The Supreme Court yesterday awarded Hindus control of a bitterly disputed holy site that has sparked some of the country’s worst sectarian bloodshed.
The ruling in the dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups paves the way for the construction of a temple on the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, a proposal long supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
An alternative plot is to be given to Muslims by the government in the town to construct a mosque, the five-judge constitution bench said.
Yesterday’s judgment, which is likely to be viewed as a win for the BJP and its backers, was criticised as unfair by a lawyer for the Muslim group involved in the case.
However, the group’s leader said ultimately it would accept the verdict and called for peace between Hindus and Muslims.
In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque on the site, triggering riots in which about 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed across the country.
Court battles over the ownership of the site followed.
The Supreme Court said the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was unlawful.
However, oral and documentary evidence led the court to conclude that Hindus had believed the site of the Babri mosque to be a holy site even before the mosque was constructed.
Thousands of paramilitary force members and police were deployed in Ayodhya and other sensitive areas across India.
There were no immediate reports of unrest.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision has given the nation the message that even the most difficult of all problems falls within the ambit of the constitution and within the boundaries of the judicial system,” Modi said in a televised address yesterday evening, calling for “a new India” free of hatred.
He had earlier tweeted that the verdict should not be seen as “a win or loss for anybody.”
The ruling comes months after Modi’s government stripped the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region of its special status as a state, delivering on yet another election promise.
Neelanjan Sircar, an assistant professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, said the verdict would benefit the BJP, which won re-election in May, but a slowing economy would ultimately take centre stage for voters.
“In the short term, there will be a boost for the BJP,” said Sircar.
“These things don’t work forever. Temple isn’t going to put food on the table.”
The five-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, reached a unanimous judgment to hand over the plot of just 2.77 acres, or about the size of a soccer field, to the Hindu group.
The court also directed that another plot of five acres in Ayodhya be provided to the Muslim group that contested the case, but that was not enough to mollify some critics.
“The country is now moving towards becoming a Hindu nation,” All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi told reporters.
The BJP hailed the ruling as a “milestone”.
“I welcome the court decision and appeal to all religious groups to accept the decision,” Home Minister Amit Shah, who is also president of the BJP, said on Twitter.
A lawyer for the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board involved in the case initially said it would likely file a review petition, which could have triggered another protracted legal battle, but its chairman Zafar Farooqui later told reporters the verdict had been accepted “with humility.”
Muslim organisations appealed for calm.
The Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - the parent organisation of BJP - had already decided against any celebrations to avoid provoking sectarian violence.
Restrictions were placed on gatherings in some places and Internet services were suspended.
Elsewhere, police monitored social media to curb rumours.
Streets in Ayodhya were largely deserted and security personnel patrolled the main road to Lucknow, the capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
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