The Supreme Court has stopped the Allahabad high court from delivering its much-awaited verdict on the case over the ownership of the disputed site at Ayodhya on Friday, making a tiny room for a last-gasp attempt for a highly improbable negotiated settlement to the temple versus mosque tangle.
The matter is to be taken up by the SC on Tuesday; that is, just three days before Justice D V Sharma, one of the three judges on the HC Bench that has reserved the verdict, retires. Any deferment beyond October 1 will be fraught with the prospect of the long-drawn title suit having to be heard afresh by a new Bench. Pending the HC verdict, the status quo on the disputed site with a makeshift temple will continue. “The status quo will continue on the land, what else?” quickly responded the SC, when a counsel sought to know the consequence of the HC verdict being deferred beyond Justice Sharma’s retirement.
The interim order of the apex court, passed despite a divergence between Justices R V Raveendran and H L Gokhale, is unprecedented. Never before has a case on the verge of being decided by a high court after tortuous proceedings spanning decades been postponed.
Given the conflict of opinion, the matter will be heard on September 28 by a three-judge bench to be constituted by the Chief Justice of India. Justices Raveendran and Gokhale mentioned this in their interim order.
The larger Bench could be formed either by adding one more judge to the one that heard the matter on Thursday, or by bringing fresh faces.
Justices Raveendran and Gokhale issued notices to other 27 parties to the title suits, as well as to attorney-general G E Vahanvati, whose assistance in the complex issue has been requisitioned.
The sharp difference of opinion was on display on Thursday, with Justice Raveendran expressing scepticism that the issue which has defied resolution for decades could be settled through negotiations. His peer, Justice Gokhale, however, seemed to concur with the argument of senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi that a fresh effort for an out-of-court settlement will be worth a try, even at this hour and despite the slimmest possibility of a breakthrough.
SC’s intervention on a deferment plea of Ramesh Chandra Tripathi came as a surprise to leading lawyers Soli J Sorabjee and Shanti Bhushan.
While agreeing with Tripathi’s plea for deferment, Justice Gokhale reasoned: “If there is even one percent chance of a negotiated settlement to the vexed issue in litigation for the last 60 years, it should be given a try as any adverse consequence flowing from the judgment would affect not only the parties to the suits but lives of millions of ordinary citizens.”
In response to arguments opposing postponement, he said that there was a real fear of the HC verdict leading to a law and order problem. “There is no imagination involved. We know about these things from past experience. There is a variety of possibilities. Why not give it a try, even if there is mere one per cent chance of success.”
Justice Raveendran did not agree. He did not buy into the argument that the verdict, when it is delivered, could unleash, as in 1992, a “catastrophe”. Nor was he sanguine about the success of fresh negotiations.
Justice Raveendran pointed out to Rohatgi that it would be a fallacy to underestimate the maturity of the citizens and think that they would react differently to the HC verdict. “Religious passions are raised when people at the helm of affairs raise it. If you people do not raise it then everything will remain normal,” he said expressing his reservations towards entertaining Tripathi’s appeal.
As for the argument that a last-ditch attempt for a settlement was desirable, Justice Raveendran told Rohatgi, “For 50 years you have not been able to settle it. Hundreds of opportunities have been squandered. Is this a publicity seeking stunt?”
Rohatgi, however, stood his ground. He also questioned the depiction of his client by counsel for Mahant Dharam Das and Sunni Waqf Board, Ravishankar Prasad and Anoop Chaudhary, respectiely, as an “interloper” who did not even bother to attend the hearing of the title suits. Rohatgi argued that it was not a private dispute between the parties but something that transcended to touch the lives of millions of voiceless ordinary citizens, who alone would suffer if anything goes wrong because of the verdict. He said that by giving negotiated settlement a chance, the apex court could provide a “healing touch”.
The Bench was struck by the unusual unity displayed by the counsel for opponents in the title suit — Mahant Das and the Waqf Board. Their combined opposition to the deferment plea led the Bench to remark, “If both sides could show such understanding to sit down for a negotiated settlement.”
It was Justice Gokhale who turned the course of hearing by forcefully stressing the need for giving negotiations one last chance. When one counsel said that SC could attempt a negotiated settlement after the HC gave its verdict, Justice Gokhale observed that stances usually get hardened after the judgement and so it was better to try the negotiated settlement option prior to the judgment. “If it comes to the Supreme Court, it will then decide the issue on merits,” he added.
He further said: “The consequence of the HC judgment will be suffered not only by the parties to the title suit but mainly by millions of ordinary people. We and you are aware of the history. Someday, the judgment has to come. But, if we do not give the last attempt for negotiated settlement, and if something goes wrong tomorrow, then you will be the first person to blame the Supreme Court for being insensitive to the petitioner’s request.”