Ayodhya dispute: A saffron twist

Ayodhya dispute: A saffron twist

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Muslims offering prayers in the mosque at Feroz Shah Kotla fort in New Delhi.

The Sangh Parivar interprets the Supreme Court’s verdict declining to revisit its 1994 observations about the place of mosques in Islam as a major step towards obtaining legal approval for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, but Muslim organisations are planning to seek a judicial review of the order.

The capabilities of the propaganda machinery of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar to twist and turn any development or fact into a narrative that suits its political and social agenda—be it short, medium or long term—is time-tested. This attribute has once again come to the fore through the Sangh Parivar’s voluble interpretations of the Supreme Court’s September 27 majority verdict on a petition seeking to refer to a larger, five-judge Constitution Bench the question whether a “mosque as a place of prayer is an essential part of Islam”. The bench made it clear that it was addressing only this limited question and that it had no bearing on other legal proceedings on the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, including the crucial title dispute. However, sections of the Sangh Parivar, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar, have started depicting the verdict as a major step towards obtaining legal approval for the construction of a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid existed until it was demolished on December 6, 1992.

To put the September 27 verdict into perspective, it is a judgment on one appeal in the many related cases that have come up along with the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute but has no direct link to the original title dispute case. The appeal was essentially based on a 1994 judgment of the Supreme Court, which incidentally was made on legal challenges raised by one Ismail Faruqui to the government acquisitions of land in Ayodhya, particularly land in which mosque(s) stood, first in 1992 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh led by Kalyan Singh and later in 1993 by the Congress government at the Centre led by P.V. Narasimha Rao. Some of these government acquisition moves had targeted plots on which the Babri Masjid stood. The 1994 judgment of the Supreme Court in the Ismail Faruqui case had held that the offering of prayers in a mosque was not an essential feature of Islam and hence government acquisitions of land where mosques stood had legal sanction. The September 27 judgment was made on a plea by a number of Muslims seeking to refer these observations to a larger bench. The plea was apparently based on the perception that the 1994 judgment might have an adverse impact on Muslims’ claims on the Babri Masjid in the original title dispute case.

Dismissing the plea to revisit the 1994 observations, Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Ashok Bhushan, who together constituted the majority in the bench, categorically stated that the observations about the place of a mosque in Islam were limited to the context of acquisition of land by the government and had no bearing on the title suit in the Ayodhya matter.

In keeping with its seasoned political-organisational practices, the Sangh Parivar has sought to overlook this pointed clarification by the apex court and to present the verdict as a major milestone in the Hindutva march in relation to the Ayodhya dispute. The most striking political gambit in this vein was from Indresh Kumar, who likened the verdict to the one given by the Supreme Court on the triple talaq issue in August. “As in the case of triple talaq in which India and the world is congratulating the court and the judges on liberating 8.5 crore Muslim women from the clutches of injustice, the court will solve the Ayodhya problem too and create history. All these are processes in the path of such solutions. All these are bound to strengthen the faith of the people in the judicial system,” he said.

Kumar’s interpretation of the September 27 verdict was picked up almost simultaneously by Yogi Adityanath, who said that the judgment gave hope that the whole Ayodhya issue would get a solution from the judiciary soon. In the days following this, RSS sarsangachalak Mohan Bhagawat kept up a steady rhetoric on clearing the legal hurdles in the construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. “The building of a Ram mandir will end a major issue of friction between Hindus and Muslims. And if it is done amicably, it will automatically silence those who point fingers at the Muslim community.” Bhagawat has used this refrain, marked by unconcealed condescension and subtle intimidation, in many public meetings since the last week of September.

Speaking to Frontline from Ayodhya, Khaliq Ahmad Khan, a social activist associated with the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), said that this sort of rhetorical build-up on one or the other national development was almost always accompanied by an upping of the ante on the ground in Ayodhya with concerted programmes to raise the Ram temple demand aggressively. “It is bound to erupt any time now, since the atmosphere is being built up,” he said. He was also of the view that the sort of control the Sangh Parivar managed to have on significant sections of the media had greatly restricted an involved and sensible public discourse on the finer details of the September 27 verdict, including the dissenting judgment of Justice S. Abdul Nazeer.

December 6, 1992: Hindu fundamentalists atop the Babri Masjid five hours before the structure was demolished. Photo: AFP

 Dissenting judgment

Justice Nazeer was of the view that the 1994 observations needed to be referred to a larger bench. In his judgment, he observed that the question of what was essential or not in a religion could not be decided in haste. Rather, the question raised on the essentiality of offering prayers in mosques should be examined by a seven-judge bench before the Ayodhya suit appeals were heard. “What is essential or not in a religion can be decided only after studying tenets, beliefs and doctrines,” Justice Nazeer held, adding that the comment had to be examined against the background of the fundamental right against discrimination guaranteed in Article 15 and the protection guaranteed to practice, profess and propagate religion in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. He felt that the seven-judge bench should also answer questions whether offering prayers in places of worship of “particular significance” alone was protected under the right to freedom of religion under the Constitution.

The view held by Chief Justice Misra and Justice Bhushan was that “all mosques, all churches and temples are significant for the community” but “no place of worship, be it a temple, church or mosque, is immune from acquisition”. They reiterated that the 1994 judgment merely wanted to convey that mosques had no special immunity from acquisition. On their part, the appellants, represented by the senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan, pointed out that the Supreme Court had not looked at original Islamic sources about the significance of a mosque while proclaiming the 1994 judgment.

Khaliq Khan told Frontline that the same oversight was manifest in the September 27 majority verdict, too. He and several other BMAC activists from different parts of Uttar Pradesh added that this oversight was a major point of discussion in the Muslim community across India. Frontline’s interactions with several Muslim scholars and activists underscored this observation.

Mohammad Salim Engineer, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, said: “If you go back in time, you will realise that a mosque is indeed central to the existence of Islam. When the Prophet went to Madina, first a mosque was raised there, then the city developed around it. When the honourable judges stated that namaz can be offered even in the open, they were right, but one must realise that provision for offering namaz in the open, at railway stations or an airport, is for specific circumstances when a mosque is not available. Wherever you will find Muslims, you will find mosques. A Muslim cannot live without mosque.” The point was reiterated by Muhibullah Nadwi, chief Imam of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi. He stated: “Prayers by congregation are mentioned multiple times in the Quran. And there is the tradition established by the Prophet Muhammad himself of calling people for prayer, through azaan. How does one call people for prayer if there is no mosque?”

Indeed, an invitation to attend the daily prayers is issued five times a day from every mosque. In other words, people are supposed to gather at the mosque at least five times a day. In Islamic history, the mosque has been central to a believer’s life. It has not been merely a place for conducting rituals or doing worship. It has been a place for dialogue, debate, even guidance on emerging socio-political and economic problems.

In fact, the concept of the weekly Friday sermon started with the intention to guide the community about day-to-day challenges. That is why, while in the actual prayer, only Arabic verses from the Quran are recited; the sermon is usually delivered in the local language. For instance, mosques in north India often present an Urdu translation of the sermon, while those in Tamil Nadu restrict themselves to Tamil. In the month of Ramzan, in which the Quran was revealed, special prayers are held every evening in all mosques. This taravih prayer is in addition to daily prayers. In the last 10 days of the month, every mosque is supposed to host at least one—it may go up to hundreds—pilgrim for 10 days and nights. The practice is called itikaaf. The person concerned spends his time in collective prayer during the day and total solitude at night. Without a mosque, itikaaf is not possible. There is a hadith of the Prophet wherein believers are encouraged to stand in the first row for prayer in a mosque. Also, many mosques are linked to Islamic seminaries.

‘Establishing prayer’

The scholars are on a sound footing. Nowhere does the Quran ask believers to say the daily compulsory prayers in solitude or even to merely offer prayers. Instead, in 86 places, the Quran asks the faithful to establish prayer. “One can establish prayer only through congregation, not by offering namaz in solitude,” reiterated Engineer. Wherever the holy book talks of giving charity, it talks of establishing prayer. Although the judgment states that namaz can be offered anywhere, the Quran is categorical about the unique status of the mosque in Islam. Verse 18 of “Surah Taubah”, says: “The mosques of Allah are only to be maintained by those who believe in Allah and the Last Day and establish prayer and give zakah and do not fear except Allah, for it is expected that those will be of the (rightly) guided.” It effectively rules out the possibility of state maintenance of mosques or proprietorship over mosque land. Similarly, Verse 114 of “Surah Baqarah”, the longest chapter in the Quran, says: “And who are more unjust than those who prevent the name of Allah from being mentioned in His mosques and strive toward their destruction. It is not for them to enter them except in fear. For them in this world is disgrace, and they will have in the Hereafter a great punishment.”

Not surprisingly, the leaders of the Muslim community believe that a review of the judgment is the need of the hour. “We strongly urge all to reconsider this hastily pronounced judgment. Some people may try to misuse it and try to link it to the Babri Masjid case. If the essentiality of the mosque to Islam is to be decided, it has to be done through a thorough understanding of the tenets of the faith,” Engineer said.

As this discussion gathers momentum within the Muslim community, there are signs that several organisations and individuals are exploring ways and means to seek a judicial review. At the same time, efforts on the part of the Hindutva combine and its leading organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the three main litigants in the original title dispute case at Ayodhya, are not exactly on a judicial framework. Following their own game plan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the VHP and other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar were able to bring about the demolition of the Babri Masjid and are now clearly evolving structured moves to restart their Ayodhya campaign on the ground. What concrete forms these moves will take are to be seen. But, evidently, twisted interpretations of the developments in the judiciary, including the September 27 verdict, are bound to become instruments in this power game.

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