Aypdhya: A court will rule on Thursday whether Hindus or Muslims own a disputed religious site in Ayodhya, a judgment many fear could trigger an outbreak of communal rioting.
The government has appealed for calm after the Allahabad high court decides on the ownership of the site of a 16th century mosque, a flashpoint which flared in 1992, triggering some of India’s worst riots that killed about 2,000 people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the verdict one of the country’s biggest security challenges, and it comes at an already tense time when India worries about its international image days before the Commonwealth Games start in New Delhi.
The issue haunts the ruling Congress party, a left-of-centre group with secular roots, which will have to stand by a verdict that is likely to upset one or other major voter bloc.
“I think that India has moved on. Young people have moved on, and young people recognise that the India story is more than a dispute about a place entitled to one religious group or another,” Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said.
“People realise that the India story must not be derailed by a dispute over one place,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Hindus and Muslims have quarrelled for more than a century over the history of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Hindus say it stands on the birthplace of their god-king Rama, and was built after the destruction of a Hindu temple by a Muslim invader in the 16th century.
Hindus wants to build a temple on the site. Muslims want the mosque rebuilt. About 80% of India’s 1.1 billion plus population are Hindus, but Muslims represent 13% - some 140 million putting it behind Indonesia and Pakistan in the ranks of Muslim populations.
The court will rule on three key issues, which ultimately will decide who owns the land: is the disputed site the birthplace of Rama, was the Babri mosque built after the demolition of a Hindu temple and was it built in accordance with the tenets of Islam?
The verdict is almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court and a final decision could take years.
The oldest of the suits being decided dates back to 1949, and Rama is one of the petitioners. Under Indian law, a deity is a legal person and can own property.
Hundreds of thousands of police in riot gear were posted at communally “sensitive” zones across India. The air force has been asked to remain alert, officials said.
In Ayodhya, security forces patrolled mostly empty streets. Many shops, businesses and schools remained closed.
Public gatherings have been forbidden in the town and India has banned bulk mobile text messaging nationally to prevent the spread of rumours and religious extremism.
Armed policemen with automatic weapons also stood in front of dozens of barricades on the narrow lane leading to the disputed site.
Those who trickled in to pray at the makeshift Ram temple, that sprang up after the Babri mosque was razed in 1992, had to go through five rounds of frisking and checking.
The narrow pathway leading to the bamboo temple is covered with an iron cage for several hundred metres, and the area around surrounded by barbed wire fences and 15-feet high iron railings. Policemen patrolled with guns.
Most people either stayed indoors or left Ayodhya, a town of about 70,000 people with a minority Muslim population of 2,000-3,000.
“Some people have gone away fearing possible violence and will probably be back only after the verdict is announced and the dust has settled,” said Rameshwar Singh, a local resident.