Within a day after the Supreme Court cancelled a hearing on the Ayodhya land dispute, which was scheduled for 29 January, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has once again gone into campaign mode on the issue. The Supreme Court's notification cancelling the hearing cited an unavoidable reason: the unavailability of one of the judges — Justice SA Bobde — of the five-judge Constitution Bench. That hasn't seemed to deter the attempts at brinkmanship.
This time around, the difference is that it is the BJP-led government that is pushing the envelope now, while it had earlier left matters to the party and other members of the Sangh Parivar. On Monday, the central government filed an additional plea in the apex court, requesting that an earlier order on 67 acres of land surrounding the disputed site (0.313 acres), which was acquired by the government in 1993, be lifted.
The Centre's writ petition maintains that the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas had sought the return of this "excess" land to it. In 2003, the Supreme Court had ordered that the status quo be maintained on this 67-acre plot. Now, the Centre has pleaded that the status quo order be lifted and the land be returned to its "original" owners — the Nyas, a trust formed to promote and oversee the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.
Before getting to the political aspects of the case, a few technicalities must be disposed of. The Centre acquired the land in 1993, the same year the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had set up the trust specifically to build a temple at the disputed site. The trust had sought the return of the 67 acres to the 'original' owners. The BJP government at the Centre is now echoing this view. But given the timeline, it brings into question how the nyas can be the 'original' owner.
The second is that the land was acquired in 1993, incidentally by a Congress government. Why has this government suddenly popped up 28 years or so later seeking the reversal of a 15-year-old order so it can "return" the land to the trust? After all, that is what will happen if the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, indeed, owns it. The court will just lift the order decreeing that the status quo verdict be withdrawn, and the BJP government will gift the land to the nyas. While arguing its case, it must specify the grounds on which this gift is to be made, or present cogent arguments in favour of the construal that the trust is the "original" owner.
That, of course, is where the political context comes in. The BJP and the government is desperate to have a verdict delivered on the Ayodhya case in time for its campaign for the impending elections. That is clearly why Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, on Monday, said the Ayodhya case should be disposed of as early as possible and be heard on a priority basis. Prasad did clarify that he was speaking as a citizen, but that's bunkum. The law minister of the country does not speak on such politically and judicially sensitive matters as an ordinary citizen of the country.
Prasad was reacting explicitly to the cancellation of the hearing. It is quite clear by now that the BJP leadership has despaired of a verdict arriving at their headquarters in time to boost their communal plank. With the cancellation of the 29 January hearing and an announcement on a rescheduled one uncertain as far as timing goes, any hopes that a verdict will be delivered 'in time' seems dead in the water. Why the BJP has been assuming, as it seems to have been doing, that the verdict, whenever it is passed, will be favourable for its political project, is a different question altogether.
Failing a timely verdict, the BJP is prepared to employ any stratagem to bypass it. For the past few months, the central government has been under the cosh with regard to the construction of a Ram temple at the very spot where Lord Ram was putatively born in Ayodhya. It has been under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, various cousins in the Sangh Parivar, ally Shiv Sena and the BJP itself to promulgate an ordinance or pass a law to build the temple.
By now, it has possibly figured out that that particular demand is meaningless. The Ayodhya case is essentially a property dispute. All that the Supreme Court will do is pronounce a verdict on the contending claims by revisiting the Allahabad High Court order of 2010. It doesn't have to say anything about a temple or a mosque. What can the Centre hope to achieve by promulgating an ordinance or passing a law? Pretty much nothing. What it can do is acquire the land and build a temple there. The problem is that until the Supreme Court decides on the title, it can't even acquire the land because it will not know whom to acquire it from, which leaves the BJP and its government in a bind.
This is precisely why it has filed this new petition. Politically, the BJP is probably guessing that it is on a sticky wicket. Its hopes of returning to power with a majority have vanished. Even the National Democratic Alliance's hopes of getting a majority seem remote. Faced with an Opposition that is gaining momentum, and parties stitching up regional alliances, the ruling party's prospects look bleak. It sees the Ram temple as its electoral deus ex machina, never mind that the Ayodhya issue doesn't look like it has much traction.
But what does it hope to achieve by giving this land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas if the court lifts the order on the status quo? What will probably happen is that all kinds of construction related to the putative Ram temple will begin at the disputed spot. Huge crowds will likely congregate there. And the BJP will be able to claim that work on the temple has begun and its promise has been fulfilled.
It's a desperate gamble because even if they get a favourable order, the Opposition will be able to point out that this is sham electoral symbolism. That it is also dangerous brinkmanship is another matter, and there is no guarantee that it will go down well with a discerning electorate.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 16:31:40 IST