It is never easy to walk close to the precipice. The Supreme Court must be feeling very sure-footed to test its vertigo level on Ayodhya. It has put six decades of anguish, turmoil and a legal endurance test on the edge of a calendar. If there is the slightest mishap, and even the Supreme Court cannot claim the divine power of predicting what unknown factors might spin the coming week out of control, the Allahabad High Court judgement on the Babri title dispute could fall into a bottomless abyss. If the judgement is not read out before the end of the month it becomes infructuous since one of the judges is retiring. India does not have the energy to start another six decades of social, political and legal acrimony.
It would of course have been heavenly if time was the solution to a problem that has proved intractable for both the British Raj and free India. Many problems in India do merge and disappear in that glacier called time. Faith, alas, arouses passions that have the resilience to defeat time. There is a view among those who have not experienced the depth of faith that the dispute has faded into unimportance. It was perhaps this assessment that persuaded Rahul Gandhi to claim that other things were more important. A little reading of history would be useful. The Babri-Ayodhya dispute has lain dormant for long spells before erupting suddenly, volcanically, and spreading its lava far and wide into the social streams of our nation. Sometimes it rumbles before bursting, and sometimes it surprises us with its arbitrary vehemence. This is why Sardar Patel, whose understanding of India was unmatched, advised Jawaharlal Nehru to find some way towards immediate closure of the two issues that had become symbols in the Hindu subconscious, the temple at Somnath destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni and the Babri mosque. Nehru was uncomfortable, but did not interfere with the reconstruction of the temple at Somnath, except that he would not allow the project to become a state enterprise. Somnath was comparatively easy, since no one had built a mosque at the site. Patel warned that if the Ram-birthplace dispute was not resolved it would return to haunt India five decades later. It did, in less time than that.
Ayodhya was different because there was a mosque, built during the reign of Babar. L.K. Advani linked the two when he started his rathyatra towards Ayodhya from Somnath, exactly 20 years ago on 25 September. Another two decades of time have not brought any resolution.
Perhaps we are being lulled by the fact that there has been no violence over Ayodhya after 1992. Mistake. Indians, of any religion or denomination, are instinctively repulsed by violence, even if they can, on occasions, get as appallingly murderous as any crowd in history. But there is rarely exultation and always guilt. Even when top-of-mind recall has dimmed, it does not mean that an issue such as Babri-Ayodhya has disappeared from hearts.
The consequences of non-judgement will be horrendous. It is obvious from the statements of their spokesmen that the Congress is, typically, committed to irresolution. Its politics impels it to hunt with the mosque and run with the temple. This fudge was possible as long as the courts were taking their time. Time — a chameleon component of this drama — has run out, at least in the legal sense. There is at long last a judgement, by a respected high court. Even a stay on its implementation and the reality of an appeal cannot diminish the power of a verdict. The Government would be very foolish to believe that it can bury the judgement in some legal maze, making it untraceable. If the judgement is not read by the court, it will still find its way to the people, through the media perhaps. The happy fact of any democracy is that suppressed information, like water, always leaks through the shackles of Government.
The parties involved are already raising dangerous apprehensions. It is only natural for either, or perhaps both, to feel that the Government is using delay as a tactic to deny them justice. The only salutary outcome of such a situation would be that the two parties forget their bitterness towards each other, and divert it towards the Government in a common cause. Do not laugh. Stranger things have happened in Indian politics.
The Supreme Court has the liberty to hope that something could happen in six days that has not happened in six decades, an amicable settlement. But it has no right to abort the course of justice for reasons extraneous to the law.
Tuesday is going to be a tense day, but I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will apply its own means test. It needs an answer to only one question: have the parties to the dispute reached a settlement outside the court? If the answer is no, as is likely, then before the Supreme Court rises it must give leave to its brothers on the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court to deliver their judgement. That is the only safe route back from the precipice.