The Ayodhya case: How far can we go in protecting religious rights through law?

Updated: Aug 14

By Munira Rajkotwalla  India is a nation fuelled by its belief in God. Many gap year students have ‘found themselves’ amongst the temples, mosques and churches that litter its every street – the land of Gandhian pacifism and so-called secularism. It is ironic then that every year, thousands of people shed blood in the name of religious violence. This violence finds its rhetoric in the concept of ‘religious rights’ and its victims mostly in minority religious groups. In this article, I aim to provide a brief summary of one of the most contested issues of religious rights in India—The Ayodhya Case. After more than two centuries of dispute, a verdict was announced two months ago, on the 9th of November 2019, claiming to be ‘the end of dispute’. This verdict raises pertinent questions regarding the endurance of ‘religious rights’ discourse and the impact it has on minority groups. In 1528, the Mughal Emperor Babur reportedly constructed a mosque on a site in Ayodhya, India. Tradition dictated that this site was the birthplace of Hindu God Ram. This marked the beginning of contestation over whose Holy God had the right over that land. The colonial British administration in 1859 partitioned the area, sanctioning the outer courtyard for Hindus and the inner courtyard for Muslims. In 1949, idols of Ram appeared inside the mosque area of the site. Two religious organisations filed a lawsuit disputing ownership of the land. From 1949 to 1992, ownership of the area remained heavily political and disputed. It became the basis on which some ministers cultivated popular support. A rhetoric emerged, proclaiming the rights of Hindus to the birthplace of Ram. In 1992, Hindu ‘Karsevak’ mobs demolished the mosque, leading to riots across India killing upwards of 2000 people. Muslims, who were seen as ‘the invaders’, were the main victims of these attacks. The dispute divided Indian politics for years to come. The riots endeared—in 2002, 58 Muslims were killed on a train by Hindu extremists. On the 9th of November 2019, the Supreme Court of India issued a final verdict, handing over the land to a Hindu trust for the construction of a temple. As appeasement, a Muslim organisation was offered 5 acres of land in the city to build a mosque. Such a verdict was to be expected, given that the BJP—a formerly Hindu nationalist party—is in power. It does however raise several crucial questions. How do we assess religious or ideological claims over a land? How do we prevent such discourse from being politicised in representative democracies? In the following articles, I hope to explore these questions in relation to the Ayodhya case in more detail. Stay tuned!