1940 verdict in Lahore gurdwara case may play key role in deciding Ayodhya dispute

If and when the Ayodhya land case reaches the Supreme Court, a 70-year-old judgment of the Privy Council will play an important role in deciding who should get control of the land where the now-demolished Babri Masjid once stood.

Pre-Independence Privy Council judgments, unless they have lost relevance due to later judgments by the Supreme Court, are routinely cited by lawyers in Indian courts to strengthen their arguments.

Legal experts say that Muslim groups, which are party to the Ayodhya suits, could cite the May 2,1940 Privy Council judgment in the case of Gurdwara Shahidganj Bhai Taru Singh, Lahore, to lay claim to the disputed land.

The gurdwara case pertained to the doctrine of adverse possession, which says a rightful owner of a property can lose his title over a property if another person occupies it for a particular period without being challenged.

The similarities in the Ayodhya case, decided by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, and the Shahid Ganj case are too stark to be missed. Consider this: In the Lahore gurdwara case, Muslims were contesting the Sikhs' claim to have a gurdwara over a piece of land, where a mosque once stood.

The gurdwara was built in the 18th century after razing to ground a mosque. Decades later, the Muslims sought possession of the land on which their mosque once stood, by filing a suit. They lost in various tribunals; the Lahore High Court, in what was a majority decision, dismissed their claim over the land, with the Privy Council finally putting its seal on the rights of the Sikhs to have the gurdwara on that land.

The matter also holds out a lesson for modern-day politicians as the then Unionist Party government headed by a Muslim Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan remained completely neutral in the matter. In fact, history has it that Khan refused to accept the Muslims' claim on the land, saying he could take any arbitrary decision.

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