrella of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This tripartite battle for a few acres of land in the quiet town of Ayodhya began in 1949, but could very well trace its origins to well before the 16th century.

The issue before the court: who owns the land on which the Babri Masjid stands (in spite of an attempt to demolish it by Hindu fanatics in a wanton act of terrorism). The 3 judge panel of the Allahabad high court gave the verdict, which when viewed through the lenses of religiosity, can be said 'favours' the Hindu position. Over the past few days, we've seen and heard a plethora of opinions (that's one thing we'll never be short of in India), some pouring scorn over it, while some hailing it as statesmanly. So here's my take on the judgement, and being a non-believer, I guess I'm in a (slightly) better position to make an objective assessment on such a matter.

Demolishing arguments of the Hindu groups

Just because there existed a temple on the spot where the Babri Masjid stands, irrespective of whether or not the temple was demolished to construct a mosque, is no grounds to have a temple today. The temple, if it existed, did so in an era when the land it was in was not the India as we know it as today. It was not the republic it is today - it was a Mughal (Muslim) empire that was ruling back then and hence the discriminations against the Hindus. The India we live in today is different, and so trying to have a oneupmanship in terms of religion doesn't serve any useful purpose.

Demolishing arguments made by critics of this judgement, one by one

The first and foremost argument any rational person would make in a dispute like this is: is the court a suitable authority to pass judgement on religion and matters of pure faith? And the rational answer has to be an emphatic no. It's quite obvious that religious beliefs fall outside the purview of a court because if a court has to decide, it would need to do so based on evidence, irrefutable evidence, and so any such claim about an almighty would not stand legal scrutiny. So to begin with, both (all) parties should have appreciated that taking religious matters to a court could open a Pandora's box, and seems like that's precisely what seems to have happened.

Critics of the judgement (notably Muslims, and those trying to gain political mileage) argue that the judgement was based on faith and not evidence. Well, on the face of it, no one can find fault with that statement. However, think about it, if the court hadn't considered faith and based it's judgement on grounds of faith and practice and tradition, then what's to stop anyone from filing suits in courts across the country, basically dismissing all religious practices by people of any religion because there isn't any proof of existence of such an ALmighty? What's to stop someone from filing a suit saying tax payers money shouldn't be used to subsidise the Haj for Indian Muslims, because their faith and practices based on their religion has no proof that a God called Allah, their God, actually exists. In fact Mohammad himself never saw Allah, so what proof can be submitted to stand legal scrutiny? Non-believers like me and other civil citizens have for far too long cried ourselves hoarse that public money shouldn't be used for religious purposes in a secular democracy, so by questioning this judgement, aren't Muslims (or other religious groups) endangering the practice of Islam (or their respective religions) itself in India?

So now that I've quite easily dismissed the arguments against the 'faith-based' judgement, let's focus on the other issue most Muslims and pseudo-secularists have raised, namely, what's to stop Hindus from petitioning courts for other sites that they may claim to be disputed and having more mosques razed because "according to our beliefs, there used to be a temple here". Well, it's very easy to dismiss that argument and allay their fears. In 1991, an Act of Parliament called the Places of Worship Act was passed to specifically prevent any such thing from happening. Since the Babri Mosque land dispute was already in court, it was excluded. The act (which became law) states that "It is hereby declared that the character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it on that day.". So if a place was a Mosque (or any place of worship) at the time of independence, it will continue to do so and no one can change that today, or any day in the future. So hopefully this will allay the fears of all Muslims and those finding fault with the judgement.

The last of the more vociferous arguments made by the clerics is that the Islamic law doesn't allow them 'donate' or 'gift' the land or property (includes Mosques) that is under the control of the Waqf board. Well, if that be the case, and if the character of Islam is universal, can someone from the Muslim side explain the fact that the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, which was once a Church, and then later a Mosque, was finally converted into a museum by the Turkish ruler Mustafa Kemal Ataturk? The use of the premises for prayer (by any religion) is strictly prohibited (although a small portion inside the museum is now used by museum staff to pray, but both Christians and Muslims pray here). Since there are no remonstrations by Muslims anywhere, we can safely assume that in special circumstances, special measures can be taken. So the argument that Muslim Waqf board cannot enter into discussions for a settlement or compromise is also scuttled.

It seemed as though most eminent Muslims from civil society who chose to brand the judgement as 'one-sided' seem have done so in haste and not based on the evidence placed before the court. Farah Naqvi, one of the more vocal critics of the judgement, came across as someone who seemed to want the 'minority' tag to be worn proudly by Muslims and other religious minorities, much like how a large section of Hindu society seem to revel in being called 'backward' and belonging to a 'lower caste', so that they can reap benefits of social programmes of the government and other such benefits. Vitriolic barbs by such personalities conveys the wrong impression to regular folk who watch TV, who'd naturally think that since personalities as Ms. Naqvi have slammed the verdict, it couldn't be for any other reason other than the fact that the courts have been partial.

Some people have criticised the judgement for being "one that should have been taken by the politicians". I was aghast when I heard that this was being used as an argument against the verdict. Since the political class did not exhibit the required testicular fortitude to chalk out a solution, the court, given the fact that the sentiments of a large religious section (largest in India) were to be considered as it was part of the case, and that neither side could conclusively prove ownership (some claims were dismissed as being time barred), delivered a verdict that was rightly called 'statesmanly' by former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, one would have expected a more hearty acceptance. I see no reason for Muslims to feel aggrieved as being truly secular would have enabled anyone to see the enormity of the issue before the courts. If Muslims (or any religion) want their religious beliefs taken seriously and be given the freedom to practice them without any objection, then how can they oppose the beliefs of a different community?

To me, the entire feeling of betrayal and subsequently blaming the court for passing a verdict based on faith and not evidence arose because it was taken to court in the first place. Matters of religion and faith need to be discussed in a domain where hard, empirical evidence isn't needed, but compassion and understanding and a mutual feeling of brotherhood and magnanimity is exhibited and reciprocated. That is the India Gandhi and Nehru dreamt of, that is the India the great book, our Constitution, envisions for India, that is what we as Indians need to work towards.


V said...

The case before the court, stripped down to its barest is as follows - two (legal) parties claim the same piece of land and the only decision before the court was to decide whose property it truly is. The only duty of the court is to uphold the law irrespective of the consequences and not attempt to achieve a compromise.

Karthik Shetty said...

Absolutely correct, but what's done is done. My only point is how the verdict should be taken. Since the court said both claims are time-barred, in essence, that meant the dismissal of all suits filed by Nirmohi Akhara and Wakf Board, and only the suit of Ram Lalla, represented by a friend because junior Lord Ram was a minor, basically saying he was born there! :)
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