Why you should care
India's Supreme Court just opened the door to cases from every god under the sun.
It’s difficult to defeat a god. But still, it took seven decades of legal fighting for Ram Lalla Virajman, one of Hinduism’s most popular deities, to win the claim he — or at least his faithful on his behalf — made to a piece of land in Northern India that’s been claimed as sacred space by both Muslims and Hindus. The five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India, in their own words, were “tasked with the resolution of a dispute whose origins are as old as the idea of India itself.”
But eventually Lord Ram won his case, which has left a trail of sectarian violence and triggered the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules the country. On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the disputed 2.77-acre site in Ayodhya must be handed over to a trust to begin construction of a temple dedicated to Ram. Muslims, who also lay claim to the site, will be given five acres nearby to build a mosque. That overturned a decade-old judgment that had ordered an even three-way split of the land in question between Muslims, Hindus and Lord Ram himself.
But how can a deity be a legal entity in a country whose constitution explicitly marks it as secular? The Allahabad High Court, which looked at the case before the Supreme Court took over, found that Ram could be considered a “juristic person,” as opposed to a “natural person,” or a regular human being. Previous Indian cases have considered corporations and rivers to be juristic persons. Making Lord Ram a figure in the case gave Hindu nationalist forces a way to stake their claim not just on questions of faith, but in the courts. Going forward, deities are more likely to become litigants in court cases across India, a phenomenon that has already begun, say legal experts.
This case is rooted in a police complaint filed by a resident of Ayodhya, Mohammed Salim, a devotee at one of India’s oldest mosques, in November of 1858. According to Salim, members of a local Hindu Sikh community had gone into the 300-year-old mosque, held a prayer service and left symbols and the word “Ram” written on the walls. The official report the next day verified that Hindus were present in the mosque.
That was the beginning of a court case that would last 161 years, the longest in India’s history, and would have ramifications for Hindus, Muslims, the legal system — and for any other gods who wish to bring a court case.
“The excavation on the site by the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] really helped in the case,” says senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, who, along with legal eagle K. Parasaran, fought the case on behalf of the infant god. While Muslim factions had claimed the historic mosque was built on vacant land, Vaidyanathan explains, “The ASI excavation showed that there was a big, non-Islamic structure, and there were artifacts associated with the Hindus — and that proved to be the turning point.”
Religion was always a big part of this case. But in 1989, gods really got involved: Former Allahabad High Court Judge Deoki Nandan Agarwal added a suit to the already existing legal fight over the sacred ground at Ayodhya, claiming that the land legally belonged to Ram Lalla Virajman, a deity considered a minor for legal purposes because he was supposedly born in Ayodhya and thus laid claim to the land as an infant. The case argued that the whole site must be handed over to his followers for the construction of a new temple.
But how can the hundreds of followers be sure that the petitioner will act in a god’s best interests? He is entitled to one human representative. Hence, in court papers, Triloki Nath Pandey, a devout Ram follower who lives in Ayodhya, was described as the “next friend” of the infant Lord Ram. “To represent God is a glorious job. To think that I was chosen to do this job from among millions of Hindus made me proud and joyful,” he says.
At the time, the three-domed Babri mosque still stood on the site, as it had since the year 1528. But in December of 1992, thousands of ultra-right supporters streamed into Ayodhya, famed as Ram’s birthplace, with chants of “Mandir wahin banayenge.” We will build the temple right there. They demolished the Babri mosque on Dec. 6, triggering sectarian violence that killed an estimated 1,700 people and marked the start of the political rise of the BJP.
Author and former senior advisor to the United Nations Ramesh Thakur estimated that the mosque’s demolition sparked “the worst outbreak of communal violence since partition.”
The verdict is likely to cement the fissures that have deepened in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which help him politically — building the temple has been a BJP poll promise — and rub salt in the wounds of India’s 200 million Muslims.