Sunday, September 26, 2010

Talks, not courts, can solve Ayodhya tangle

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, the Supreme Court offered a generous lifeline to the litigants in the Ayodhya dispute to make a last ditch effort to secure a negotiated, out-of-court settlement. The offer, in my view, had precious little to do with the diversion of security from the Commonwealth Games or, for that matter, the Bihar election. If courts had to consult the Home Ministry before delivering sensitive judgments, the work of the courts would come to a complete standstill and contentious issue would remain pending permanently. The subtext of the order to stay the Allahabad High Court judgment till September 28 at least was the tacit acknowledgment that what was at stake wasn't just a property title suit and that a compromise solution was the ideal way forward.

It is tragic that the two sides of the divide have refused to admit the wisdom of the Supreme Court advice. As of now, both are unanimous that they want the judgment delivered and both have blamed the Congress for manipulating a delay. If this intransigence persists, the Supreme Court may be left with no alternative other than vacating the stay and allowing the Allahabad High Court judgment.

The stubbornness of the two sides arises from different compulsions. For the Sunni Waqf Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee, the judgment is worth the gamble precisely because they have nothing to lose: the Babri structure was demolished 18 years ago and the site, although nominally acquired by the Centre, hosts a Ram temple, as it has done since 1949. The Muslim leadership is aware that since possession of the site gives the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas a distinct upper hand in any negotiations, it should await the judgment in the title suit. A victory in that matter won't lead to the removal of the Ram temple but it will establish a new benchmark for the future. More to the point, it will give moral legitimacy to the claim that the Hindu activists took over "inalienable" Waqf property illegaly. This in turn will allow the Muslim side to widen its political appeal and rope in Hindu liberals who, in any case, have an aesthetic abhorrence of the BJP, VHP and the sadhu samaj.

If the Muslim intransigence is centred on a calculated gamble, Hindu obstinacy is based on adventurist bravado. There are definite indications that the RSS leadership which exercises control over the VHP doesn't believe that the Allahabad High Court will rule against it under any circumstances. Whether this conviction is based on the inputs provided by over-zealous lawyers or something more profound is unknown. But it is a fact that the RSS and VHP have discounted the possibility of adverse judgments. Alternatively, they may even believe—and at least one BJP leader was indiscreet enough to admit this "off the record" to a media gathering—that political victory lies in legal defeat.

The assumption that an adverse verdict in the title suit will also suit the Hindu cause is based on the belief that it will trigger a wave of Hindu outrage which, in turn, will influence both politics and the ruling of the Supreme Court after the matter goes for appeal. This faith in the power of Hindu outrage may well explain why the gathering of Hindu religious figures decided last Friday to up the ante and advocate a maximalist position. The meeting apparently decided that the proposed Ram temple would cover the entire 70 acres acquired by the Centre and that "there could be no place for another mosque in Ayodhya, even outside the disputed place." Predictably, such posturing doesn't leave even any space for negotiations with the other side.

The problem with the VHP and the religious figures who endorsed such a position on the eve of a delicate judicial verdict is that they interact exclusively with the committed. This leads to imagining that their little ghettos constitute the whole world, a phenomenon common to political and religious extremists. The VHP appears to have overlooked the fact that while the Ram temple issue is possibly dear to huge numbers of Hindus, the consequences of faith are very complex. Without necessarily endorsing the facile and self-serving India-has-moved-on theory of pop sociologists, it is nevertheless true that any renewed Ram temple agitation won't have the same impact it did in the 1990s. If there is Hindu outrage it will be expressed with greater dignity than rioting. More to the point, it may result in widespread questioning of the claim of the likes of Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia to mirror Hindu sentiments.

At the colossal risk of being proved utterly wrong, it seems to me that both sides in the Ayodhya dispute have made a Himalayan blunder by shunning the Supreme Court's offer of last-minute salvage. True, no negotiations can yield results in just five days. Yet what was achievable was the recognition that neither side can achieve total victory or inflict total defeat. If the Home Minister's cautionary statement last week was any accurate indication, the High Court may throw up an ambiguous verdict—victory for one side in the title suit and for the other side in the archaeological scrutiny—which could throw up a fresh set of intractable issues. India could do with a settlement where there are no obvious losers, something beyond the scope of law.

Sunday Pioneer, September 26, 2010

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