New Delhi: Amid high drama, the Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to defer until after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls the final hearing in the Ayodhya title dispute on a plea by the Sunni Waqf Board and others over which it expressed shock and surprise and posted the case for February 8 next.
The order by a special bench headed by chief justice Dipak Misra during the hearing on appeals against the Allahabad High Court verdict comes on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid at the disputed site in Ayodhya.
A three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court, in a 2:1 majority ruling, had in 2010 ordered that the land in the sensitive Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute be partitioned equally among three parties -- the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.
The apex court bench also "prima facie" declined the forceful plea by a battery of senior lawyers including Kapil Sibal and Rajeev Dhavan that the appeals be either referred to a five or seven judge bench, keeping in mind the sensitive nature of the case and its ramifications on the country's secular fabric and polity.
The bench, also comprising justices Ashok Bhusan and S A Nazeer, asked the advocates on records (AoRs), to sit together and ensure that all requisite documents are translated, filed and numbered before the apex court Registry.
In case of any problem, they were directed to consult the Registry, it said, while fixing February 8 to hear the appeals. The special apex court bench is hearing a total of 14 appeals filed against the high court judgment in four civil suits.
A high voltage drama marked Tuesday's hearing with lawyers representing the Sunni Waqf Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee, virtually threatening to walk out of the proceedings as the bench asked senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, representing the deity Ram Lalla Virajman, to commence his submissions in the case.
When the bench headed by the CJI rejected their contention that the matter be sent to a larger bench saying "no, no...", Sibal, appearing for Sunni Wakf Board, said, "I do believe that any decision in this case will have very serious ramifications and the appeals should be referred to a five or seven judge constitution bench. Do not say 'no, no, no'. Please hear the matter keeping in mind the ramifications..."
He further said, "please fix the matter in July 2019 and we assure that we will not seek any adjournments... justice should not only be done, it should seem to be done."
The bench countered expressing shock and surprise and asked, "What kind of submission is this? You are saying July 2019. Should it not be heard before that?"
Another senior advocate Dushayant Dave, appearing for one of the parties, questioned the "hurry" in hearing the appeals and referred to the fact that the issue of Ram Temple was part of the BJP manifesto.
To this, the bench retorted: "You say it should not be heard ever only because it was not heard in last seven years."
At the outset, Sibal said the pleadings in the cases were not complete due to the voluminous records running into over 19,000 pages.
Till date, the Registry has "given us documents in two separate discs- on September 18, 2017 and on November 7, 2017 respectively. However there are many exhibits and several pleadings which are not contained in these discs and which are still awaited," he said, adding that the High Court had relied upon 781 judgments and they have to be compiled.
Additional solicitor general (ASG) Tushar Mehta, appearing for Uttar Pradesh Government, and senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, representing the deity, Ram Lalla Virajman, opposed the contention and said the pleadings were complete and the requisite documents have been filed and supplied.
Moreover, it was made clear by the court that it would commence hearing from December 5, they said.
Sibal sought time saying the pleadings were not complete as many were still awaited. "How do you prepare cases if they (pleadings) are not complete," he said.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for a Hindu 'mahant', opposed the contention saying the parties were supposed to commence arguments.
"Last time also you (Sibal) had said the same thing. Today again you are saying the same thing," the bench said, adding "you (parties) tell us what was the case before the High Court".
Sibal and others including Dhavan again sought time, saying time be granted to enable them prepare the case.
The submission was supported by Dave who said the court should not fall into a "trap". He sought the setting up of a larger bench as was done in the case of justice C S Karnan to send a message across.
"What kind of argument is this," the bench remarked.
Dhavan said that a three-judge bench cannot hear these appeals in view of a judgment which had held that mosques were integral to Islam and this case also pertained to a mosque.
Salve and the ASG took strong exception to the submission questioning the "hurry" on part of the apex court in hearing the appeals in the matter.