An Indian court ordered the division of a patch of land in Ayodhya at the center of an ugly dispute between Muslims and Hindus, with a majority share going to Hindus.
Indians were glued to their televisions Thursday afternoon as a team of three judges at the Allahabad High Court ruled that one-third of the site would be held by a Muslim organization, with the remainder divided between two Hindu groups.
For more than a century members of the two faiths have fought over the site in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1992 a Hindu mob tore down the 16th century Babri Mosque there with pickaxes and their bare hands. Ensuing riots killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslim.
Despite fears that a verdict – of any kind – would unleash fresh communal violence, the region was calm in its aftermath.
“With the site being divided I don’t think there will be any big trouble in Uttar Pradesh,” says Sharat Prathan, a journalist in the state capital, Lucknow. “Indian people are so secular I don’t think they will mind if there is a mosque and a temple near to each other.”
The case has been something of a test of modern India's ability to ease sectarian tensions in a country that has experienced stunning economic growth since 1992. An improving economic environment has corresponded with a decline in the political fortunes of the chauvinistic Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A government inquiry last November determined that senior BJP members were complicit in the 1992 attack.
The party rose to prominence on the back of its antipathy for the mosque at Ayodyha and its promotion of Hindutva (literally “Hinduness”) increasing its number of seats from two in 1884 to 120 in 1991. In 1998 it came to power for the first time as head of a coalition government.
But in recent years, the notion of Hindutva has faded. In a general election last spring, the BJP took a drubbing. Political analysts say the Congress party did well in part because it took votes from Indians traditionally drawn to political Hinduism.
“India has moved on and the mood has changed, mostly because the political situation is so different,” says Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst at Delhi University. “I think the media has hyped up fears about a violent reaction."
The reaction from some Muslim Indians was a sign of the improved atmosphere in the intervening years.
"The suit of Muslims was liable to be dismissed,” a lawyer for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, a Muslim group, told reporters. “But they are still entitled to one-third of the site. We can say we are partly disappointed, not fully because some of the stand of the Muslims has been vindicated." "Masjid" is a local word for "mosque."
The government prepared for the worst. Some 200,000 security forces were deployed in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The ability to send a single text message to large groups of people was blocked in order to slow the spread of rumors. Liquor shops and many schools were closed for the day. An appeal for calm, signed by Prime Minister Singh, appeared in several Indian newspapers.
On Thursday a curfew was imposed in the Indian-occupied, Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, which has seen surging violence in recent months.
The Babri Mosque was commissioned by Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, in 1528. For more than a century, a group of Hindus have claimed that Babur built over a Hindu temple. There is no archaeological evidence to support either belief, though the site has long been venerated by Hindus as well as Muslims. Some Hindus also believe that the site is the birthplace of their god Ram.
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.
Ten years after the riots sparked by the mosque demolition in 1992, the dispute claimed fresh victims when Muslims attacked and killed 58 Hindu passengers on a train rumored to be returning from Ayodhya. The massacre sparked riots throughout Gujarat killing an estimated 2,000 mostly Muslims.
Headaches amid Commonwealth Games
Revisiting the issue has been a headache for India’s government at a time when the country is preparing for the Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi from Oct. 4 to 14.
The city’s disastrous preparations for the games have embarrassed the government and security is a particular concern after two foreign tourists were shot and wounded by suspected terrorists in the capital on Sept. 19. On Sept. 28, India’s supreme court heard a petition asking for the Ayodhya verdict to be delayed until the games were over. The court refused.
The court in Allahabad also ruled Thursday that the current status of the site should be maintained for the next three months to allow for the land to be peacefully divided.
Irfan Muhammed, a Muslim taxi driver in Delhi, said he did not believe there would be a Muslim backlash against the verdict, even though his community had lost the site on which the mosque was built.
“All over India there are temples and mosques close together," he says. “All most people want is peace.”