Interview: Zafaryab Jilani

‘We are baffled by the order’

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Zafaryab Jilani. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Interview with Zafaryab Jilani, advocate for the Sunni Central Waqf Board.

Zafaryab Jilani, advocate for the Sunni Central Waqf Board, is convinced that a review petition should be filed against the Ayodhya judgment although he is aware that it may not mean much. According to him, this will give an outlet to the feeling of resentment among the Muslim community. “Unless we file something officially, how are we going to expose the contradictions in the judgment in the public domain?” he says. He is also of the belief that strident comments from the likes of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi are also needed at this moment because Muslim youths, who are hurting, want an effective voice which other secular parties have failed to provide. Excerpts from an interview:

The Chief Justice of India, while reading out the judgment, said a title suit like this could be adjudicated not on the basis of faith and religion but on evidence. The judgment, however, was based essentially on the faith of Hindus as evident from popular belief, perception and hearsay, not on some substantial piece of evidence. What is your take on this?

We are baffled by the order because while it was being read, it was leading to a different direction, but when the final award was pronounced, it went totally against that. In dismissing the claim of the Nirmohi Akhara as well as the Sunni Waqf Board, the court ignored the 100-year-old faith of Hindus and Muslims alike. There are reports, including mention in two gazettes since 1858, that Hindus had worshipped in the outer courtyard while Muslims offered prayers in the inner courtyard. There are several reports that this practice continued until 1858. But the Supreme Court ignored all this and redefined astha [belief] on the basis of an incident in 1949 [placing of idols inside the sanctum sanctorum], which it described as a criminal act and a violation of the rule of law, but still rewarded the perpetrators of that criminal act by handing over the entire and exclusive possession of that land.

It is also surprising that while the court described the act of December 6, 1992, as an egregious act of violation of the rule of law, it still did not deem it fit to punish the perpetrators of that act by restoring the status quo ante and ended up actually rewarding them by handing over the possession of that land to them. The judgment is self-contradictory and there are glaring mistakes in it. For example, if our claim to the land was justified, which obviously is, as they have allotted us alternative land, then why deny us our right on the land which was legally ours?

But if there are such glaring mistakes in the judgment, why has the Sunni Waqf Board ruled out a review petition?

Maybe they have come under some pressure or the other. But I am convinced that a review petition needs to be filed. Even if the Sunni Waqf Board walks out, we will file a review petition on behalf of other individual petitioners. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which is meeting soon, will take a final view on this, but I am convinced about going ahead with the review petition.

The case has dragged on for so long, created so much bad blood. Is it not better to give it a closure now and move on?

It cannot be given a closure like this because it is a blatantly one-sided judgment. Muslims have been left feeling betrayed. It has shocked the Muslim community because this was not a fight for a piece of land, it was a fight to uphold the values of democracy, secularism and the rule of law as enshrined in the Constitution. How can we give up so easily? The review petition has to be filed within 30 days and we are going to do it.

But do you seriously believe that it will yield any positive outcome? Will it not, on the other hand, create more acrimony in society?

No, it will not. Taking legal recourse for a neat closure to this dispute is the best course. It is a fact that the Muslim community has been given a raw deal by such a one-sided judgment. The youths especially have been left feeling hurt. There was a commitment from us that we would accept the judgment irrespective of which way it went and the community has honoured that commitment. But it does not mean people are not hurt, and as leaders of the community, it is our duty to provide an outlet to give vent to this hurt. This can only be done by filing a review petition, which will provide us the opportunity to articulate our objections and bring our views in the public domain. If we let the bruises lie suppressed, it may take Muslim youths in the other extreme direction and we have to guard against that. So taking the legal course is the best recourse, both for Muslims and the mulk [country].

But is not there a danger that politicians with vested interest will again exploit it for their political gain and vitiate the atmosphere? We have already heard Asaduddin Owaisi reacting in a very strident manner. Is it not going to further widen the communal divide?

In my opinion nobody can do politics around this issue now. One good thing about the judgment is that it has stopped the scope of parties exploiting it for political gain because the court has asked the government to make a trust to build the temple. As for statements from Owaisi, I think that is the need of the hour. I know him personally, and his politics is essentially secular. He is only voicing the grievance of Muslim youths at large and this could help in healing the bruises to some extent.

Muslim youths need an effective and strong political voice today, and parties like the Congress have failed to provide that voice. So leaders like Owaisi are good for the country at large because they give representation to a huge section of society and help in keeping it within the democratic framework.

When a huge section of society gets dejected and feels betrayed by institutions, then voices like that of Owaisi provide some relief. This is needed for the good of the country because it provides us the space to voice our feelings within the framework of democracy and the Constitution.

Is there a feeling that by rewarding the perpetrators of an act of vandalism, the Supreme Court has opened a Pandora’s box? Kashi and Mathura, for example, have been on the Sangh Parivar’s agenda for a long time?

With all its shortcomings, there are a few good things about this judgment too. It has categorically stated that the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which mandates that the status quo as on August 15, 1947, be maintained at all places of worship where a dispute was existing, should be strictly enforced. This insulates Kashi and Mathura. Besides, even the RSS chief has ruled out any more movements like this and we have to believe that.

Do you think the judgment has created a permanent divide between the two communities? Do Muslims feel isolated, alienated?

Speaking for myself, I do not feel isolated because I know 90 per cent of Hindustani avaam [people] are secular and are with us. Even in fighting the case, we had so many Hindu lawyers. We had the support of leaders of secular parties, left-leaning intellectuals and the aam aadmi [common people] who, essentially, is secular. This prevents me from feeling alienated. I can vouch that there are many more like me out there.