Traditionally in India, religion and religious values are generally viewed as illegitimate sources from which to draw in the judicial decision-making process.
This thumb rule, which applied nearly wholly in the seven-decade-old Ayodhya case, was delivered a body blow last Saturday when the Supreme Court awarded the bitterly contested religious site in central UP to Hindus, seemingly dealing a defeat to Muslims who have for at least a century or a little more, claimed that the land was equally theirs.
The largely Left and Left–of-Centre media and civil society have been correct in stressing that religion and state policy need to be separated. In this country, that happy trend has indeed taken roots. Unfortunately, over the years, this group has tilted at the windmills making it an article of faith, without displaying any flexibility or without taking into account popular sentiment.
An article of faith
Before we jump to unwanted conclusions drawing parallels with early twentieth century Germany, Italy or Spain, it would be instructive to remember that religious faith, if it were to be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny as Ayodhya was, could lead to cataclysmic consequences.
Clearly, religion is an article of faith. Can there be possibly any evidence of the kind demanded by some quarters about Rama’s birth place in Ayodhya? It is akin to asking for `evidence’ of Jesus Christ’s birth at Bethlehem or the flight of Prophet Muhammad on a winged horse-pony to heaven. Such proof cannot be asked because none exists. For billions of believers, it is purely a question of conviction. They believe in the little hut at Bethlehem and the great Prophet’s flight, and so be it. Surely, no piece of municipal document, as demanded by some in the Supreme Court and the High Court, can be produced to establish Ram’s birthplace at Ayodhya.
What has been used as evidence to prove Ram’s birthplace are medieval India’s land records, court records, oral traditions, travellers’ account and different versions of Ramayana, all of which have been taken cognisance of or disproved by the apex court.
Some points, however, emerge clearly enough. There is no evidence that any pro-Babri group has continued occupation of that site since 1528, the year of the alleged demolition of the Ram temple by Babur’s military commander. The first major evidence of the existence of the Ram temple comes from an English merchant, William Finch, who travelled to India during the reign of Mughal emperor, Jehangir. He was among the earliest witnesses to the location of the Ramjanmabhoomi. His accounts talk of Brahmins and Indian pilgrims, who thronged the site, but make no mention of the existence of a mosque or, indeed, any Muslim presence at all.
The second major evidence comes from a Jesuit priest, Joseph Tiefenthaler, who came to Ayodhya a few years after Finch. He gives graphic descriptions of large crowd of pilgrims who came to do
parikrama (clockwise movement) around the Ram Cradle, during Ramnavami.
Revenue records of the British period document the site as the Ramjanmasthan and there is no mention of Babri Masjid. ASI excavations mention evidence of a religious place that goes back to second millennium BC. There are many similar evidences, which have been presented during the course of the lengthy litigation.
The American view of law is slightly different from the British, from where Indian laws originate, almost in toto. Authors of the US Constitution, including those highly skeptical of the truth of traditional theistic religion, did not doubt that the validity of the legal system itself depended on the validity of religious faith.
Religiously informed answers
Founding era American statesmen such as George Washington, John Adams, and even Thomas Jefferson, father of the somewhat hackneyed "wall of separation" theory, all envisioned the new nation as being overseen by God.
Kent Greenawalt, famous University Professor at Columbia Law School in the US, offers this imminently viable interpretation: “A good many professors and other intellectuals display a hostility or skeptical indifference to religion that amounts to a thinly disguised contempt for belief in any reality beyond that discoverable by scientific inquiry and ordinary human experience.”
For a judge to interpret a legal position where in the resolution of the issue – as in the case of Ayodhya – there is no clear guidance from the statute itself, he may in such circumstances find it necessary to rely on his religiously informed answers to what is right. The Supreme Court of India seems to have done just that last week.
Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist and former Visiting Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.