Centre Is Duty Bound to Maintain Status Quo in Ayodhya

A scrutiny of the Supreme Court's judgments makes it clear that the Centre cannot hand over any land, superfluous or not.

Despite the Supreme Court’s past statements, the Centre on January 29 moved the apex court seeking permission to return “all excess acquired land” to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas. The Nyas was formed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to promote and oversee construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The apex court has time and again reiterated that no part of the 67.703 acres of acquired land located in revenue plots No 159 & 160 in Kot Ramchandra village would neither be handed over by the government to anyone nor shall any part of this land be permitted to be occupied or used for any religious purpose or in connection therewith. It shall be retained by the government till the disposal of the case, the court said.

The Centre, in fact, has sought modification of the March 31, 2003 order of the Supreme Court in Mohd. Aslam Bhure vs Union of India and Ors wherein it had directed to maintain status quo with regard to entire land, including the non-disputed acquired plots.

The government is seeking permission to allow it to return to Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas the 67.390 acre of “non-disputed” land acquired through legislation in 1993 after the demolition of Babri Masjid by frenzied ‘karsevaks‘ on December 6, 1992. The government claims that the disputed structure was built only on 0.313 acre of land and the remaining area was acquired around it is undisputed and can be returned to its original owners.

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The government has primarily relied upon the observation of the Supreme Court in the 1994 Ismail Faruqui vs Union of India and Ors case. The Centre claims that the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had held that if the Centre wanted to return the superfluous area of acquired land to its original owners, which is other than the disputed area of 0.313 acres, then it may do so. The Centre’s plea argues that one party, Ram Janmbhoomi Nyas, whose land measuring approximately 42 acres was acquired and which is a part of the superfluous/excess land has approached it to return the same.

A similar request in the past

Interestingly, when a similar request was made by the Nyas in 2002 seeking permission to perform Pooja, the then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee in view of an interim order passed by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on March 13, 2002 in Mohd. Aslam Bhure case, had categorically refused to alter the status quo of entire acquired land. The court unambiguously ruled that no religious activity should take place on the adjacent land. It also refused to accede to Nayas’ demand that part of that acquired land be returned to it.

In a statement in the Rajya Sabha on March 14, 2002, Vajpayee reiterated that his government is the statutory receiver of the land and “is duty bound to maintain the status quo at the disputed site in Ayodhya”. This stand was taken despite the fact that the then attorney general Soli Sorabjee had submitted before the Supreme Court that “temporary use” of the undisputed adjacent land per se would not violate the status quo order.

A year later, on March 31, 2003, while reaffirming its previous interim order of March 13, 2002, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that no religious activity of any kind by anyone, either symbolic or actual including bhumipuja or shila puja, shall be permitted or allowed to take place on the entire 67.703 acres of acquired land. The court held that the disputed Babri Masjid area of 0.313 acre and the acquired adjacent land of over 67 acres were intrinsically connected with one another and cannot be separated at this stage of the proceedings.

The Supreme Court held that no religious activity of any kind by anyone, either symbolic or actual, shall be permitted or allowed to take place . Credit: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

After disposal of the suit by the Allahabad high court in 2010, wherein it had divided the 2.77 acres of the disputed site equally among three parties – one-third each to Ram Lalla, Nirmohi Akhara and Sunni Waqf Board – one may assume that the status quo order has become infructuous.

However, one should not forget that the Supreme Court on May 9, 2011 in the Mohd Siddiq vs Mahant Suresh Das and Ors case, while hearing the appeal against the 2010 order of the Allahabad high court, had not only stayed the operation of the impugned judgment, but also ordered again to maintain status quo on entire 67.7 acre of the acquired land till it decides the matter. In September 2018, the Supreme Court once again clarified that its 2003 judgment holds the field till the title suit is finally adjudicated.

Though the Centre’s move to hand over of the so called ‘superfluous land’ around the disputed site to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas is without any legal infirmity, a detailed scrutiny of all the relevant judgments and the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993 would make it clear that this is not so.

Ensuring communal harmony

While taking any proposal on the transfer of land into consideration, the Centre must also take into account the purpose of the land acquisition as explained by the Supreme Court in the Faruqui case which was twofold. Firstly, to ensure communal harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst the people of India and to ensure that the party/parties who succeeded in the title dispute will be able to access the site so that it could enjoy the ‘fruits of success on the final outcome of the adjudication’.

Further, the site of the disputed structure and suitable adjacent land was acquired for specific purpose as provided in the preamble to the Ayodhya Act of 1993. This is for setting up a complex which could be developed in a planned manner, wherein a Ram temple, a mosque, amenities for pilgrims, a library, museum and other suitable facilities can be set up.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that any attempt by the Centre to restore the acquired excess land around the disputed site to the Nyas would not only be violative of the various orders passed by the Supreme Court for maintaining status quo at entire land, but also negates the very purpose of the Act through which the land was acquired.

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The Centre must understand that it is only a trustee of the acquired land as a statutory receiver with a duty to manage and administer it in the manner provided in the Act. The Centre is duty bound to maintain the status quo and it can’t return the superfluous land during the pendency of the suit.

In the larger national interest, the Centre must avoid taking any move which would disturb the communal harmony at this crucial juncture when the Supreme Court is set to adjudicate the case as this is bound to stoke communal passions.

It is pertinent here to recall what the apex court said in the Ismail Farooqui case:

Even though, prima facie, the acquisition of the adjacent area in respect of which there is no dispute of title and which belongs to Hindus may appear to be a slant against the Hindus, yet on closer scrutiny it is not so since it is for the larger national purpose of maintaining and promoting communal harmony and in consonance with the creed of secularism which is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

The Centre is ‘duty bound’ to protect the Constitution and not to restore the acquired land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.

Aftab Alam is a professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.