For the last decade and a half the issue has been under adjudication, but with elections round the corner and a possible flare-up, the SC has recommended mediation.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhumi issue exacerbated tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities, extracting a significant human toll through direct or indirect violence. For the last decade and a half the issue has been under adjudication, but with elections round the corner and a possible flare-up, the Supreme Court has recommended mediation. Petitioners still find ways to keep the courts busy by asking for permission to do namaz or puja, leading Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi to comment, while rejecting the plea on 12 April, “You will never let this country remain in peace. There will always be something.”
Few believe that mediation will succeed and expect the case to revert for adjudication. Yet a definitive Supreme Court judgement could inflame old passions, so some demand the government take the ordinance route before, or depending on the outcome after, this happens. These days the authority of the Court, its independence and procedures are increasingly under challenge: further invalidation would put the Constitution under great strain, especially were the Court to arrive at a judgement difficult to implement, or an ordinance were to pre-judge or overturn its decision.
Are there any feasible alternatives?
There are two parties to the judicial dispute, though the social canvas is wider. Secularists and the anti-religious left, representing modern India, constitute an important third interest, representing, as it happens, the triadic sociological schema of the late philosopher Basanta Kumar Mallik (1879-1958), comprising the (Hindu) group society, the (Abrahamic) community and (derivatives of western) humanists, all holding essential conflicting core values. Independent India’s secularism, designed to provide a benign umbrella over its competing religions, is itself by implication, party to the dispute.
Under the circumstances, efforts at genuine mediation are to be welcomed. The chosen mediators happen to reflect the triad—a Muslim judge, a Hindu spiritual leader and a senior (presumably secular) advocate.
While awaiting developments we may cast a backward look at some past attempts. The Ram Janmabhumi movement from September 1989 onwards had much exercised the late JNU Professor M.L. Sondhi, long-term advocate of conflict resolution, Jan Sangh MP and then member of the BJP’s National Executive. Fearful of a Muslim backlash and an intractable communal situation, he conceived of the idea of a multi-religious shrine in the name of Lord Ram at the disputed site, which might serve as an acceptable compromise, giving minorities a stake in a non-threatening and positive outcome.
In 1990, he chanced upon the UK “Deventer Hall” multi-religious project, a structure for accommodating multiple halls of worship for Europe’s religions. He corresponded with initiator Robin Waterfield to explore possibilities of constructing a similar “Sarva Dharma Sansthan” in Ayodhya. India is not without precedents for religious institutional co-existence. Hajo for example, is an ancient multi-religious pilgrimage centre on the Brahmaputra, where the Iraqi-built Barmagam mosque Poa Mecca, the Kedareswara temple and the Hindu-Buddhistic Hayagriva Madhava temple unproblematically co-exist.
Armed with architectural sketches, including one of a grand temple erected on stilts above the extant Babri Masjid, and accommodating other Indian faiths, Sondhi lobbied leaders across the political and religious spectrum.
He received positive feedback from S. Nijalingappa, last president of the united Congress, Jain Muni Sushil Kumar (associated with founding the VHP), Lama Lobsang, Ladakhi Buddhist leader, most enthusiastically from Choudhury Devi Lal, then Deputy Prime Minister and later from Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. As the crisis escalated, Sondhi, joined by Yashwant Sinha, then general secretary of the Janata Dal, set out to explore a peaceful compromise. They contacted top leaders of the BJP and VHP including V.H. Dalmia, B.D. Toshniwal, Ashok Singhal, and individuals in the higher echelons of the V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao governments. Sondhi also reached out to Syed Shahabudin, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, and Maulana Ali Nadwi.
However, the political and quasi-political Hindu and Muslim leadership had developed a vested interest in maintaining the dispute. Congress governments under Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao flirted with what is now called soft-Hindutva to expand their traditional vote banks at the expense of the BJP. The BJP itself piggy-backed on the VHP’s more fundamental initiatives, passed a resolution at Palampur in 1989, committing itself to a Ram temple at the site, and with Advani’s rath-yatra in September-October 1990 the issue moved sharply centre stage. None of the main actors seemed seriously interested in defusing the situation or bringing it to a conclusion, and the Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992 caught many off guard.
Country-wide communal riots followed, killing over 1,000 people: several BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders were imprisoned. Sondhi turned his energies to de-toxifying the atmosphere. In mid-December, through his Oxford co-Rhodes-scholar, Jack Woffard, an advocate engaged in dispute resolution in the United States, he reached out to Prof Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project, pioneer in international conflict resolution, co-author (with William L. Ury) of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Fisher’s negotiating record included contributions to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the Camp David summit, while in post-apartheid South Africa he was able to nudge the negotiating process towards a democratic Constitution and elections. Nearer home, Fisher was the main architect of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank.
Negotiating his way through bureaucratic hurdles with the co-operation of George Fernandes and encouragement from Prof Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiya), then Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, Sondhi arranged that Woffard and Fisher spend a week in India mid-December. In the still charged atmosphere with the chief disputants behind bars, Sondhi introduced the visitors to representatives of the interested parties and concerned citizens, including Dr Karan Singh and VHP leader V.H. Dalmia: Rajju Bhaiya for one, listened with rapt attention to Fisher’s disquisition on negotiation processes. Finally the team drew up a set of suggestions entrusted to Dr Karan Singh to reach to the PM, incommunicado since 6 December.
At the BJP’s national executive meet in New Delhi during 23-24 December, Sondhi suggested that the party make a “grand” gesture of reconciliation towards the Muslim community. Through personal statements Advani and others had indicated contrition, but in public the party chose a posture of aggressive defiance and reverted to arguments about the legal status or mode of acquisition of the 2.77-acre plot.
At December end after a long silence, Narasimha Rao’s office issued a list of proposals to tackle the problem, incorporating a couple of the visitors’ suggestions, but ignoring the overall framework which led Fisher to comment: “First and foremost, there is no discussion of process. Indians in general seem to be unaware of the process they are using for dealing with the Ayodhya situation and to the possibility of using other processes…most of the discussion is about the past. As one reads the press and talks with people, more than 90 per cent of what is said is not about future choices but about past events…The need at this stage is to focus less on a substantive solution and more on the process by which it and future solutions will be reached.”
Today’s litigants, leaders of the Sangh Parivar and representatives of Muslim organisations would be remiss in their duty towards the nation if they did not give mediation and conflict resolution a chance. As Fisher warned, “Whoever seems to be the adversary today, Hindu or Muslim, Congress Party or BJP, the real enemy is anarchy.”
Vivekananda L. Sondhi, Trustee, M.L. Sondhi Trust is an investment professional working in the UAE. Madhuri S Sondhi, Trustee, M.L. Sondhi Trust, is Director, M.L. Sondhi Institute for Asia-Pacific Affairs and author of The Making of Peace: A Logical and Societal Framework According to Basanta Kumar Mallik