Ayodhya February

Members of the Raza Academy stage a demonstration against the demolition of the Babri Masjid Dec. 6, 2016. Babri Masjid was demolished Dec. 6, 1992. The Supreme Court has set Feb. 8, 2018, as the date for the final hearing in the case. (IANS photo)

NEW DELHI — In a new twist to the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, the Sunni Waqf Board Dec. 5 urged the Supreme Court to defer hearings in the Ayodhya title suit until July 2019 when the next Lok Sabha elections have taken place, but the top court rejected the plea and set Feb. 8, 2018, as the date of commencement for the final hearing.

As the bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer began hearing the matter Dec. 5, senior counsel Kapil Sibal, Rajiv Dhavan and Dushyant Dave urged the court to postpone the hearing, which could have repercussions for the country's polity.

"The court should not hear the matter, which has repercussions on the polity of the country," said Sibal, who appeared for the Waqf Board. He urged the court to hold the hearing in July 2019, suggesting that it would have a bearing on the 2019 general elections.

Senior counsel Harish Salve countered Sibal, telling the bench that repercussions outside of the court were not the court's concern. As far as the court was concerned, it was "just a case" like any other case, he stressed.

Urging the bench to commence hearings in December itself, Salve took exception that "it is being presumed which way the verdict will go... You have it (hearing) in December."

Salve appeared for one of the petitioners seeking an early hearing on the petitions challenging the 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict, which was stayed by the top court May 9, 2011. The Supreme Court  had described the Allahabad High Court verdict, which divided the disputed Babri Masjid site between the Nirmohi Akhara, Lord Ram deity and the Sunni Waqf Board, as "strange and surprising."

Referring to a statement by a Bharatiya Janata Party leader that the matter would be listed and decided in three months, Sibal said that "justice should not only be done but also appear to have been done."

Dave, also seeking to have the hearing held after the 2019 elections, questioned the "hurry." He told the bench that the government was keen to have the Supreme Court hear the appeals early because the Ram temple was part of the ruling party's manifesto. He urged the court not to fall into their trap, a point reiterated by Sibal.

According to Dave, the issue tears into the secular, democratic fabric of the country. He joined senior counsel Rajeev Dhavan in urging the bench that the matter should be heard by a five-judge constitution bench.

Sibal also raised the issue of paucity of time in preparing the case, which involves more than 19,000 documents. Sibal’s position was also supported by Dhavan, who said the hearing would involve making their submissions and also "honestly" responding to queries from the bench.

Telling the bench that hearing would take a long time and would not be completed until October 2018  when Chief Justice Misra retires, Dhavan and Sibal pushed for deferring the hearing to July 2019.

Sibal questioned the urgency and wanted to know why the matter had to be heard now.

Justice Bhushan did not appreciate the submission that the hearing would not be completed within the tenure of Chief Justice Misra, and Dhavan regretted his submission.

Having ordered the hearing to commence Feb. 8, 2018, the court Dec. 5 directed its registry to inform the bench by mid-January whether all the requirements for filing a plea and documents are complete for appropriate orders on the administrative side.

After rejecting the submission to postpone the hearing until 2019, including hearing by a constitution bench, the court asked senior counsel C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for deity Ram Lala, to give the introduction of the dispute before the court.

At this point, when Sibal, Dhavan and Dave sought to withdraw from the hearing, Salve took a dig at them while the court described the approach of three senior lawyers as "shocking and surprising."

Describing as "novel" the prayer that the matter be heard in 2019, the order rejected Dhavan's submission that he would require four months to "read, prepare and argue," saying it was "advanced with medieval passion and sans reason."

The court noted that the Advocates-on-Record appearing for the parties have assured that they will sit together, work in harmony and will see to it that the documents are filed within a certain time frame, if not already filed.

If the Registry finds that the matter is incomplete for some reason, it shall place the matter before Chief Justice Misra for setting a date for completion of the record, it said.

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