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In a surprise move, the government has asked the Supreme Court on January 29, 2019, to allow it to hand over “excess” land in the disputed site at Ayodhya to its “rightful owners”. The petition claims that the Centre had acquired 67.703 acres of land in Ayodhya by the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993.

The petition also states that the dispute in court only pertains to 0.313-acre land where the Babri mosque had previously stood and that the rest should be given to Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas or the trust overseeing the Ram temple plan, whom the government considers to be the rightful owners of the disputed land. The Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas was founded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to build and oversee the construction of the Temple at the disputed site.

The petition reportedly bases its argument on the judgment in Dr M. Ismail Faruqui and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors. In the judgment, the Supreme Court had observed, “However, at a later stage when the exact area acquired which is needed, for achieving the professed purpose of acquisition, can be determined, it would not merely be permissible but also desirable that the superfluous excess area is released from acquisition and reverted to its earlier owner.”

The Supreme Court had ordered status quo on the disputed land before the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992. The government now wants the status quo removed on the land which is “undisputed” and is “excess” acquired land in the temple town in Uttar Pradesh.

There is a status quo around 67 acres of land that was acquired by the government in 1993, a year after the mosque razing that caused a political cataclysm. This move by the government comes on a day when the Supreme Court was to hear the Ayodhya title suit. The hearing was cancelled because one of the judges, Justice SA Bobde, was not available for medical reasons.

The bench was then reconstituted recently as the judges recused themselves from the case. The bench initially included Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana, UU Lalit and DY Chandrachud, and was scheduled to hear the matter on January 10. Justice Lalit recused himself after it was pointed out that he had represented former UP CM Kalyan Singh, in contempt of court case twenty-four years ago. The hearing was then adjourned till January 29. In the meantime, Justice Ramana also withdrew from the case. The bench was then reconstituted on January 25 with Justices Ashok Bhushan and SA Nazeer in place of the two recused judges.

Earlier on January 28, the Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had said that the temple-mosque case must be heard in court without delay. He added that the Allahabad High Court order was in favour of the temple (in 2010) but was on hold in the Supreme Court.

The ruling BJP has been under pressure from various right-wing factions like the VHP, allies in NDA like the Shiv Sena and members of its own party to bring an ordinance to enable the temple construction. The VHP and the Shiv Sena had conducted rallies in November 2018 on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition calling for the construction of Ram temple at the disputed site. This is is seen as a tactical move by the government.

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