VIEW: Where angels fear to tread, but judges stomp —Sikander Amani - Monday, October 04, 2010

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Why on earth should Hindu judges rule in favour of Hinduism, and Muslim judges in favour of Islam? It is as if religion had become a blinding screen: everyone reacts according to their own particular religious views

In a delicate compromise, and in the grand tradition of partition of the region, the Allahabad High Court has ruled that the disputed Ayodhya site should be divided equally among the three contending parties, the Sunni Waqf Board (Muslim), the Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman (Hindu) and Nirmohi Akhara (a Hindu sect), with the crucial part under the central dome going to the Hindus. Ayodhya shot to fame in 1992 when Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Mosque, which, they claimed, had been built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. The demolition led to some of the worst religious riots since partition. The Solomonic ruling of the Allahabad High Court is, like all Solomonic rulings, destined to neither displease nor convince anyone. Certes, if Ayodhya is a piece of land where, as Justice S U Khan stated, even “the angels fear to tread”, no wonder humans might be slightly cautious of clomping there with heavy boots.

But in their desire to tread as lightly as the wary angels, the judges ended up with a most uncanny ruling, where the only visible footprint is that of a deadly fear of religious activists. Indeed, the verdict sounds more like a religious and political compromise than a sound legal decision. The Economic Times scathingly writes of the verdict as a “jumble of faith, evidence, compromise and an implicit appeal for a negotiated partition of the disputed site among three claimants”.

While all three judges accepted the claim that the site was the birthplace of Lord Ram (in itself quite a bizarre assertion), the two Hindu judges, Justices Sharma and Agarwal, declared that the mosque constructed by Babar was actually not a mosque because it had been built “against the tenets of Islam” on the site of a demolished Hindu temple. The sole Muslim judge, Justice S U Khan, dissented, arguing that the mosque had been built on ruins. It is immensely irritating to note that the ruling was passed along religious lines, with the two Hindu judges rebutting the Muslim plaintiffs, and the Muslim judge rejecting the Hindus’ claims. So much for the hope of judges transcending their own religious affiliation. Why on earth should Hindu judges rule in favour of Hinduism, and Muslim judges in favour of Islam? It is as if religion had become a blinding screen: everyone reacts according to their own particular religious views. It would have been so much more satisfying for the rational mind to have a Hindu judge ruling that the mosque was a mosque, and a Muslim judge ruling that it was not.

But the ruling’s oddity goes far beyond that. Let’s put aside disturbing statements such as that of Justice Sharma that the “spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also”. Err, okay. The spirit of the divine is present everywhere in any shape or form for anyone to invoke. Well, well, well. Quite a grand theological statement stemming from the Allahabad High Court. No wonder the angels tread lightly — imagine, they might be treading on the shapeless deity present everywhere.

But probably the most puzzling aspect of the ruling is that Lord Ram himself was a party. This, we are told, is due to a peculiarity of the Indian legal system, which allows to consider deities as “juristic persons”, which may, among others, enjoy the right to property. The Ayodhya ruling did not innovate. Actually, the question of whether a Hindu deity could be a juristic person was decided by the Privy Council back in 1922, and has been confirmed several times since, notably in 1981 by the Indian Supreme Court (SC). The SC again stated in 1997 that a deity had the right to move the court and stated that “properties of endowment vest in the deity”. That a legal person differs from a natural person, and that it is a necessary legal fiction, is not in doubt. However, the specific case of a deity poses a problem. How to express its will? Who can be said to best represent its interests? The legal fiction here is that a deity is a minor, and hence has to be represented in court through his guardian or “next friend” — legal fiction, but theological and philosophical aberration. The mere idea that a god would need a guardian is outlandish. But what if two “next friends”, ardent followers of the same deity, were to have opposing views of what it wants? Should a third friend then decide who is the appropriate guardian of the divinity?

More importantly, one of the key attributes of legal entities is that of reciprocity: they may sue, but they should also be liable to be sued. Err, what do we do in the case of a god?

In 2007, a Nebraska senator filed a lawsuit against God, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the “death, destruction and terrorisation” caused by God. The case was thrown out by the judge who (hilariously) stated that since the defendant had no known address, legal papers could not be served. To which the Nebraska senator, himself not devoid of humour, replied that since God is omniscient, he would have notice of the lawsuit anyway. To no avail — the lawsuit was dismissed.

Granted, the Christian God is no Hindu deity. Still, one wonders if, in their desire to please everyone, including the light-footed angels, the esteemed judges did not venture a little too far. Perhaps we all need to let the deities rest and mind their own business, and let our human world remain human.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at

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