Auctioning Ayodhya

Tuesday, 27 March 2001
Parth J Shah
Economic Times

For a Gujarati today, to think about social problems is to think about the Godhra carnage and its inhuman aftermath. Underlying it all is Ayodhya. No lasting peace and harmony seems possible unless the Ayodhya problem is solved.

Many solutions have been proposed. Keep both communities happy: build a mandir and masjid on the disputed land. Or use the land for non-religious purpose—build a hospital, botanical garden, statue of the Mahatma. Or completely cordon-off the land and declare that we will re-open the issue on the anniversary of Independence in 2047—with the hope that by 2047 no one would even remember the problem. Or urge one of the communities to forgive and forget.

Each of these proposals has its own limitations. The experience of Jerusalem suggests that side-by-side existence of the places of worship could provide a permanent ground for mischief. Instead of harmonious co-existence, we may get perpetual hostility. The solution would work only if both communities have otherwise come to terms with the past and have decided to bury the hatred and intolerance. But if that had been achieved, then the Ayodhya problem would no longer exist. This seems to be true for many of the other solutions too.

The non-religious use of the land could give cause to fanatics of both sides to wage a war. In the place of one, two gangs would be attacking the land. To cordon off the land—the problem—until 2047 would be to rely on the hope that has already failed us. In the early years of Independence, the courts and the government likely thought that the problem would go away over years of growth and development. They didn’t resolve it then, we are paying the price now. Should we leave it unresolved again?

What if one side decided to forgive and forget? Wonderful! But highly unlikely, and for understandable reasons. Wouldn’t a new arena of dispute be found? Several already exist with powerful emotional symbolism for the majority community. Political fortunes, power, fame, and money now depend on continuing the conflict.

Where’s a ray of hope? Our much-cherished democracy is the last place one looks for resolution. Each side probably thinks that once they have sufficient political power, they will be able to resolve the dispute in their favour. They believe that the war of votes would end the dispute. Just like the actual war did in old days. Majoritarian democracy is simply a little civilised form of war. In both, the winner takes all. We are not a majoritarian but a constitutional democracy, however much contradictory and confused the Constitution may be. The vote-bank politics that has created and sustained the problem can hardly be expected to solve it. Our political system is really the last place for resolution.

For liberals—believers in the sanctity of private property—identification of the owner of the disputed land in Ayodhya would resolve the conflict. Sketchy historical records however make it impossible to establish the owner with any reasonable degree of certainty. Any decision of the Supreme Court would lack legitimacy given its history of making diametrically opposing interpretations of the same evidence. It cannot consistently define the “State” under Article 12 of the Constitution. Is a PSU the state? Since the days of the Constituent Assembly, the Article hasn’t changed, but the interpretations have been as many. The Supreme Court cannot provide a lasting solution. The property-right liberal, it appears, has come to a dead-end. Or may be not.

When historical ownership cannot be confidently established, the property must be judged ownerless. The new owner must be ascertained by auctioning the property. The disputed land in Ayodhya should be treated the same. The most principled, and therefore the most practical, solution for the Ayodhya problem is to auction the land to the highest bidder. The war of money would solve what the war of votes has started.

Any lasting solution to Ayodhya must meet one critical requirement: it should allow direct participation of all individuals and organisations interested in the disputed land. Only the auction solution meets this requirement. All others discussed above do not. They are all imposed. The “forgive-and-forget” option allows, at best, participation of only one party. Any sustainable solution must evolve within a framework of the rule of law. The auction method achieves this in the most efficient manner.

The Ayodhya auction will be different from conventional auctions. It will need to accommodate a very large number of potential bidders since all individuals and organisations can bid for the land. Moreover, it will be impossible to collect money from these numerous bidders after the auction, so each bidder will have to deposit the money at the time of the bid. The government can declare that the bids will be taken, say, until December 9, 2003. On that day, the highest bidder will be announced. The winner will own the land and decide how to use it.

All the money collected in the auction will be given to a newly formed independent Peace and Community Trust (PACT) which will use it to maintain peace and harmony, to help victims of religious violence, and equally importantly, to help catch, investigate, and prosecute all who destroy life and property in the name of religion. The PACT will promote the rule of law.

Description of all details of the auction and the PACT will take much space, but the nature of the solution is clear. The auction will most likely become a race between Hindus and Muslims occupied with Ayodhya. Though secular forces may join hands and put in a bid. The triangular race will allow all to put the money where their mouth is. The money collected by the fundamentalists groups, domestically and internationally, will go for the auction and not for hate propaganda and weapons. Their energies will be redirected to accumulation of funds. So, auction the disputed land in Ayodhya. Politics is the root of all evil. Money can be the root of good. A Gujarati answer to a Gujarati tragedy!