New Delhi: A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court was begin hearings in the Ayodhya title suit regarding the Babri masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi land dispute on January 10. However, Justice U.U. Lalit recused himself from the bench and the matter was adjourned till January 29.
The bench will be led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprise Justices S.A. Bobde, N.V. Ramana and D.Y. Chandrachud. It has not yet been announced who will replace Justice Lalit.
The Supreme Court began hearing the case in December 2017, when the Allahabad high court decision to split the land three ways was appealed.
This case is separate from the criminal case against senior Bharatiya Janata Party and Sangh parivar leaders for their role in the demolition of the 460-year-old mosque on December 6, 1992. That case has been languishing at a trial court in Lucknow despite the Supreme Court ordering speedy proceedings.
In the last week of September 2018, the Supreme Court refused to refer to a five-judge Constitution bench a 24-year-old case – the Ismail Faruqui judgment – that said offering prayers in a mosque is not an “essential feature” of Islam. Justice Ashok Bhushan authored the majority judgment, for himself and then Chief Justice Dipak Misra. Justice S.A. Nazeer was the dissenting judge.
The Muslim litigants had requested that the judgment be reopened because the litigants felt it might have an adverse bearing on their claim to the land in question.
While refusing to list the matter before a constitution bench, the Supreme Court said the civil suit will be decided on the basis of evidence and that the previous verdict does not have any relevance.
What the Ismail Faruqui judgment of 1994 was about
The petitioner, Ismail Faruqui, challenged the validity of the Acquisition of Certain Area At Ayodhya Act, 1993, under which 67.703 acres were acquired in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex in Ayodhya.
The Supreme Court held that “any step taken to arrest escalation of communal tension” can “by no stretch of argumentation, be termed non-secular”.
Declaring that namaz could be offered anywhere, the Supreme Court had said:
(Mosque) is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam and namaz (prayer) by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in open. Accordingly, its acquisition is not prohibited by the provisions in the Constitution of India.
In a video for The Wire, lawyer Avani Bansal explained the Supreme Court’s judgment refusing to refer the matter to a Constitution bench.
Writing for The Wire, Rajeev Dhavan, who appeared for the Muslim litigants, criticised the Supreme Court’s judgment, calling it “fatally flawed”. He said it made no attempts “to examine Islamic beliefs or practices to determine if a mosque is part of the faith’s ‘essential practice’. The sacrality of the faith of Muslims in India is being examined in a vicious atmosphere.”
He added, “Justice Verma in Faruqui and Justice Bhushan in this case have pre-emptively knocked the bottom out of the Muslim case.”
In October 2018, the Supreme Court decided that the land dispute case would only be listed before an “appropriate bench” in January 2019. In what was seen as a setback to the BJP leaders pressing for a speedy disposal of the title suit, a bench consisting Chief Justice Gogoi and Justices S.K. Kaul and K.M. Joseph said “the appropriate bench will fix the schedule with regard to the hearing of appeals in the case”.
In an analytical piece, The Wire reported why the title suit can wait and that the Supreme Court must hear it in its natural course. “The Supreme Court is not and cannot be anxious about fast-tracking a case merely because it has been pending for so many years without resolution, or that its outcome is likely to influence the results of a general election.”
On January 4, 2019, the Supreme Court deferred hearing a bunch on petitions in the Ayodhya title dispute case till January 10. “Further orders will be passed by an appropriate bench on January 10 for fixing the date of hearing the matter,” a bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice S.K. Kaul said.
On January 8, the Supreme Court set up a five-judge constitution bench to heard the land dispute case.