On the last day of September, the Allahabad High Court announced its verdict on a disputed shard of land in the town of Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid mosque once stood and where some Hindu organizations claim the deity Rama was born. This appeared to be fine news—not least because a verdict materialized at all. The first litigation over the ownership of this land was filed, and dismissed, in 1885. More suits were filed in 1950, 1959, 1961, and 1989. One suit was dismissed; the other four were combined and presented to the Allahabad High Court in 1989. By any measure, it was about time a judgment appeared.
It was promising, too, that India seemed to hold its breath for a considered judicial decision. Most of the defining moments in the history of these 27 hectares have involved provocative rhetoric, religious extremism, and acts of brazen illegality. In 1949, a 60-strong mob of Hindu zealots smuggled idols into the mosque; they were allowed to remain, one district administrator wrote at the time, because removing them “must lead to a conflagration.” Forty years later, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader, L. K. Advani, undertook a whistle-stop tour to make clear his party’s determination to build a temple in place of the Babri Masjid. Most infamously, in 1992, as Advani and other party officials watched, a horde with hammers and chisels methodically dismantled the dome of the 460-year-old mosque, igniting religious riots that claimed about 1,500 lives.
The court’s verdict came two days before Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, and it might have confirmed his vision for India: a peaceful, stable state with a fair system of law. What came down instead from the three-judge bench was a frightened, compromise decision, dividing the disputed land among the Sunni Wakf Board, a Hindu sect known as the Nirmohi Akhara, and a body called the Hindu Mahasabha. Some commentators praised the verdict as “a relief” and “the only way to avoid trouble,” but they missed the point: judicial decisions should not be made out of convenience or fear. The court established a worrying precedent that suggests verdicts can now turn on the threat of violence, or on a judge’s perception of potential violence, instead of on the consensual letter of the law.
The court’s expectation of immediate conflict suggests an unwarranted distrust of the Indian populace, and a belief that the riots in 1992—or in 2002 in Gujarat—were spontaneous uprisings instead of politically manipulated acts of violence. But even had India been teetering on the brink of rioting, it was for the state to keep the peace, and for the court to first protect the plaintiffs’ legal rights. In trying to soothe rather than adjudicate, the judges may have had noble intentions, but they had to make compromises.
The court treated the Hindu and Muslim claims to the temple grounds as equally valid, although the facts suggest otherwise. The Sunni Wakf Board’s based its argument on 460 years of continuous use, while the Hindu groups based their premise of possession on those Hindu idols illegally installed in the mosque in 1949. Worse, the court implicitly legitimized the 1992 attack by accepting as legal fact the Hindu claim that Rama, a figure of uncertain historicity, was born on a particular spot under the mosque. (Interpreting the Hindu calendar strictly, Rama would have been born about 1.7 million years ago.) Eager to grant the Hindu plaintiffs a share of the land and thus proceed with their trifurcation, the judges left the realm of fact for the realm of faith, wrecking the verdict’s credibility.
The high court decision will inevitably be appealed. Muslim groups are, in one newspaper’s genteel phrasing, “miffed” with the verdict, and the Hindu Mahasabha insists it is entitled to all the land. Already, the process of creating political capital out of these disaffections has begun. Advani has declared his 1992 tour vindicated; the BJP’s rival party, the Indian National Congress, which heads the present government, is visibly concerned that Indian Muslims, its traditional electoral allies, feel unjustly treated on its watch. Those who had hoped to glean, from the high court, a bellwether of the maturity of Indian democracy must now wait for the Supreme Court to reveal its decision, and for India’s reaction on that undetermined day.
Subramanian is a deputy editor at Mint, a New Delhi–based newspaper. His first book, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, was published by Penguin in 2010.