India, Original Articles

When gods are subjected to property disputes

The cause célèbre over India’s most litigious case is finally settling as the curtains drop over the Ramjanmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case. Contrary to popular belief, the case is not about Kar Sevaks or RSS/BJP leaders accused of tearing down the Babri Masjid, rather it is just a title dispute where the Allahabad High Court will decide on three issues:

  1. Did a temple exist before the Muslim Mughal king; Babur razed it in 1528 to build the Babri Masjid?
  2. Does the existence of a mosque from 1528 to December 23, 1949 (when idols of Ram, Laxman and Sita were placed in the mosque) give the Muslims the right to ownership over the property?
  3. Does the existence of a functional temple at the site since December 23, 1949 give Hindus the right to ownership over the property?

As the court tinkers with the possible permutations and combinations to pass a judgement, two Indian laws ‘the statutes of limitations’ (maximum time after an event when legal proceedings can be initiated against the event) and the ‘law of adverse possession’ (process by which premises/property can change ownership) are making things intractable.

As per Indian laws, law of adverse possession comes into play if a usurped property remains unchallenged by the original owner for 12 years. If presumed that a temple predated the mosque in 1528, then, since 356 years have passed, the statute of limitations comes into play and entitles the Muslims ownership over the site.

However, also according to Indian laws, the deity in a temple is a ‘perpetual person’ and a minor to whom the statute of limitations do not apply. Therefore, the law of adverse possession will not apply to the idols, which then entitles the ownership of the site to the Hindus.

Interestingly, the law of adverse possession works in reverse when considered in the 1949 incident of Hindu priests entering the structure with the idols and setting up a functional temple. The owner of the site, the Sunni Central Wakf Board, moved court only on December 18, 1961, five days before the 12-year period expired. However, a FIR filed at the Ayodhya police station mentions that Hindu priests were at the temple a week earlier than December 23, 1949. If considered, this signifies that the Wakf Board missed the 12-year deadline by three days and with it, forfeited the right to ownership of the site.

The Ramjanmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case tells a sordid tale of the sceptre of a dead king and the appearance of three stone idols that lay bare, the madness of the human psyche, capable of scourging and pilfering what is called the ‘sacred land’. When judgement day comes, the final decision will be made on how the panel of judges interpret the tortuously charming technicalities of the case.

Let us hope, when that happens, at least the gods wriggle out of this one!