Decoding the Ayodhya Judgement- Part 4
On 1 July 1989, a Suit (Suit 5) was brought before the Civil Judge, Faridabad by the deity (Bhagwan Shri Ram Virajman) and the birth-place (Asthan Shri Ram Janam Bhumi, Ayodhya), through a next friend for a declaration of title to the disputed premises and to restrain the defendants from interfering with or raising any objection to the construction of a temple. Suit 5 was tried with the other suits.
Analysis of the Supreme Court on Fifth Suit
For the devotees of Lord Ram, the first plaintiff in Suit 5, “Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman” was the embodiment of Lord Ram and constitutes the resident deity of Ram Janmabhumi. The oral and documentary evidence showed that the Hindu devotees of Lord Ram hold a genuine, long standing and profound belief in the religious merit attained by offering prayer to Lord Ram at the site they believe to be his birth-place.
Evidence has been led by the plaintiffs in Suit 5 to show a long practice of Hindu worship to Lord Ram at the disputed site. The travel logs of Joseph Tieffenthaler in the eighteenth century and Robert Montgomery Martin in the early nineteenth century record the prevalence of Hindu worship at the disputed site. They also reference special occasions such as Ram Navmi during which Hindu devotees converged upon the Janmasthan from distant areas motivated by the desire to offer prayer to Lord Ram.
The continued faith and belief of the Hindu devotees in the existence of the Janmasthan below the three domed structure is evidenced by the activities of the Nirmohis, individual devotees such as Nihang Singh and the endless stream of Hindu devotees over the years who visited the disputed site. This is testament to the long-held belief in the sanctity of the disputed site as a place of worship for the Hindu religion. The factum of Hindu belief in the sanctity of the disputed site is established by evidence.
Recognising Bhagwan Shri Ram Virajman as legal person
For the purposes of recognising a legal person, the relevant inquiry is the purpose to be achieved by such recognition. To the extent such purpose is achieved, the form or corpus of the object upon which legal personality is conferred is not a matter of substance but merely a question of form. As observed by Salmond, so long as the conferral of legal personality serves the purpose sought to be achieved, legal personality may even be conferred on an abstract idea.
In the case of Hindu idols, legal personality is not conferred on the idol simpliciter but on the underlying pious purpose of the continued worship of the deity as incarnated in the idol. Where the legal personality is conferred on the purpose of a deity’s continued worship, moving or destroying the idol does not affect its legal personality. The legal personality vests in the purpose of continued worship of the idol as recognised by the court. It is for the protection of the continued worship that the law recognises this purpose and seeks to protect it by the conferral of juristic personality.
In addition to the continued worship of the deity, legal personality is conferred on Hindu idols to provide courts with a conceptual framework within which to practically adjudicate disputes involving competing claims over disputed property endowed to or appurtenant to Hindu idols.
In order to adjudicate disputes, the court locates a site of jural relations to determine proprietary claims, maladministration by shebaits and protect the interests of devotees. The law thus protects the properties of the idol even absent the establishment of a specific or express trust. In the proceedings before us, the legal rights and properties of the first plaintiff in Suit 5 were in dispute.
In the present case, the first plaintiff has been the object of worship for several hundred years and the underlying purpose of continued worship is apparent even absent any express dedication or trust. The existence of the idol is merely a question of form, or corpus, and the legal personality of the first plaintiff is not dependent on the continued existence of the idol. At the heart of the present dispute are questions pertaining to the rightful manager of the deity and the access of the devotees of Lord Ram to the idols.
To ensure the legal protection of the underlying purpose and practically adjudicate upon the dispute, the legal personality of the first plaintiff is recognised.
Asthan Sri Ram Janam Bhoomi
- K Parasaran, Counsel appearing on behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 urged that the second plaintiff is a juristic person. He submitted that in Hindu Law the concept of a juridical person is not limited to idols. According to Mr Parasaran, the relevant question is whether prayer is offered to the deity and not the form in which the deity appears.
It was contended that “Asthan Sri Ram Janam Bhoomi” is an object of worship and personifies the spirit of the divine. The faith of the devotees regards the land as a deity and prayer is offered to it. Hence, it was on this basis that the plaintiffs in Suit 5 submit that this court must confer juristic personality on the land represented as Ram Janmasthan.
- C S Vaidyanathan, Counsel appearing on behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 adopted the submissions of Mr Parasaran that the second plaintiff in Suit 5 is a juristic person. He urged that there is a distinction between:
(i) the land being a deity;
(ii) the land being the abode of a deity; and
(iii) the land being the property of a deity.
It was urged that in the present case, the land constituting the disputed site, is an object of worship and is itself the deity. Mr Vaidyanathan urged that the determination of the second plaintiff as a juristic person renders infructuous questions of possession, joint-possession or adverse possession as the land itself is a legal person and no other person can possess a legal personality.
By an extension of the same argument, once it is held that the disputed site is a juristic person, no partition of the land can be affected as a deity, recognised as a legal person is impartible and cannot be divided. Any division of the property will amount to a destruction of the deity. It is on this basis that the impugned judgment of the High Court directing a three-way division of the property was challenged.
- On the other hand, Dr Rajeev Dhavan, Counsel appearing for the Sunni Central Waqf Board, the plaintiffs in Suit 4, urged that the Asthan Ram Janma Bhumi (the second plaintiff in Suit 5) is not a juristic person. He submitted that the contention that the disputed land is a juristic person was raised for the first time only in 1989. Dr Dhavan urged that there are two separate and distinct issues that have arisen before the Court.
Dr Dhavan submitted that while the faith and belief of a sect that religious significance attaches to the birth-place of Lord Ram cannot be questioned, the precise site which constitutes the place of birth is in dispute. Moreover, the property cannot be elevated to the status of a juristic person only on the basis of faith and belief that it is the birthplace of Lord Ram.
To this end, it was submitted that the subjective belief of a certain section of devotees cannot lead to the objective consequence of a proprietary claim in law. It was urged that in the Vedic period, the worship of physical objects of nature was practiced in ancient India. Underlying the worship of the object was the purpose it served.
Dr Dhavan further submitted that the conferment of legal personality on immoveable property is not supported by the existing law on the legal personality of Hindu idols and that conferring legal personality on land would be an innovation leading to the insulation of land from any form of adjudication. Legal impregnability would be conferred merely on the basis of the faith and belief of devotees.
It was urged that the conferral of juristic personality on the second plaintiff would create two legal regimes – one applicable to idols and the other to land – both with distinct rights, power, duties and interests.
Distinguishing religious significance and juristic personality
Recognition of the religious significance of a place as a place of public worship is conceptually distinct from recognising the place as a juristic person. Ram Janmabhumi is undoubtedly of religious significance to the Hindus based on the faith and belief that it is the birth-place of Lord Ram.
Dedication of properties
The practice of conferring legal personality on Hindu idols was evolved by courts to ensure that the law adequately protected the properties endowed to religious purposes. As a large number of endowments were made to specific idols, courts located the idol as a nucleus in which the rights, powers, privileges and immunities of the endowment would vest.
Legal personality was conferred to serve the very specific public interest of protecting properties so endowed and creating a centre of jural relations. Necessity mandated the creation and recognition of an entity in law, allowing courts to regulate the legal relations between natural persons and the idol and consequently the properties vested in the idol.
Faith and belief
It is pertinent to note that plaintiffs’ claim for the conferment of juristic personality on the land that is the disputed site is not based on an express dedication. It was urged that the spot under the central dome where the idols are placed is the birthplace of Lord Ram.
The faith and belief of the worshippers is of paramount importance. Hindus perform the parikrama around the disputed site with the faith and belief that it marks the birth-place of Lord Ram. It has thus been argued that Asthan Shri Ram Janam Bhumi, as a place of religious worship must consequently be elevated to the status of a juristic person by virtue of the faith and belief of the worshippers.
It was contended that the presence of an idol is dispensable in Hinduism, this contemplates a situation such as in the case before us, where the land is itself worshipped as a deity. Devotees pray to the land as the birth-place of Lord Ram, and consequently, the second plaintiff should, it is urged, be recognised as a juristic person.
The argument which has been urged on behalf of the plaintiff in Suit 5 is materially different from the case for conferment legal personality on a Hindu endowment. In the case of an endowment, courts have recognised the charitable or religious purpose situated in the institution as a basis for conferring juristic personality on the institution. In doing so, the court recognises the pious purpose of the founder or testator to protect the properties so endowed.
However, it is not the case of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 that the property styled as the second plaintiff is debutter property. Rather, by invoking the argument of a ―juristic person‖, the plaintiffs have urged this Court to create an additional ground for the conferral of legal personality – the faith and belief of the devotees. Amongst the ensemble of arguments advanced before this Court, this innovative legal claim is at the heart of the present dispute.
The first difficulty that arises in accepting the contention urged by the plaintiffs in Suit 5 stems from the very practical question of how such immovable property is to be delineated. Unlike the case of endowed properties that are delineated in the instrument or deed of endowment itself, where legal personality is sought to be conferred on the basis of faith and belief of the devotees, the devotees themselves may not agree on the exact contours of this property.
Despite these difficulties, the learned judge concluded that ‘Asthan Sri Ram Janam Bhumi’ was a juristic person. It was urged before us that it is not the entirety of Ayodhya that is the juristic person, but only the disputed property. When a question was raised by the Bench as to the physical boundaries of the alleged juristic person, it was urged that the performance of the parikrama (circumambulation) around the disputed property delineated the property which was worshipped as the Janmasthan and it is this property, being divine, upon which the status of a juristic person must be conferred.
In this view, the parikrama served to mark the boundaries of the juristic person. On the other hand, Dr Dhavan urged that the parikrama is merely a form of worship and not a method of delineating the boundaries of a property.
The parikrama may be performed around a small idol, shrine, temple or land in which the temple is situated. However, its principle purpose is to offer worship to the divine and it is performed with the belief that the parikrama would result in the performer being the recipient of some spiritual benefit.
The parikrama is not performed in order to mark the exact boundaries of the property to which juristic personality is conferred. The performance of the parikrama, which is aform of worship conducted as a matter of faith and belief cannot be claimed as the basis of an entitlement in law to a proprietary claim over property.
From Shahid Gunj to Ayodhya, in a country like ours where contesting claims over property by religious communities are inevitable, our courts cannot reduce questions of title, which fall firmly within the secular domain and outside the rubric of religion, to a question of which community‘s faith is stronger.
On a consideration of all the factors outlined above, it is thus held that the second plaintiff in Suit 5 “Asthan Shri Ram Janam Bhumi” is not a juristic person.
The consequence of absolute title
In the present case, the recognition of “Asthan Sri Ram Janam Bhumi” as a juristic person would result in the extinguishment of all competing proprietary claims to the land in question. This conferral of “absolute title” (resulting from the conferral of legal personality on land) would in truth render the very concept of title meaningless. Moreover, the extinguishing of competing claims would arise not by virtue of settled legal principles, but purely on the basis of the faith and belief of the devotees. This cannot be countenanced in law.
The conferral of legal personality by courts is an innovation arising out of necessity and convenience. The conferral of legal personality on Hindu idols arose due to the fundamental question of who the property was dedicated to and in whom the dedicated land vested. The two clear interests that the law necessitated protection of were the interests of the devotees and the protection of the properties from mismanagement.
In the present case, there exists no act of dedication and therefore the question of whom the property was dedicated to do not arise and consequently the need to recognise the pious purpose behind the dedication itself as a legal person also does not arise.
The Swayambhu argument
The arguments urged by Mr Parasaran in his reply raise three questions for our determination:
First, whether a Swayambhu deity may be recognised absent a physical manifestation;
Second, whether land can constitute a manifestation of the deity; and
Third, whether legal personality can be conferred on immovable property per se.
A Swayambhu deity is a manifestation of God that is “self-revealed’ or “discovered as existing” as opposed to a traditional idol that is hand-crafted and consecrated by the prana pratishta ceremony.
The difficulty that arises in the present case is that the Swayambhu deity seeking recognition before this Court is not in the form ordinarily associated with the pantheon of anthropomorphised Hindu Gods. The plaintiffs in Suit 5 have sought to locate the disputed land as a focal point by contending that the very land itself is the manifestation of the deity and that the devotees’ worship not only the idols of Lord Ram, but the very land itself.
The land does not contain any material manifestation of the resident deity Lord Ram. Absent the faith and belief of the devotees, the land holds no distinguishing features that could be recognised by this court as evidence of a manifestation of God at the disputed site.
It is true that in matters of faith and belief, the absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence. However, absent a manifestation, recognising the land as a self-manifested deity would open the floodgates for parties to contend that ordinary land which was witness to some event of religious significance associated with the human incarnation of a deity (e.g. the site of marriage, or the ascent to a heavenly abode) is in fact a Swayambhu deity manifested in the form of land.
Absent that manifestation which distinguishes the land from other property, juristic personality cannot be conferred on the land It is conceivable that in certain instances the land itself would possess certain unique characteristics. For example, it may be claimed that certain patterns on a sea-shore or crop formations represent a manifestation of the divine. In these cases, the manifestation is inseparable from the land and is tied up to it.
An independent question arises as to whether land can constitute the physical manifestation of the deity. Even if a court recognises land as a manifestation of a deity, because such land is also governed by the principles of immoveable property, the court will need to investigate the consequences which arise. In doing so the court must analyse the compatibility of the legal regime of juristic personality with the legal regime on immoveable property. It is necessary now to turn to this.
The elevation of land to the status of a juristic person fundamentally alters its characteristics as immoveable property, a severe consequence against which a court must guard. Nor is it a valid safeguard to postulate that the court will decide on a case to case basis where a particular immoveable property should have a juristic status. Absent any objective standard of application the process of drawing lines will be rendered inherently subjective, denuding the efficacy of the judicial process.
The land in question has been treated as immoveable property by all the parties to the present dispute, including those from the Hindu community until 1989. The litigation over the disputed property dated back to 1885, and at no point, until Suit 5 in 1989 was a plea taken that the land in question was anything possessed of a juristic personality. Apart from the reasons which have been outlined above, it would not be open for the court to treat the property differently now, solely on the basis of the novel plea urged by the plaintiffs in Suit 5 in 1989.
Addressing title claims in a conventional framework
The facts of the present case raise questions of access of the devotees to the site of religious worship and the question of who has title to the land. The former may be protected by the court in several ways without the creation of an artificial legal person. The protection against mismanagement squarely falls within the domain of who should be recognised as a shebait, and this is addressed elsewhere in the course of the present judgement.
Generally speaking, the court is empowered to address such situations upon an application under Section 92 of the Code of Civil Procedure 1908. The question of title can be adjudicated upon using the existing legal regime applicable to immoveable property. There is no reason bearing on necessity or convenience that would compel the court to adopt the novel argument set forth by the plaintiffs in Suit 5 that juristic personality must be conferred on the disputed land.
The conferral of juristic personality is a legal innovation applied by courts in situations where the existing law of the day has certain shortcomings or such conferral increases the convenience of adjudication. In the present case, the existing law is adequately equipped to protect the interests of the devotees and ensure against maladministration without recognising the land itself as a legal person. Where the law is capable of adequately protecting the interests of the devotees and ensuring the accountable management of religious sites without the conferral of legal personality, it is not necessary to embark on the journey of creating legal fictions that may have unintended consequences in the future.
There is therefore no merit in the argument that faith and belief, and the protection of faith and belief alone may necessitate the conferral of legal personality on the second plaintiff. On the contrary, there exists a substantial risk with adopting this argument. It may be contended by a section of a religion that a particular plot of land is the birth-place, place of marriage, or a place where the human incarnation of a deity departed for a heavenly abode; according to the faith and belief of the devotees. Corporeal property may be associated with myriad incidents associated with the human incarnation of a deity each of which holds a significant place in the faith and belief of the worshippers.
Where does the court draw the line to assess the significance of the belief as the basis to confer juristic personality on property? In the absence of an objective criterion, the exercise will be fraught with subjectivity. Adopting the argument of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 may result in the conferral of legal personality on all such claims to land. This conferral would be to the detriment of bona fide litigants outside the faith – who may not share the same beliefs and yet find their title extinguished. Further, such conferral of legal personality on immovable property would be on the basis of the faith and belief of the devotees, which is fundamentally subjective and incapable of being questioned by this Court.
The purpose for which juristic personality is conferred cannot be ‘evolved’ into a Trojan horse that permits, on the basis of religious faith and belief, the extinguishing of all competing proprietary claims over property as well stripping the property itself of the essential characteristic of immoveable property. If the contention urged on the behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 is accepted, it results in a position in law where claims to “absolute title” can be sustained merely on the basis of the faith and belief of the devotees.
The conferral of legal personality on corporeal property would immunise property not merely from competing title claims, but also render vast swathes of the law that are essential for courts to meaningfully adjudicate upon civil suits, such as limitation, ownership, possession and division, entirely otiose.
At best, the contention urged on behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 would sustain a claim that the specific site is a location of religious significance for the devotees. It cannot however be extended to sustain proprietary claims to the law or to immunise the land from proprietary or title based claims of others by conferring juristic personality on the land itself.
Commitment to constitutional values
A final observation must be made on this aspect of the case which is of significant importance. The rejection of the contention urged on behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 touches upon the heart of our constitutional commitment to secularism. The method of worship on the basis of which a proprietary claim may be sustained is relatable to a particular religion.
The conferral of legal personality on idols stemming from religious endowments is a legal development applicable only to a practice of the Hindu community. The performance of the parikrama is a method of worship confined largely to Hinduism. Putting aside the fact that the argument raised by the plaintiffs in Suit 5 is a novel extension of the law applicable to Hindu religious endowments, this is a significant matter which requires our consideration.
Religious diversity undoubtedly requires the protection of diverse methods of offering worship and performing religious ceremonies. However, that a method of offering worship unique to one religion should result in the conferral of an absolute title to parties from one religion over parties from another religion in an adjudication over civil property claims cannot be sustained under our Constitution.
This would render the law, which ought to be the ultimate impartial arbiter, conferring a benefit on a party with respect to her or his legal claims, not on the basis of the merits of a particular case, but on the basis of the structure or fabric of the religion to which they belong. If the contention urged on behalf of the plaintiffs in Suit 5 is accepted, the method of worship performed by one religion alone will be conferred with the power to extinguish all contesting proprietary claims over disputed property.
It is true that the connection between a person and what they consider divine is deeply internal. It lies in the realm of a personal sphere in which no other person must intrude. It is for this reason that the Constitution protects the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion equally to all citizens. Often, the human condition finds solace in worship. But worship may not be confined into a straightjacket formula. It is on the basis of the deep entrenchment of religion into the social fabric of Indian society that the right to religious freedom was not made absolute.
An attempt has been made in the jurisprudence of this court to demarcate the religious from the secular. The adjudication of civil claims over private property must remain within the domain of the secular if the commitment to constitutional values is to be upheld. Over four decades ago, the Constitution was amended and a specific reference to its secular fabric was incorporated in the Preamble. At its heart, this reiterated what the Constitution always respected and accepted: the equality of all faiths. Secularism cannot be a writ lost in the sands of time by being oblivious to the exercise of religious freedom by everyone.
It is for all the reasons highlighted above that the law has till today yet to accept the conferral of legal personality on immoveable property. Religiosity has moved hearts and minds. The court cannot adopt a position that accords primacy to the faith and belief of a single religion as the basis to confer both judicial.
Edited Excerpt from the Judgment ‘M Siddiq (D) Lrs v. Mahant Suresh Das & Ors. (2019)