Ayodhya Verdict: Are the Supreme Court’s Observations on the Places of Worship Act, 1991 Binding?- Part II

In the first post on this blog, I had highlighted the patent error in the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya Verdict. I had pointed out that the Constitution Bench had erroneously assumed that an extract on the PoW Act from a previous SC decision reproduced by Justice D.V.Sharma in the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict,  was an observation by Justice D.V.Sharma. I had then raised the following questions:

  1. What was the Constitution Bench’s intention behind a discussion on the Places of Worship Act (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 in the context of the Shri Ramjanmabhoomi case when the Act expressly states that it does not apply to the dispute? Was the intention behind the Bench’s discussion to shield the Act from potential challenges on grounds of unconstitutionality?
  2. Does the Bench’s discussion on the Act have any legally binding character? In other words, is it part of the Court’s ratio decidendi or is it obiter dicta?
  3. Is the Bench’s discussion on the Act legally and constitutionally tenable?

I will try and address each of these questions as systematically as I can, if not serially, since the answers overlap to an extent.

In Paragraphs 81 and 82, the Bench discussed the intention of the Parliament behind promulgating the PoW Act and in Paragraphs 83-85, it dilated on “secularism as a constitutional value”. Since a Court of law is not an academic body and renders decisions only when a case is presented before it, it was not necessary for the Bench to discuss the legislative intent behind the Pow Act because the Act expressly excludes the Shri Ranjamabhoomi case from its purview. Consequently, the case was to be decided solely on the basis of principles which apply to adjudication of title suits. This is also why a discussion on secularism as a constitutional value was wholly unwarranted and unnecessary. Any court, be it a Court of first instance or an appellate court, in deciding a title suit between parties asserting their respective claims of ownership in relation to a disputed place of worship, is bound not by secularism but by demonstrable facts and objective legal standards.

This takes us to the question of whether the observations of the Bench in relation to the PoW Act have a legally binding character. Given that the object of the PoW Act was entirely irrelevant to the Shri Ranjanmabhoomi case owing to its exception from the Act, the observations of the Bench must necessarily be treated as obiter dicta and therefore not legally binding. In Jagdish Lal v. State of Haryana (1997) 6SCC 538, the Supreme Court has held that as follows:

“It is settled legal position that the ratio decidendi is based upon the facts actually decided”

Again, in Director of Settlements, A.P. & Ors vs M.R. Apparao & Anr (2002), elaborating on (a) the issue of what constitutes law as declared by the Supreme Court under Article 141 and (b) the distinction between Obiter dicta and ratio decidendi, the Supreme Court held as follows:

“So far as the first question is concerned, Article 141 of the Constitution unequivocally indicates that the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all Courts within the territory of India. The aforesaid Article empowers the Supreme Court to declare the law. It is, therefore, an essential function of the Court to interpret a legislation. The statements of the Court on matters other than law like facts may have no binding force as the facts of two cases may not be similar. But what is binding is the ratio of the decision and not any finding of facts.

It is the principle found out upon a reading of a judgment as a whole, in the light of the questions before the Court that forms the ratio and not any particular word or sentence. To determine whether a decision has ‘declared law’ it cannot be said to be a law when a point is disposed of on concession and what is binding is the principle underlying a decision. A judgment of the Court has to be read in the context of questions which arose for consideration in the case in which the judgment was delivered. An ‘obiter dictum’ as distinguished from a ratio decidendi is an observation by Court on a legal question suggested in a case before it but not arising in such manner as to require a decision. Such an obiter may not have a binding precedent as the observation was unnecessary for the decision pronounced, but even though an obiter may not have a bind effect as a precedent, but it cannot be denied that it is of considerable weight. The law which will be binding under Article 141 would, therefore, extend to all observations of points raised and decided by the Court in a given case. So far as constitutional matters are concerned, it is a practice of the Court not to make any pronouncement on points not directly raised for its decision.

Applying the above principles to the Court’s observations on the PoW Act in the Ayodhya Verdict, it would be fair to take the position that since the discussion on the PoW Act was not relevant for adjudication of the title dispute in the facts of the case, nor would its absence have affected the outcome in any manner, it must be concluded that the said discussion was at best academic without taking the character of law within the meaning of Article 141 of the Constitution. This then takes us to the constitutional soundness of the discussion and the Bench’s intent behind it.

To support its position that the PoW Act is a testament to the Constitution’s commitment to secularism, the Court went on to quote the Home Minister in 1991 from his speech on the floor of the Lok Sabha, whose stated position on the object of the Act was that it sought to prohibit the forcible conversion of places of worship. Apparently, the purpose of the Act was not “to create new disputes and to rake up old controversies which had long been forgotten by the people”. Even if the Court’s intent behind referring to the speech was to decipher the object of the PoW Act, in implicitly endorsing the speech the highest Court of the land failed to appreciate that the Act stands in the way of a just and legal reversion of the Holy Sites to communities to which they originally belonged and from whom it was forcibly taken, destroyed and/or converted into a place of worship of the aggressor’s faith.

Apart from the manifest unjustness and unreasonableness of the said position, the Act’s unconstitutionality is writ large since it prevents owners of property from reclaiming the property through a validly instituted suit for declaration of title over the property. This is further compounded by the fact that the property sought to be reclaimed is a Holy Site. Simply put, the embargo against one’s exercise of rights to reclaim one’s place of worship is directly at loggerheads with rights guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26. Even if a lone individual asserts the right of reclamation and the rest of the community has either forgiven, or worse, forgotten, no canon of secularism or principle of fairness or justice in a civilised jurisdiction can mandate that the individual must sacrifice his or her legitimate right to legally reclaim his or her place of worship.

At the very least, such an individual must have the right to prove his or her case in a Court of law and have his or her day in Court. To deprive that legal remedy through a legislation which was passed without any participation through consultation with members of affected communities, is to add insult to injury. No one other than a victim has the right to forgive on behalf of the victim or presume that the victim has forgiven or forgotten. Since the Court did not have the occasion to deal with any of these aspects, nor has it heard the parties directly aggrieved by the PoW Act, none of the observations of the Court on the intent behind the legislation and its significance to the Constitution’s commitment to secularism has any real legal value. Therefore, if the intention behind the Court’s exercise was to grant its imprimatur to the Act’s Constitutional vires, it does not pass muster applying the first principles of obiter and ratio. Clearly, the PoW Act remains as vulnerable to a constitutional challenge as it was before the verdict.

Finally, it must not be forgotten that the Indian Constitution puts a premium on justice and there can be no justice at the expense of the truth, nor is lasting peace possible until the truth is demonstrably established, acknowledged and accounted for.

In the next post, I will discuss the history and the scheme of the PoW Act.

4 thoughts on “Ayodhya Verdict: Are the Supreme Court’s Observations on the Places of Worship Act, 1991 Binding?- Part II

  1. K P Janardan

    The Court, no matter how supreme, can venture into, leave alone ‘dictate’ answers to, unalluded (leave alone unasked) questions and expect those answers to have the force of law. It’s as simple and clear as that.


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