As the 25th year of the demolition of the Babri Masjid approaches, the question is: does Sri Sri have the credentials of an honest broker to retain the trust of both Hindu and Muslim groups and get both to agree to whatever solution he comes up with? The universally accepted principle of mediation is that whoever is the mediator should be neutral and non-partisan; he should not be aligned in many which way to either of the parties to the dispute.
Let's look at his credentials. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is viewed by many not just within the Muslim community but also outside as somebody who is identified with the current establishment; they cite his participation in the 2011 Dharma Sansad convened by the VHP as an example of his proximity to the Sangh Parivar. He campaigned for the BJP in the last general election, leading many to doubt his credentials as a neutral observer. The Art of Living Founder has been pushing his neutrality, claiming that he is "not acting at the behest of the government".
The Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute came to a head in the run-up to the 1989 general election. The BJP, led by Advani, launched a nation-wide movement for the restoration of the Ram Mandir and it paid rich dividends politically, helping to propel the party to 80 seats from the two it had won in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. The controversy continued to fester and it finally led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
The issue continues to rear its head every time the elections are around the corner. Several of the BJP's leaders like Dr Subramanian Swamy and Sakshi Maharaj have openly been talking of construction working starting in Ayodhya next year, ahead of the 2019 general election.
The timing of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's intervention and the three-point formula suggested by him has raised many eyebrows. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case from December 5 onwards, when the opening statements are expected to be recorded by. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board or AIMPLB, which is the main organization that handles religious and other affairs for Muslims, and other Muslim groups feel that they stand a very good chance of securing a favorable verdict. Their optimism stems from the fact that if the court limits itself to a tittle suit, they have in their possession relevant land records to show that they are the rightful owners of the land. However, if the issue goes in for mediation, other considerations like "sentiment and faith" will come in to play. That is why they view Sri Sri's intervention at this stage as a diversionary tactic.
In addition to his past linkages with Hindutva and the BJP, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's three-point formula calls upon Muslims to withdraw all the cases claiming rights to the disputed site and gift land to the Hindus in return for the goodwill of the majority community. He has also suggested that even if certain organisations don't agree, the All India Muslim Personal law Board should gift the land to Hindu saints in return for a mosque in Faizabad nearby. He has also suggested that if an agreement cannot be reached, parliament should enact legislation gifting the land for the construction of the temple while maintaining status quo on all other places of worship.
The universally accepted principle of a negotiated settlement is that both sides to a dispute agree that all options are open and whatever agreement is reached will be acceptable to all sides. A situation in which the starting point is to get a particular side to give up its claims is unlikely to succeed. In an ideal world, a negotiated settlement may not be a bad thing. However, for that to succeed, it's vital that the mediator be a person with no personal linkages with either of the parties to the dispute and one whose judgement and sense of fair play is beyond question. In that sense, former Chief Justice JS Khehar, who had offered to mediate in the matter before Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came into the picture, might have suited the role better.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst.)
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