Ayodhya case : Justice U.U. Lalit recuses himself

Ayodhya title suit case: Justice U.U. Lalit recuses himself, Bench to hear case on January 29

Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid
Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid

The volatile Ayodhya title suits’ appeals remained a non-starter on Thursday with one of the five judges on the Constitution Bench opting to quit the case. Justice U.U. Lalit chose to bow out after senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, appearing for the U.P. Central Sunni Waqf Board, pointed out that the judge had appeared for the Kalyan Singh government in a criminal contempt case linked to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute sometime in 1997.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for some of the Hindu appellants, said the contempt case in which Justice Lalit had appeared was not in anyway linked to main suit appeals on the Ayodhya land dispute. But the CJI, after a brief consultation with Justice Lalit and other judges on the Bench, observed that “the question is not about whether the case he [Justice Lalit] appeared in is part of the main case or not, Justice Lalit is of the opinion that he should not be a part of this proceedings”. Mr. Dhavan said it was entirely Justice Lalit’s call and he had only brought a fact to the attention of the court.

With this unexpected development, the Constitution Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, adjourned the case to January 29 to fix the time and schedule of hearings. Justice Lalit would be replaced by another judge.

Case records in 15 sealed trunks

Meanwhile, the Bench gave the Supreme Court Registry, the herculean task to “physically examine” the entire case records of the Ayodhya case, lying inside 15 sealed trunks in a sealed room of the court for several years, and report back to the new Constitution Bench on January 29.

The entire gamut of case involves 130 issues framed and decided by the Allahabad High Court in its judgment in September 2010 and which are in appeal before the apex court. The records of the case span the deposition of 88 witnesses running into 13886 pages;257 documents in languages from Pali, Urdu, Arabic to Sanskrit; 533 exhibits, of which three are reports about the disputed site prepared by the Archeological Survey of India; the High Court judgment itself which, in 4304 printed pages, decided on the threeway division of the disputed Ayodhya land.

The Registry has to make sure that the translation of the documents is correct, possibly with the help of qualified persons. What the Registry reports back on January 29 would be significant and decide the future course of the hearings even as the May Lok Sabha elections are drawing near.

The case is a political hot potato with pressure piling up on the NDA government from several quarters to make good its 2014 electoral promise of a Ram temple at the dispute Ayodhya site. In the order, Chief Justice Gogoi specifically tackled the brewing “speculations” on why he had chosen to set up a five-judge Constitution Bench though there was no judicial order to do so.

In the order, the CJI observed that Order 6, Rule 1 of Supreme Court Rules of 2013 only mandated that a minimum number of two judges should hear cases in the Supreme Court. There was no ceiling limit on the maximum number of judges on a Bench. The CJI can use his discretion to decide the strength of a Bench on the basis of the facts and circumstances of each case.

The Supreme Court had, on the basis of an administrative order by the CJI, notified that a five-judge Bench consisting of incumbent Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and the next four future chief justices of India in line of seniority will hear the Ayodhya title dispute appeals on January 10.

The Bench, besides Chief Justice Gogoi and Justice Lalit, had Justices S.A. Bobde, N.V. Ramana and D.Y. Chandrachud on board. On January 10, this Bench was supposed to decide the future dates for hearing the appeals.

On January 4, a two-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Gogoi observed that an “appropriate Bench” would take up the appeals on January 10.

The Ayodhya appeals were previously heard by a combination of three judges led by Chief Justice Gogoi’s immediate predecessor, Justice Dipak Misra, who retired on October 2, 2018.

The Bench led by Justice Misra, in a majority judgment, on September 27declined a plea made by Islamic bodies and individuals to refer the question as to whether prayer in a mosque is an essential part of Islam to a seven-judge Constitution Bench.

The majority verdict, in its last paragraph, further directed the Supreme Court to start hearing the pending pleas from the week commencing October 29. This direction in the September judgment also triggered questions whether the court intended to deliver a judgment in the appeals before the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

In 2017, when the court started to hear the appeals after a hiatus of over seven years, senior advocate Kapil Sibal suggested it to adjourn the hearings to a date after the Lok Sabha elections.

The Ayodhya appeals have been filed against the September 30, 2010 decision of the Allahabad High Court to divide the disputed 2.77 acre area among the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.

The High Court had concluded that Lord Ram, son of King Dashrath, was born within the 1,482.5 square yards of the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid premises over 900,000 years ago during the ‘Treta Yuga’.

NEW DELHI , JANUARY 10, 2019