It is perhaps no coincidence, just as many events and encounters in life are not when we think about them in retrospect …
Right now, everyone’s curiosity is high and tensions, even higher. What will happen, what will not happen in the coming few days now that the verdict has been delivered, is really anybody’s guess …
It is no coincidence that since a few weeks now, a colleague and I have been writing up our research on land titles and property ownership. In the last few months when we did the rounds of villages in the taluks of Bangalore rural, people spoke with various kinds of emotions about land and the digital databases that have been instituted by the Revenue Department to provide electronic copies of land records. People spoke of ideals such as ‘nyaya’ and ‘anyaya’ when they discussed how there were errors in the measurement and extent of land parcels in the digital records. Some people, largely local leaders and panchayat members discussed how the digital system is ‘open’ and that the records are ‘available for everyone to see’, ‘all over India’. We discovered in interesting ways how certain kinds of publicness and openness are actually double-edged and that some kinds of information being highly premium and prized as they are, become even more problematic when made ‘open’.
Land ownership and claims over land are highly sensitive and contested. The emotional issues involved not only relate to who has first claims over the piece of land, but rather whose claims are legitimate at all. So, I may not be the owner of the land but a watch guard watching over the safety and security of the land. I have my hut on the land which does not legally belong to me. When I am removed suddenly after years of guarding, won’t I stake some claim on the grounds of guardianship and the emotive relation that I have developed with the land all these years? Or even on grounds of the fact that I have watched over the land all these years, ensured its safety and thereby contributed to any value that may have appreciated over time? It is difficult to judge the legitimacy and the falsehood of competing claims because truth is a matter of perspective more than facts.
Truth is a matter of perspective …
Years ago, 17-odd or so, my father came running down from the 12th floor of our building. It was one of those ominous days though neither the milk had boiled over nor some cat had crossed any path nor did any of us have an instinctive sense of what the day was going to bring for us. One of the residents of the building rang the doorbell and asked dad to come up on the terrace. He said that with the binoculars, they had seen the industrial estate where dad had two workshops was set on fire. Dad ran up. And some time later, he ran down and cried loud to my mom saying, “I am going, they have set the workshops on fire. I am going, I have to save!” Mom instinctively held him back and said, “Let it go. We will rebuild.” I don’t even remember the scene exactly. All I remember is that in that week of January 1993 when Bombay burned, including daddy’s workshops, my father remained quiet and depressed. His babies had been burned down and he felt dejected because his emotional and financial stability had been disrupted.
A few days after the burning, one night the night-watch committee came down and informed us that a mob was coming to torch residents and properties in the neighbourhood. Strategies were made. Our name plates were immediately removed from the doors, using all the might that was possible. None of us wanted to be identified because we did not know whether the mobs were Muslim or Hindu. In retrospect, I can say that mobs are blind, blinded by some mad fury or passion that has set fire in their minds and that causes them to wreath havoc and fury outside. We moved the sofa to the door so that the door would not be open-able easily. We removed all loose clothes hanging around the house in case some fireball was thrown into the house and clothes caught fire, thereby spreading it to the rest of the house. My sister, all of 11 or 12 then, started vomiting in fear. She wondered whether she would live for the rest of her life and if she would live, how would it be and with who? After a few hours after the mad frenzy of protecting life and property, it was revealed that the approaching of the mobs was a rumour. But in those few hours, we had seen fear in its eyes and face. I can never forget this.
Now, 17-odd years later, we come to know that a suit has been filed over the title of the land – who owns the land? The case is lodged in Allahabad High Court. Now, when I think of the digital databases, legal battles over establishing property ownership and the cases that we heard where ownership remains ambiguous, the status of the land itself remains unknown and uncertain not only among claimants but also among government officials, I feel more and more disdainful of the law courts. I remain disdainful not because of the judgment the courts have delivered over Ayodhya today. I remain disdainful of the fact that courts are seen as the final authority when in reality, courts only arbitrate over matters. Courts can never deliver justice. Only life can set the equations in balance and in highly curious ways that lead us to think of justice, injustice, exploitation, goodness and evil afresh and anew.
The faith that we tend to repose in law courts, despite knowing and experiencing the extent of corruption that pervades not only in Indian judiciary, but in judicial systems across the world, is scary. When property disputes are taken to the court, many a times, these are done to threaten the opposite claiming party. Sometimes, the law is used as a strategy and tactic. Sometimes, claiming parties really seek justice in terms of wanting the other party to mete some kind of punishment. Sometimes, disputes are taken to the court just for some claimants to continue holding on to the land/property while the matter drags on in the court.
What am I trying to say here then? I am trying to say that the problem is not in the judicial system. The problem lies in the way we conceive of judicial systems as being capable of delivering justice. I believe that just as truth, justice and injustice are a matter of perspective. There is no denying that wrongs have been committed over people and identity groups but history is also a matter of interpretation, a matter of perspective. Recognizing then that law and justice are not what the courts uphold, but that law, rules, regulations and justice are what are negotiated on the ground, among people, is what is more critical and liberating, if I may put it so.
I don’t have a conclusion here. I only have a perspective. I do feel angry at the nature of the verdict that the court has delivered and I am curious to see the sources that the judges have conferred with in order to arrive at their ‘judgment’. What I do want to end with is my personal experience. When calm restored in Bombay in January 1993 and the curfews were removed, my father, grandfather and others went over to the building that housed dad’s workshops. The security guard explained to my father that he was held at knife-point when the mobs asked him to tell which of the workshops belonged to the Hindus and which to the Muslims. The security guard had pointed out to both of dad’s workshops. When the mobs went in to torch the first workshop, they did it with blind eyes. When they entered the second one, they noticed the photographs of Lakhmi, Durga and Saraswati hanging in the workshop. The workers in the workshop were Hindu and they were free to practice their faith in whatever manner they felt comfortable. When the mobs saw the photos of the Hindu goddesses, they thought either they had erred or the security guard had erred. They left the second workshop untouched.
When my dad came home after the inspection of his losses and explained what had happened, he laughed and said, who knows which god saved us. That was a life changing experience for me. I have never thought of justice in regard to what my father (and we) went through in the riots. All I remain thankful for is a perspective on life and a lesson in openness. I do hold prejudices, sometimes strongly. But it remains my conviction that transcendence is a matter of facing your prejudices and looking them straight in their eyes, just like you do with fear.
All I can say is that the courts would have been better served had they stood up and said that no judgment was possible in this case and that the claims being sensitive and contestable and that histories are a matter of interpretation, it would be left to the contending parties to sort out the issue between them. Had the courts and the judges taken this stand openly, the institution of the judiciary would not have collapsed but would have rather redeemed its own self. But then again, we live in a system where the state, represented by its judiciary, is expected to deliver welfare and justice. Here is where we need to open up our perspectives and think again … What is justice? What is law? Are there rights and wrongs set in stone and who can be righted or wronged in what ways?
For now, in anticipation of peace …