India’s highest court Monday suspended a historic verdict that had sought to end controversy over one of the most hotly disputed religious sites in the world.
Last September, Allahabad High Court ruled that dusty patch of land in Ayodhya, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has long been claimed by both Hindu and Muslim groups, should be shared.
For more than a century, members of the two religions had fought over the site, once home to a 16th-century mosque. Some Hindus believe the mosque, the Babri Masjid, was built over a temple to the god Ram. In 1992, a frenzied Hindu mob tore down the Babri Masjid with pickaxes and their bare hands. In the riots that followed, more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed. 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.
Monday, the Supreme Court suspended September’s ruling, saying that it was “strange” because none of the litigants in the case had asked for the land to be divided. It had “opened a litany of litigation,” it said.
Lawyers applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling, agreeing that no one had asked for the site to be divided.
The Babri Masjid has roused strong feelings India-wide not only because of the communal violence it has sparked, but because of the central role it has played in recent Indian political history. Still, with no date set for a final ruling on the site, the ruling is unlikely to inflame Hindu-Muslim ties in India, say observers.
In November 2009, a government inquiry determined that senior members of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had incited the mob that destroyed the mosque. The BJP rose to prominence on the back of its antipathy for the mosque at Ayodyha and its promotion of Hindutva (literally “Hinduness”). 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 in 2009, the BJP fared poorly. After fears that last year’s verdict could cause communal violence in UP or even nationally, the calm that followed was attributed to an easing of sectarian tensions in India.
Cedric Prakash, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent human rights campaigner, said that the Supreme Court was right to describe the earlier order as strange because faith and “sentiment” rather than fact lay behind it.
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 that 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.