A new report on the 1992 destruction of a centuries-old mosque has sparked fights in the country's Parliament and threatens to inflame relations between Hindus and Muslims.
The study, which took 17 years to complete, accuses leaders of India's Hindu nationalist party of planning one of the most communally divisive events in Indian history: the demolition in 1992 of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque at the hands of a Hindu mob.
Hindu extremists had claimed in a concerted campaign that the structure, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was built by Muslim invaders over the birthplace of a Hindu god. Its destruction provoked violent clashes that left some 2,000 people dead.
The event became watershed in modern Indian history, propelling the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – at the time of the attack a small, fringe, rightwing party – into power four years later. It sharply exacerbated hostility between Hindus and Muslims and has often been cited as a reason for growing extremism among India's often alienated Muslim minority.
The report by the Justice Liberhan Commission, named after the retired Supreme Court judge who led it, was tabled Tuesday in Parliament, one day after details were leaked by an Indian newspaper. It charges that the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the BJP's current leader, Lal Krishna Advani, were involved in planning the mosque's destruction. The party has always claimed the attack was the spontaneous initiative of grassroots activists.
Muslim leaders – including members of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind – a leading group of Muslim clerics – have called for the leaders named in the report to be prosecuted. Muslim commentators, meanwhile, warn that inaction is likely to alienate India's Muslim community further.
Kutub Kidwai, from the Institute of Islamic Studies, based in Mumbai (Bombay), says that increasing numbers of young Muslims were being drawn to extremism "because of feelings of alienation." She alluded to the involvement of Indian Muslims in the attacks on Mumbai's Taj hotel last November.
"The government has to be very wise in that respect," she continues. "People will be looking to the central government to take action – and many also remain adamant that the mosque be rebuilt in exactly the same place."
The report will damage the BJP, which has been beset by infighting after heavy losses in this year's general election. Political analysts say its poor showing in national polls in April and May suggest its emphasis on Hindutva – literally "Hinduness" – may be losing its attraction for many Indian voters.
But the ruling Congress party is also unlikely to emerge unscathed. At the time of the mosque's demolition, the Congress-led government was accused of failing to intervene to save the mosque and prevent the ensuing violence. Days before, it had allowed the gates of the mosque to be opened to let Hindu pilgrims say their prayers at the site.
But analysts have also speculated that the unveiling of the long-awaited report will also take pressure off the government, which has faced a noisy opposition over all its attempts to get down to business in a parliament session that began last week.