Shri Ram janmabhoomi: Reconciling truth & secularism

The Bhoomi Pujan ceremony performed at the Shri Ramjanmabhoomi in Ayodhya two days ago has predictably evoked diametrically opposite reactions from various quarters. These reactions include celebrations by those who succeeded in proving their case before the Allahabad High Court as well as the highest Court of the land after struggling for half a millennium to secure justice in their civilizational homeland, and scurrilous allegations being hurled against the watchdog of the Constitution by those who failed to prove their case at every level. Ironically, the ideals personified by Lord Ram and valued by the Indic Civilization are being cited by those who are opposed to the construction of the Temple dedicated to Lord Ram even after the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the case of the Temple’s proponents.

 As expected, secularism has been conveniently pressed into service by the usual dramatis personae to contend that the Bhoomi Pujan marks the death of secular ethos of India. To add to this, the demolition of the disputed structure in December 1992 has also been marshalled to question the validity of the Supreme Court’s judgement and the legitimacy of the construction of the Temple in Ayodhya.

In this author’s view, this is a textbook case of conflation of several issues to present a narrative which is factually, legally and civilizationally untenable. First, the legal proceedings with respect to ownership of the Site at Ayodhya which culminated into the judgement of the Supreme Court in November 2019 were initiated in 1950 i.e. 42 years before the demolition of the disputed structure in 1992. Also, legally speaking, the issue of demolition of the structure has no bearing whatsoever on the question of ownership of the Site. At best, it gives rise to a separate proceeding, which is currently pending, for interference with the Site and for violation of judicial orders which directed status quo during the pendency of the dispute over ownership. Therefore, to conflate the question of ownership which was initiated in 1950, with the demolition of the disputed structure in 1992 is to conveniently mispresent the timeline as well as the legal position.

Second, those who raise the issue of demolition of the structure in 1992 must also come clean on the constant shifting of goalposts which the case saw- from dismissing the existence of a Temple underneath the disputed structure prior to the excavation of the Site by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the directions of the Allahabad High Court in 2003, to questioning the historicity of Lord Ram after the ASI’s findings revealed the existence of a Temple underneath the disputed structure, every possible attempt was made to change the narrative and to deny irrefutable facts.

 In fact, when the ASI’s report revealed that the demolished Temple’s pillars were used for the construction of the disputed structure in the 1500s, the new argument that was set up was that of “architectural reuse” i.e. it was contended that the Temple was not demolished to build the disputed structure in its place, instead it was merely an established practice to use the debris of pre-existing religious structures to construct new places of worship. Not only was this specious argument sought to be applied to the Site in Ayodhya, it was also extended to the thousands of other similarly placed religious Sites which are proof of occupation of indigenous places of worship, Kashi and Mathura being glaring cases in point.

 What must also be placed before the Court of public opinion is the intense opposition to the Allahabad High Court’s direction to the ASI to excavate the Site in Ayodhya to examine if there was indeed any Hindu Temple or Hindu religious structure underneath the disputed non-Hindu structure. The Full Bench of the Allahabad High Court originally directed the ASI on August 1, 2002 to survey the Site. However, questions were raised as to the impartiality and integrity of the ASI by those opposed to the Temple, and therefore, the High Court directed representation by both communities in the functioning of the ASI at the Site as well as in the engagement of workforce for excavation. In the interest of transparency, the High Court further permitted the representatives of both parties and their lawyers to be present during the course of excavation by the ASI, and the ASI was directed to photograph and videograph the excavation. The High Court went to the extent of appointing two experienced Judicial Officers to observe the entire process and to ensure compliance of the Court’s orders.

It is under such rigorous and transparent conditions that the excavation was undertaken by the ASI from March 12, 2003 to August 7, 2003 and the final report was filed on August 22, 2003. In all, 90 trenches were excavated which revealed pillar bases, structures, floors and foundation. Following are a few excerpts from the ASI Report which established the existence of Temple underneath the disputed structure:

 “The aforesaid pillars and other decorative architectural members of this site like fragment of broken jamb with semicircular pilaster (Pl.85), fragment of lotus medallion motif (Pls.89-90) emphatically speak about their association with the temple architecture. Stylistically, these architectural members in general and pillars in particular may be placed in a time bracket of tenth-twelfth Century A.D. It is also pertinent to note that there are a few architectural members (Pls.92-94), which can clearly be associated with the Islamic architecture on stylistic ground, which might belong to sixteenth century A.D. onwards.. …Now, viewing in totality and taking into account the archaeological evidence of massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural phases from the tenth century onwards upto the construction of the disputed structure along with the yield of stone and decorated bricks as well as mutilated sculpture of divine couple and carved architectural members including foliage patterns, amalaka, kapotapali doorjamb with semi-circular pilaster, broken octagonal shaft of black schist pillar, lotus motif, circular shrine having pranala (waterchute) in the north, fifty pillar bases in association of the huge structure, are indicative of remains which are distinctive features found associated with the temples of north India.

 It is quite apparent that in due course of time the height of the Ram chabutra was further raised in two phases first having three levels of calcrete blocks mixed with brick-bats, terracotta objects and potsherds of earlier period set in like-surkhi mortar, each level divided by well plastered surface. Finally, on the top, four courses of lakhauri bricks, brick-bats of earlier bricks set in like- surkhi mortar, were laid, probably during the late Mughal period over which cement plaster was done at a later date in which were fixed memorial or decorative slabs as evident from the impressions available over the plaster (Pl.19). Thus the minimum height of the structure was found to be no less than 7.40 m. In the extended part of the Ram Chabutra in the west its retaining wall has damaged the pillar bases 30, 33, 36, 39 and 42 of the Period VII. (Fig.3B)

 During the excavation 62 human and 131 animal figurines were found. In the consonance with the prevailing practice in the Gangetic valley, these figurines are the products of both handmade as well as moulding techniques. These terracottas are assignable from the preMauryan to the previous century. They are both religious as well as secular, the former being represented as cult objects viz. mother-goddess.

 In the ASI’s report Vol. II Plate 67 is photograph of “Garud- dhwaj” Plate No. 88 is photograph of “Srivatsa”. These religious symbols of the Hindu Temple have been found during excavation at disputed site in Ayodhya. In Sri Bhagawat-Puran. 1.18.16; Sri Mahabharat Anushasan Parva.149. 51 & Shanti-parva Garuddhwaj have been mentioned as one of the thousand names of the Lord of Universe Sri Vishnu which means in the Flag of Lord Vishnu emblem of Garud finds place. In Sri Valmiki Ramayana Yuddh-Kanda.111.13 & 132; Sri Mahabharat| Anushasan Parva.149.77; Sri Ramcharitamanas Balkanda.146.6 Sri Vatsa has been mentioned as a holy mark on the chest of the Lord of Universe Sri Vishnu. Finding of these holy religious symbols related to the Lord of Universe Sri Vishnu leaves no doubt that the structure in question was a Vaishnav Temple.”

 Against such clear findings of the ASI’s comprehensive report, the Sunni Waqf Board filed its objections through its experts, which was responded to by the experts of the Temple side. Following was the sum and substance of the objection raised by the Sunni Waqf Board, as captured in the judgement of the High Court:

“The ASI department is under the control of Central Government. At that time the then Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Bajpayee, Deputy Prima Minister Sri L.K. Advani and HRD Minister Sri M.M. Joshi all were of the BJP as such the ASI excavation team acted under their instruction and behest. As such said report being biased and mala fide is liable to be rejected.”

 After discussing the report of the ASI and its findings in detail, the High Court dismissed the allegations of bias as baseless. Following are a few excerpts from the High Court’s judgement:

“There is nothing on record to show that the report was biased. The massive structure theory was not based on imagination. Evidence of bones found from different levels postulate the fact that Hindus also used to perform sacrifices of animals to please the Gods. About pillar bases there is nothing on record to suggest as to how the construction can be disbelieved. The main thrust of the plaintiffs (the Sunni Waqf Board in Suit No. 4) is that there was a structure which was not a Hindu religious structure is not believable for the reasons that certain images were found on the spot were there. Hundreds of artefacts which find mention in the report were recovered during the excavation that denote the existence of Hindu religious structure.

The only objection that has come prominently from the side of plaintiff (Sunni Waqf Board) is that A.S.I. team has worked under the pressure of the Central Government. It has nowhere been mentioned that who was the person in Central Government exercising any influence over 14 members team that excavated the site. The bald allegations cannot be accepted.

 Sri Haji Mahboob Ahmad, D.W. 6/1-1 has failed to substantiate his allegations. He has not adduced any evidence in support of his contention as to who was the person interested in the Central Government and exercising influence over A.S.I. team.

Thus, on conjectures and on false allegations a scientific report submitted by a team which was working under the direct control of this Court, cannot be supposed to act under the influence of any Government or any person. It is a databased report. Videography and photograph were also conducted during excavation. On behalf of the plaintiffs, it has not been suggested that the report is against any of the videography film or photography film. These films are preserved. Thus, without any material on record, it cannot be said, at this stage, that the version of Sri Hazi Mahboob Ahmad, DW-6/1-1 may be accepted as truthful.

 The excavation report of the ASI is a scientific report of experts against whom bias and malafide has not been proved. Accordingly, it has been relied upon as a piece of evidence on the basis of the case law referred to above.

..on the basis of the report, it can conclusively be held that the disputed structure was constructed on the site of old structure after the demolition of the same. There is sufficient evidence to this effect that the structure was a Hindu massive religious structure.”

 A reading of the judgement of the High Court makes it abundantly clear that allegation after allegation of bias was levelled against even expert statutory bodies without any shred of evidence despite every procedure laid down by the High Court in the interest of transparency being observed by everyone under the supervision of judicial officers. In a nutshell, allegation, evasion and obfuscation exemplify the history of the Ayodhya dispute, which ought to have been long resolved, at least after the judgement of the High Court in 2010. Similar allegations are now being levelled after the verdict of the Supreme Court despite the Court granting 5 acres of land i.e. almost twice the size of the disputed area, to the losing party which is unprecedented in any property matter.

This warrants a few questions. While every party to a legal proceeding has the right to express its displeasure with a verdict within the bounds of the law, what remains of the moral authority of a party which has constantly shifted its positions, to now grandstand from the tried and tested soapbox of secularism? Is secularism the be-all and end-all of the Constitution? Or are facts, truth and justice to be valued more than the slippery slope and trope of secularism which acquires a new definition and hue with each passing day? What exactly is the nature of this brand of secularism and what are its limits? Is it secular to label one particular outcome in a legal proceeding as unsecular? If so, should Courts forego rules of evidence and commitment to facts, and instead rely on such skewed definitions of secularism to decide such disputes?

 Bharat has civilizationally valued secularism in its own way, which enables people of different faith systems to practice their faiths, and even atheists to profess their conscience without hindrance. Independent Bharat is a successor to this tradition. After all, it cannot be any reasonable person’s case that Bharat, which provided refuge and shelter to persecuted Jews and Parsis even before it became a Republic, was less secular until the insertion of the word in the Preamble pursuant to the 42nd amendment to the Constitution in 1976. If that were not the case, should the framers of the Constitution and all dispensations between 1947 and 1976, including the Nehruvian, be deemed unsecular and antisecular merely because the Preamble did not contain the word secular?

No version of secularism offers a carte blanche to play footsie with facts, nor can it ever be the basis to deny history and justice. Bharat’s commitment is above all to Dharma, which, to the extent the English language can accommodate the concept, translates to righteous and moral conduct, not religion. And by patiently awaiting the verdict of the Supreme Court after struggling to have their voices heard for over 500 years to reclaim one of their Holiest Sites, the adherents of this civilization have abundantly demonstrated their commitment to truth, justice and secularism.

J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of Indian and the High Court of Delhi.

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