Acharya Satyendra Das, head priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple. Photo: Kanchan Srivastava

The Supreme Court of India (SC) recently ordered the controversial Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case to court-monitored mediation. Famously known as the Ayodhya case, it has dragged on for seventy years. The case is India’s oldest piece of litigation, and pertains to the dispute between Hindu and Muslim communities over 2.77 acres of land in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

The supreme court-appointed panel is comprised of former SC justice FM Fakiullah, spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Advocate Sriram Panchu.

In this exclusive interview with Asia Times, Acharya Satyendra Das, the head priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Ram) temple speaks on the Ayodhya case and about the recent supreme court order.

Asia Times: Do you think that the panel will be able to find an amicable solution?

Head priest Acharya Satyendra Das: I just hope all parties accept the (supreme court) verdict and have confidence in the arbitration panel. Mediation can help to resolve it.

In the past, there were attempts to resolve the issue out of court. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also attempted (to resolve it) once last year. Several seers and leaders of Hindu outfits have expressed reservations over the outcome of the mediation process and some have even cast aspersions over the inclusion of Sri Sri in the panel.

But if Sri Sri failed once, it doesn’t mean that he can never succeed. He is respected by Hindus and Muslims both. Perhaps that is why he has been handpicked by the supreme court.

Earlier, you said that an out of court solution is impossible.

Yes, because we never had competent persons who can effectively convince all stakeholders. The issue is stuck only because of political greed and obstinance. Politicians grabbed power by milking the issue. Hindu and Muslim organizations collected money by fanning the sentiments. So, all of them kept the issue alive. This time, it is the SC-appointed and SC-monitored panel which will spearhead the process.

As a priest of this makeshift temple, what do you expect from the arbitrators?

I just hope that (the) entire 70 acres of land (2.77 acres of land under dispute and 67 acres of land around it acquired by the Govt in 1991) is given for the grand Ram temple construction. This is the birthplace of lord Ram which cannot be changed or shifted.

And what about the mosque? Some suggest that a mosque should be housed in the complex for communal harmony.

Building a mosque alongside the proposed Ram temple might help to (make the dispute linger). For a peaceful solution, the mosque can be built anywhere in Ayodhya. Now the entire Faizabad district is renamed as Ayodhya, or perhaps in Lucknow as suggested by the Shia waqf board chief Waseem Rizvi.

Do you think the Modi government could have addressed this issue by bringing a bill or ordinance to bypass the judicial process?

The party was never so serious about the issue which is why a bill in this regard was never tabled in parliament. Had the former prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, (the late) Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government done that in 2001-2004, the entire political discourse of the country would have been different today.

Can you recall the incident of December 6, 1992 when the Babri mosque was demolished?

That day, after puja (a Hindu prayer ritual), I had closed the doors of the temple at around 11 am. Some Vishva Hindu Parishad activists came rushing to me and asked for Gangajal (holy water) to perform prayer at a platform constructed in 1989. Soon, I heard other activists saying the mosque should be demolished. It happened really fast before anyone could do anything. The leaders of the Ram temple campaign, which included leaders of the BJP and other Hindu outfits, were clueless how to control the activists demolishing the structure.

The demolition has done great damage to Hindu society and to the temple, although it benefited the politicians who capitalized (on) the issue to grab power. Other Hindu organizations also benefited (from) the process as they collected huge donations from across the world in the name of (the) temple.

How did the demolition of Babri mosque cause damage to the Hindu community?

The Babri Masjid was a not a functional Masjid, as per Sharia. The structure had neither a well, nor an Imam. Namaz wasn’t offered there. The demolition suggested otherwise.

After the demolition, riots spread killing several innocent people. Many temples were brought down in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Ayodhya and its residents have suffered a lot in these many years (since the demolition). Ram Lalla, a statue of infant Lord Ram, (has been in a) tent for years.

The Ayodhya dispute has been a political, historical and socio-religious debate in India. With the upcoming general election due next month, the supreme court’s reservation of the order and formation of the panel to reach a “permanent solution” may help soothe tempers for now.

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