India’s highest court is to hear a petition Tuesday concerning a patch of ground claimed by both Hindus and Muslims that caused one of the worst cases of communal violence since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.
In 1992, after decades of conflict over the 47-acre site in Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Hindu zealots tore down a mosque that had stood there since the 16th century. The demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque unleashed riots across India in which 2,000 people died, most of them Muslim.
Tuesday, India's Supreme Court will hear a petition for more mediation on a case combining several Hindu and Muslim lawsuits that will delay the outcome of the Ayodhya verdict. Originally set for Sept. 24, the verdict will determine legal ownership of the site. According to the petition, a decision now would pose a security risk at a time when India’s security concerns are focused on the Commonwealth Games, which New Delhi will host from Oct. 3 to 14.
The public mood
The issue of the Babri Masjid is thought to have lost some of its power to mobilize mass hysteria in recent years. There has been no large-scale violence between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority since sectarian violence in the western state of Guajarat killed some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, in 2002.
But India’s government has not wanted to take any chances. Extra security forces have been deployed across Uttar Pradesh, while Delhi has canceled ministers’ trips. The government even issued appeals in newspapers across the country, urging calm in the wake of a verdict.
Long venerated by Hindus and Muslims
For more than a century, a group of Hindus have claimed that the mosque, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Babar in 1528, had been built over the site of a Hindu temple. Some Hindus also believe that the site is the birthplace of their god Ram. There is no archaeological evidence to support either belief, though the site has long been venerated by Hindus as well as Muslims.
In 1949, Hindus reportedly placed statues of their own gods inside the mosque, claiming their presence was miraculous. When Muslims protested, authorities ruled the mosque a disputed site, and closed it down.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party used the issue in the 1980s to mobilize support among Hindus and rise to prominence. But today, the party is less keen to stoke communal tensions.
“We have gone beyond the Babri Masjid,” wrote the Indian Express newspaper in an editorial Sunday. “Ayodhya was a symbol of national failure, of Indian despondency. It has no relevance to today’s resurgent India, where the public mood is entirely different.”
Waiting for a verdict
Some analysts have raised the possibility that the shooting of two foreign tourists in the Indian capital on Sept. 19 could have been linked to the impending Babri Masjid judgment.
For the Congress Party, which leads India’s government, any outcome could prove tough. Endorsing a pro-Hindu verdict will damage the secular party's links with the Muslim population, which, while a minority, constitutes a strong vote bank.
A verdict that favors the Muslim side, meanwhile, could necessitate the removal of Hindu groups from the site – which is likely to become home to a protracted, politicized battle.
“The way the country handles this – the aftermath – will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said of the case.