On 29 January, the central government moved an application in the Supreme Court seeking permission to handover a part of the land near the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya, which it had acquired in 1993, to its original owners. But the centre’s submissions to the apex court do not stand scrutiny—they falsely identify the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas, a trust floated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to oversee the construction of the temple, as the original owners of the land. The submissions fail to acknowledge that the state government is the owner of the land—which the central government acquired from it in 1993—and that even the state’s initial acquisition of the land is facing legal challenge.
The land in question is approximately 42 acres of a plot measuring 67 acres that the central government had acquired in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu communalists on 6 December 1992. In its application, the central government claimed that the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas is the owner of the 42-acre land. The Nyas, however, is merely a lease-holder of the land, which the Uttar Pradesh government acquired during the late 1980s for developing a “Ram Katha Park” to promote tourism in Ayodhya. On 20 March 1992, the then Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state leased this land to the Nyas—for a rent of one rupee per annum—to develop the Ram Katha Park.
What is more significant is that even the state government’s acquisition of this land is disputed. In 1990, the individuals from whom the Uttar Pradesh government had originally acquired the land challenged the acquisition in the Faizabad district court, claiming that they were not granted proper compensation. Vinit Maurya, a resident of Ayodhya, told me his family was among the original owners whose land was taken by the state government, and that they lost 11 acres due to the acquisition. Of the total land acquired by the state government, “29 acres belonged to 22 original owners who were residents of Ayodhya,” Maurya said. “My family was one of those 22 families.”
Yet, the central government did not mention any of these facts in its application to the Supreme Court. The government relied on the Supreme Court’s 1994 judgment in the case of M Ismail Farooqui vs Union of India, which dealt with a challenge to the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act of 1993, under which the centre had acquired the 67 acres of the land. The court upheld the acquisition, and noted, among other observations, that the “interest claimed by the Muslims is only over the disputed site where the mosque stood before its demolition.” The government has used this in its application to argue that the Babri Masjid stood only on 2.77 acres of the entire land, and that only 0.313 acres of that was under dispute.
However, the court had also held that “the acquisition of the disputed site and surrounding land is to hold the same pending the resolution of the dispute regarding the disputed site.” In 2003, in Mohd Aslam vs Union of India, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court reiterated this aspect of the Ismail Farooqui judgment, holding that the use of the property depended on the “outcome of the litigation in respect of the disputed property.” But the centre appears to look past the court’s previous observations, and argued that the “undisputed land”—excluding the area measuring 0.313 acres—should be handed to the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas. “The Central Government has no objection in principle if the superfluous land is restored to RJB Nyas as well as other owners,” the application states.