October 7, 2010
Hindu-Muslim Dispute Over Holy Site
— Elsa J. Marty
Last week a high court in India announced its verdict on a disputed holy site in the city of Ayodhya. There is perhaps no place in India that better symbolizes contemporary Hindu-Muslim tension. Many Hindus believe Lord Ram, the hero of the Ramayana, was born there. But the exact site now considered his birthplace, Ram Janambhoomi, has been home to a mosque, Babri Masjid, since the early sixteenth century. Hindus and Muslims have been in a legal battle for the property for the last sixty years. In 1992, however, Hindu extremists destroyed the mosque, and riots erupted throughout the country, killing more than 2,000 people. A commission spent seventeen years investigating the course of events and finally released a report last year indicting leading members of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist political party, for their role in planning the demolition of the mosque. But the report was tabled in Parliament and has not affected the proceedings of the criminal case.
So on September 30, 2010, when the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court issued its judgment on the civil suit for the property title of the contested site, Indians were paying attention. The country had braced itself for the worst, and 200,000 security personnel were deployed in northern India to prevent rioting. The judges' ruling came as a surprise to all parties: they ruled that the land should be divided equally between the Muslims, Hindus, and the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu sect of ascetics devoted to Lord Ram.
Their decision to split the property three ways has been heralded by many as a brilliant compromise and as an opportunity for reconciliation among Hindus and Muslims. Most of the press has focused on the absence of violence, citing the public's response as though it were a litmus test for the worthiness of the legal decision.
But not all are content with the verdict. Both sides have vowed to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, hoping to obtain full possession of the land. While few people have read all 8,189 pages of the court's ruling, it is clear that the case sets an alarming precedent for the role of religion in legal matters. The two main issues at stake in the case were: whether Lord Ram was actually born at the disputed site, and whether the mosque had been built upon a demolished temple.
On the first question, despite the fact that belief in his historical existence is purely a matter of faith and cannot be legally or historically verified, the three judges ruled unanimously that Lord Ram was indeed born at the disputed site, beneath the central dome of the mosque. The place of his birth was treated as both a juristic person (not a natural person) and a deity, because, the judges ruled that the “spirit of [the] divine ever remains present every where at all times for any one to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”
On the second question, the judges were divided 2-1. Basing their conclusions upon a controversial archaeological study, the two Hindu judges ruled that the mosque had been built upon a destroyed temple, although the third judge, a Muslim, dissented on this point. Thus the majority decision stated that “the disputed structure cannot be treated as a mosque as it came into existence against the tenets of Islam.”
The general consensus among analysts is that political considerations affected the judges' decision more than the legal framework. An editorial in The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, called it “a compromise calculated to hold the religious peace rather than an exercise of profound legal reflection.” But will it lead to improved Hindu-Muslim relations and a lasting peace? Romila Thapar, a distinguished historian of early India, well-known for her criticism of Hindu nationalist politics, says no. “The verdict has annulled respect for history and seeks to replace history with religious faith. True reconciliation can only come when there is confidence that the law in this country bases itself not just on faith and belief, but on evidence,” she wrote in The Hindu. The court's ruling may have prevented an immediate outbreak of violence, but at what cost to the rule of law?
Editorial, “Intriguing compromise could work,” The Hindu, October 1, 2010.
Romila Thappar, “The verdict on Ayodhya: a historian's perspective,” The Hindu, October 2, 2010.
The full text of the Ram Janmbhoomi Babri Masjid Judgment from the High Court of Allahabad is available here.
Elsa J. Marty is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and has studied interfaith relations in India.