Lands of the Gods

The colonial roots of the Ayodhya verdict

01 January 2020
The Babri Masjid, depicted in a plate by William Hodges, who visited Oudh at the end of 1783. The mosque was demolished in 1992 by a mob of kar sevaks.
The British Library
The Babri Masjid, depicted in a plate by William Hodges, who visited Oudh at the end of 1783. The mosque was demolished in 1992 by a mob of kar sevaks.
The British Library

The decades-old Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi case has come to be the most intractable property dispute of our times. Most reports locate the starting point of the conflict at 1949, when Hindu idols were surreptitiously placed under the central dome of the Babri Masjid in the dead of the night. Years later, in 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad started the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, mobilising Hindus across the country to build a temple on the disputed site. It ultimately led to the destruction of the mosque by mobs of kar sevaks—religious volunteers—in 1992, and communal bloodletting that left at least two thousand dead.

On 9 November 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court pronounced the eagerly anticipated final verdict on the resulting legal dispute. In a unanimous judgment, the court maintained that it had assessed the conflict primarily as a property dispute, or a title suit. “The dispute is over immovable property,” it stated. “The court does not decide title on the basis of faith or belief but on the basis of evidence. The law provides us with parameters as clear but as profound as ownership and possession.” Despite this exhortation, the court extended itself to hand over property rights over the entire disputed site to “Hindus,” on the premise that Hindu faith decreed that very site to be the birthplace of the epic hero Ram, who lived in the Ayodhya of the mythical Treta Yug.

The judges described the case as an “adjudicatory task of unique dimension.” What this referred to was possibly the complex task of upholding a rational system of jurisprudence around property law in the face of overwhelming religious sentiments that belied nearly five centuries of the subcontinent’s history. And yet, there is almost nothing particularly unique about a case of this nature appearing before an Indian law court. Property claims, especially over sacral structures and spaces, have historically been made both on the basis of archaeological evidence and religious belief.

The coming together of property and religiosity within the courtroom is a legacy of colonial case law between the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth centuries in British India. Before this, most claims over land were overlapping and nebulous, and shrine lands in particular were, and often continued to be, shared spaces patronised by members of more than one religious community. This was a necessary corollary to the heterogeneous nature of people’s religious practices and beliefs. However, with the enforcement of a property regime under the British, the idea gained currency that a piece of land needs to have a clear, established title of ownership—whether vested in an individual, a deity through a trustee, or a group through an institution. Once the prospect of titular, undivided ownership to sacred spaces became a necessity, communities were forced to consolidate themselves into homogenous groups, to stake exclusive claims on shared shrine lands. The unfortunate result of this public politics of the 1920s and 1930s was the constitution of a conservative, xenophobic and hierarchical religious community, with narrowly drawn boundaries premised on hostility with rival groups.

This history is particularly relevant to understanding the Babri conflict, because some disputes over sacred property at this time, such as the Shiv Mandir Agitation of the 1930s, display striking parallels with the Ram Janmabhoomi claim.

Deepasri Baul is an independent researcher working on urban space and public religion. She has a PhD in history from the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.

Keywords: Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid Ayodhya