An elderly man poses stiffly beneath a bright sun. He smiles very little, if at all, and his black coat and flowing robe stand out against the green grass and grazing beasts.
It is a rare, grainy photo, published by an American newspaper, of a man known in court documents as the “next friend” of God.
His name: Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a retired high court judge.
A lawsuit that Agarwal filed in July 1989 is “Suit 5” in one of the most famous court cases in Indian history: the long dispute over a plot of land in Ayodhya that Hindus believe is the birthplace of Lord Ram, and where the Babri Masjid stood for centuries before being destroyed by kar sevaks in 1992.
Suit 5 lists both Ram and the land it considers to be his place of birth — janmabhoomi — as plaintiffs (as “juridical persons”*), and asks that the entire premises be declared their property.
There was a third plaintiff: the “next friend” of the first and the second, a position held by Deoki Nandan Agarwal until his death in 2002.
An article in the Wall Street Journal describes how he “testified both on behalf of Ram and himself”, having “worked late into the night for years on the filing.”
In an interview with the newspaper, his daughter, Minu, recalled that he once said he was working on “the most important case in India.”
On November 9, 2019 — seventeen years after Deoki Nandan Agarwal’s death — the Supreme Court greenlighted the construction of a Ram temple on the contentious land in Ayodhya.
It said another site, also in Ayodhya, should be allotted to Muslims for a mosque.
The verdict has not gone uncriticised. But the Sunni Central Waqf Board, the litigant for whom the alternate plot of land is meant, has said it welcomes the judgment.
* NOTE: The Supreme Court held in its November 9, 2019 judgment that the second plaintiff in Suit 5 — the place believed to be Ram Janmabhoomi — was not a juristic person.