After the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu communalists, on 6 December 1992, the central government had acquired around 67 acres of land in Ayodhya. ROBERT NICKELSBERG/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

On 29 January, the central government moved an application in the Supreme Court seeking permission to handover a part of the land near the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya, which it had acquired in 1993, to its original owners. But the centre’s submissions to the apex court do not stand scrutiny—they falsely identify the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas, a trust floated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to oversee the construction of the temple, as the original owners of the land. The submissions fail to acknowledge that the state government is the owner of the land—which the central government acquired from it in 1993—and that even the state’s initial acquisition of the land is facing legal challenge.

The land in question is approximately 42 acres of a plot measuring 67 acres that the central government had acquired in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu communalists on 6 December 1992. In its application, the central government claimed that the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas is the owner of the 42-acre land. The Nyas, however, is merely a lease-holder of the land, which the Uttar Pradesh government acquired during the late 1980s for developing a “Ram Katha Park” to promote tourism in Ayodhya. On 20 March 1992, the then Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state leased this land to the Nyas—for a rent of one rupee per annum—to develop the Ram Katha Park.

What is more significant is that even the state government’s acquisition of this land is disputed. In 1990, the individuals from whom the Uttar Pradesh government had originally acquired the land challenged the acquisition in the Faizabad district court, claiming that they were not granted proper compensation. Vinit Maurya, a resident of Ayodhya, told me his family was among the original owners whose land was taken by the state government, and that they lost 11 acres due to the acquisition. Of the total land acquired by the state government, “29 acres belonged to 22 original owners who were residents of Ayodhya,” Maurya said. “My family was one of those 22 families.”

Yet, the central government did not mention any of these facts in its application to the Supreme Court. The government relied on the Supreme Court’s 1994 judgment in the case of M Ismail Farooqui vs Union of India, which dealt with a challenge to the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act of 1993, under which the centre had acquired the 67 acres of the land. The court upheld the acquisition, and noted, among other observations, that the “interest claimed by the Muslims is only over the disputed site where the mosque stood before its demolition.” The government has used this in its application to argue that the Babri Masjid stood only on 2.77 acres of the entire land, and that only 0.313 acres of that was under dispute.

However, the court had also held that “the acquisition of the disputed site and surrounding land is to hold the same pending the resolution of the dispute regarding the disputed site.” In 2003, in Mohd Aslam vs Union of India,a constitution bench of the Supreme Court reiterated this aspect of the Ismail Farooqui judgment, holding that the use of the property depended on the “outcome of the litigation in respect of the disputed property.” But the centre appears to look past the court’s previous observations, and argued that the “undisputed land”—excluding the area measuring 0.313 acres—should be handed to the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas. “The Central Government has no objection in principle if the superfluous land is restored to RJB Nyas as well as other owners,” the application states.S

The owners, however, would not include the Nyas. Out of the 22 families whose land the Uttar Pradesh government had acquired, Maurya said that four were from Scheduled Castes. “Some Muslim families also lost their land, but considering the atmosphere of Ayodhya, they preferred to stay away from any court case,” he added. “However, 16 out of 22 families decided to fight on.” The cases are still pending before the Faizabad district court.

According to Deen Dayal Sharma, the victims’ counsel in the district court, the government paid the original owners “less than Rs 50,000 per acre.” Sharma added, “The compensation was grossly inadequate and this was recognised even by a committee led by the then Joint Land Settlement Commissioner, PL Kureel, who assessed the value of the acquired land and submitted his report on 30 January 1990.”

In 1990, the Uttar Pradesh government set up the Kureel committee to assess the adequacy of the compensation paid for the land acquired for the Ram Katha Park. The committee recommended that the compensation amount should be raised to over Rs 6 lakh per acre. “Despite these recommendations, no progress has happened so far,” Deen Dayal said.

Sharad Sharma, a spokesperson for the Ram Janama Bhoomi Nyas and a VHP leader, refuted the claims of victims. Sharad argued that the government had paid adequate compensation to most of the original owners and that even the remaining ones would be compensated adequately. But he, too, admitted that the Nyas is merely a lease-holder and not the owner of 42 acres of land, as claimed by the central government in its application to the Supreme Court. “But we duly paid the tax on the leased land until it was acquired by the centre in 1993,” he added.

At the time, the state government’s move to lease the land to the Nyas was seen as the chief minister Kalyan Singh’s attempt to favour the VHP, a sister organisation of the BJP. The lease deed, however, specified that the Nyas would develop a Ram Katha Park as per the government scheme and provide amenities for the promotion of tourism in Ayodhya. Nowhere did it mention any construction of Ram temple or related structures on the leased land.