While protests by farmers have been the focus of news reporting from India over the last months, a less reported story is also worthy of attention. Last month construction was begun on a mosque that has been the subject of an extended battle in the Indian courts. A little discussed aspect of that case is that the plaintiff was Lord Ram, a Hindu deity, held by the court to be a legal entity.
Lord Ram’s victory may be unique to the Indian legal system, but the concept of juridical persons is not. In the U.S. legal system corporations are juridical persons capable of suing and being sued. There is increasing discussion about algorithmic personhood to protect artificial intelligence that is not subject to human control. Finally, the concept of environmental personhood has been recognized in numerous countries, including the U.S., sometimes to protect the connection of indigenous cultures to nature. Environmental personhood has promise as a way to fill the gaps in traditional IP systems that leave indigenous cultural property vulnerable to exploitation. This could be particularly true for place-based intellectual property, such as the case in New Zealand of the Whanganui River, considered by the Maori people as an ancestor, and recognized in 2017 as a legal entity. See our previous article on Australian indigenous rock art and place-based IP.
As for Lord Ram, in 2019 the Indian Supreme Court announced a long-awaited decision in a case involving the ownership of a site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. The subject of the litigation was the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque and symbol of faith for Indian Muslims located in Ayodhya, a pilgrimage town in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, the most populous of Indian states. Many Hindus believe that Ayodhya is the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram, as recounted in the epic poem Ramayana. They claim that an ancient Ram temple once stood on the site.
After a long history of disputes over the site, the mosque was demolished in 1992 by Hindu extremists, leading to anti-Muslim riots and the death of 2000 people throughout the country. Responsibility for the 1992 events was mired in litigation until September 2020, when all defendants were acquitted.
In a victory for Prime Minister Modi, the Supreme Court in 2019 awarded the disputed land to the Hindu litigants, calling the demolition of the mosque illegal but granting permission for the building of a temple to Ram at the site. Inherent in that decision was a finding that the Babri Mosque was not built on vacant land. In lieu of rights to the site, the Muslims litigants were given a five-acre plot of land at an alternative site to build a new mosque. It is construction of this new mosque, which will include a hospital, museum, library, community kitchen, research center and publication house, that has brought the case to the public spotlight once again.
The treatment of deities as juridical persons has a long history in India. It started with British administrators, who ruled that the deity worshipped at a temple was the legal owner of its land and resources and thus entitled to sue to recover property that has been taken. Deities, considered minors, enforce their rights through trustees of the temple. Further, the birthplace of the deity itself can have legal existence.
In another case involving a deity, in September 2020 a suit was filed in Mathura, also in the state of Uttar Pradesh, by the Hindu deity Lord Shrikrishna Virajman for removal of Masjid Idgah, allegedly built on land belonging to the deity. The plaintiff is described in the complaint as follows:
He is a minor. He is a juristic person. He can sue and be sued through shebait [guardian of the deity] and in his absence through next friend. It can own, acquire and possess the property. It has every right to protect its property and to recover its lost property … by availing an appropriate remedy in the Court of law.
The second plaintiff is the birthplace itself, which the complaint claims can exercise every right available to a juristic person.
The defendants cite the 1991 Places of Worship Act, which provides for the maintenance of the religious character of a place of worship as it was in 1947 (with an exception for Babri Masjid).
The Babri Masjid and Mathura lawsuits are part of a larger ideological battle over interpreting Hindu epics and mythologies as historical truths. Monuments (including the Taj Mahal) and archeological sites are caught up in this effort and used to prove that ancient Hindu temples were demolished to make way for mosques.