Giving another chance for mediation, the Supreme Court Friday ordered setting up a three-member panel headed by a former apex court judge F M I Kalifulla to explore a possible settlement of the decades-old politically sensitive Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute in Ayodhya.
Spiritual guru and founder of Art of Living foundation Sri Sri Ravishankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu, well known for his mediation experience, will be the other two members of the panel. Interestingly, all the three men appointed by the apex court hail from Tamil Nadu where the Ayodhya dispute does not have much resonance.
The mediation process in Faizabad of Uttar Pradesh, around 7 km from the twin city of Ayodhya, will commence within a week and the panel will submit a progress report within four weeks, the top court said in its order that came ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
It said the mediation proceeding to be held "in-camera" and in "utmost confidentiality" will be completed within eight weeks which is the interregnum period granted earlier by the apex court to the parties in the main Ayodhya case to go through translations of oral and documentary evidences.
A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said it does not find any "legal impediment" to make a reference to mediation for a possible settlement of the dispute.
"We therefore order accordingly, and having taken note of the names suggested by the parties, we are of the view that the following panel of mediators should be appointed to go into the dispute with liberty to the mediators to co-opt other members of the panel, if so required," it said.
Declaring the names, the bench said: "Justice (retd) Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla - Chairman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar - Member, senior advocate Sriram Panchu - Member."
The bench, also comprising Justices S A Bobde, D Y Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S Abdul Nazeer, was told earlier by Hindu bodies, except for Nirmohi Akhara, and Uttar Pradesh government, that they oppose the court's suggestion for mediation. The Muslim bodies supported the proposal.
However, both sides suggested the panel of names for possible mediators.
The three panel members separately said they will strive to achieve a resolution of the vexed dispute.
"For the present, I can only say that if the committee has been constituted, we will take every step to resolve the dispute amicably," Kalifulla said in Chennai. He had earlier served as a judge of the Madras High Court.
While Ravishankar said everybody must move together to end long-standing conflicts, Panchu said the court has given a "serious" responsibility and he will do his best.
Ravishankar also said the decision is in the best interest of the country.
A number of senior BJP leaders made it clear that building Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya is the only way out of the impasse.
Union minister Uma Bharti said one has to respect the court order but asserted that she stands for building the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya and a mosque can be built only outside its vicinity.
BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao said keeping the dispute pending for long is not in anyone's interest.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) welcomed the court order, saying it would be most befitting that the matter is resolved through negotiations.
While BSP leader Mayawati called the move "appreciable", AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said Ravi Shankar should act in an "unbiased" manner.
The Congress said it respects the Court decision and noted that the court's verdict should be final and binding on all parties.
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat said the previous mediation efforts had failed to yield results but this time, the Supreme Court is monitoring it and all the parties who have gone to the court are in agreement with the decision and it is to be seen what will be the result.
While opposing the suggestion of mediation, Hindu bodies have argued that earlier attempts of reaching a compromise have failed and provisions of Civil Procedure Code (CPC) require public notice to be issued before the start of mediation process.
"Considering the provisions of the CPC..., we do not find any legal impediment in making a reference to mediation for a possible settlement of the dispute(s) arising out of the appeals. Whether the said provisions of the CPC would apply in the event parties arrive at a settlement/compromise in the mediation proceedings is a matter left open to be decided at the appropriate stage," the bench said.
Ayodhya case mediation: Owaisi opposes Sri Sri's appointment to panel of mediators, wants 'neutral person'
The top court directed that the mediation proceedings be conducted with "utmost confidentiality" for ensuring its success and the views expressed by any of the parties including the mediators should be kept confidential and not be revealed to any other person.
"We are of the further opinion that while the mediation proceedings are being carried out, there ought not to be any reporting of the said proceedings either in the print or in the electronic media," the bench said.
However, it refrained from passing any specific restrain order at this stage and instead empowered the mediators to pass necessary orders in writing, if so required, to restrain publication of the details of the mediation proceedings.
"The Chairman of the mediation panel may also inform the registry of this court any difficulties that the panel may face in carrying out the task assigned to it by the present order and also to inform of any requirement to facilitate the mediation and to conclude the same at the earliest."
Fixing the seat for mediation process in Faizabad, the court said adequate arrangements including the venue of the mediation, place of stay of the mediators, their security, travel should be forthwith arranged by the state government so that proceedings could commence immediately.
Fourteen appeals have been filed in the apex court against the 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment, delivered in four civil suits, that the 2.77-acre land in Ayodhya be partitioned equally among the three parties -- the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla.
On December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid, constructed at the disputed site in the 16th century by Shia Muslim Mir Baqi, was demolished triggering communal riots across the country in which nearly 2,000 people were killed.
Meet the mediators
Following are the profiles of members of the Supreme Court appointed mediation panel which will explore the possibility of amicable settlement in the Ayodhya's Ram-Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid land dispute case.
(1) Justice (retd) Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifullah -- Chairperson of the mediation panel
- Justice (retd) Kalifulla hails from Karaikudi in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu and is the son of former Madras High Court judge Justice M Fakkir Mohamed.
- He had retired as a Supreme Court judge on July 22, 2016.
- He was elevated to the apex court as a judge on April 2, 2012.
- Justice Kalifulla rendered many landmark judgments including on carrying out reforms in the BCCI and introduction of vedic astrology as a course of scientific study in Indian universities.
- He was appointed as the acting Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court on April 7, 2011 and later became the chief justice there on September 18, 2011.
(2) Sri Sri Ravishankar -- member of the mediation panel
- Sri Sri Ravishankar is a renowned spiritual guru and founder of Art of Living Foundation.
- He had earlier tried to mediate for settlement in the Ayodhya land dispute.
- He held meetings with Muslim leaders including members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Sunni Waqf Board and the Nirmohi Akhara in the matter.
- In 2018, he had attempted an out of court settlement of the land dispute by holding talks with both Hindu and Muslim groups.
(3) Sriram Panchu -- member of the mediation panel
- Panchu, a senior advocate, is the founder of India's first court-annexed mediation centre in 2005 -- The Mediation Chambers -- in the Madras High Court.
- He has authored books on mediation, including a comprehensive manual -- Mediation: Practice and Law.
- Panchu has been mediating in crucial cases and in 2010, he was appointed as a mediator by the Supreme Court to resolve a long-standing boundary dispute between states of Assam and Nagaland.
- In 2011, the apex court had appointed him as a mediator to resolve the dispute involving performance of religious ceremonies in Parsi temples.
- He has formulated the course curriculum on 'Alternative Dispute Resolution and Access to Justice' for the Institute of Human Settlements, India, in association with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.
- He has also mediated international commercial disputes.
(With PTI inputs)