Lucknow: From the outside, Harishankar Jain’s office in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood of Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital, looks very much the lawyer’s chamber it indeed is.

It is also the war room for the Hindu Mahasabha in the longest running and among the most controversial battles over real estate fought between two communities in the history of India. At stake is a plot of land measuring 2.77 acres, located 140km from Lucknow in the town of Ayodhya, which is claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.

Inside the first-floor office, Jain’s desk is piled high with dust-laden files, all of them relating to the six-decade-old Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. More stacks of files, containing thousands of pages of applications and appeals, litter the floor. The shelves running round the office are crammed with books on Islamic and Hindu laws—testimony to the twists and turns in a dispute that some say dates back four centuries.

“These are the files relating to the case," says the 55-year-old Jain, a distinctive red tilak on his forehead. “About 40,000 pages in all," adds Ranjana Agnihotri, counsel for the Ram Janambhoomi Punaruddhar Samiti.

Jain is an unabashed supporter of the campaign for the construction of a temple for Lord Ram on the disputed site where the 16th century Babri mosque stood, until it was demolished by Hindu activists in December 1992. With all submissions and arguments concluded, and the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court due to pronounce its verdict on Friday, on whom the land belongs to, the activity in Jain’s office has undergone a distinct change in recent days.

Whoever is the loser in the verdict will certainly appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court, and Jain is already preparing for the next round in the battle. The files and the books in his office are his legal ammunition.

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A similar certitude is missing among politicians. This is contrary to the political stance adopted by various parties in the run-up to and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) government is outwardly calm, but a sense of nervousness has gripped government officials. “Let’s face it, whichever side loses, there is bound to be tension, Already there are signs of mobilization by some groups and that is worrying," said a top security official, who did not want to be named.

Awaiting verdict: (clockwise from top) The disputed site; BJP’s Vinay Katiyar; advocates Harishankar Jain (left) and Zafaryab Jilani (right); students at Lucknow University. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Similarly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been closely associated with Hindu activists in the temple campaign, seems to be subtly distancing itself or preferring to adopt a wait-and-watch policy.

“I feel the case will reach the Supreme Court," BJP leader L.K. Advani had told reporters on 17 September.

The fear among all is the verdict may, given what transpired in 1992, trigger communal strife. Hundreds were killed in riots that followed the Babri Masjid’s demolition.

In the run-up to the verdict, there have been appeals for calm from religious bodies, besides the Central government. “We hope vested interests will not have an opportunity to disturb communal harmony," said the Naib Imam of Eidgah Khalid Rashi Firangimahli, a respected Muslim cleric in Lucknow.

The origins

While the court’s verdict would pertain to a dispute dating back 60 years, the legal challenges, court records show, go back even further.

“The first suit in the dispute was filed in 1885 by Mahant Raghubir Das seeking permission to build a canopy over the Ram Chabootra. The civil appeal No. 27 of 1885 was dismissed by the then magistrate of Ayodhya," says a review of the voluminous records preserved by Jain.

Little is then heard of the dispute until 1934, when court papers show that during “a communal riot in Ayodhya, portions of the Babri mosque were damaged and later rebuilt at the cost of the government".

In 1949, idols of Hindu deities appeared inside the mosque; they were allegedly placed there by Hindus on the night of 22-23 December. When Muslims protested, the administration deemed it a disputed area and locked the gates.

In January 1950, a person called Gopal Singh Visharad filed the first title suit in which he said he had been “stopped from entering the temple premises to offer prayers", and sought the court’s “injunction to offer puja inside the temple".

The court restrained the removal of the idols and allowed worship.

In 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu sect, filed another suit seeking the court’s “direction to hand over the charge of the disputed site from the court-appointed receiver", claiming to be the custodian of the spot.

On 18 December 1961, the UP Sunni Central Board of Wakf moved a legal claim to possess the disputed land. On 1 July 1989, another civil suit was filed in the name of Bhagwan Shree Ram Lalla Virajman for “declaration and possession of the (entire) masjid complex".

All the four disputes were before a court in Faizabad district until they were transferred to a special bench of the Allahabad high court in October 1989. According to Jain, so far the bench, comprising justices D.V. Sharma, S.U. Khan and Sudhir Agarwal, has examined 6,070 witnesses.

Mushtaq Ahmed Siddiqui, lawyer for the Sunni Wakf Board, says the court will rule on almost 120 issues, including “whether the building in question was a mosque and it was used as such till December 22-23 1949, whether the building was ever used for puja, whether the building stood at the birthplace of Ram, whether there was any Ram temple there prior to 1528".

Past and present

While it’s difficult to say exactly when the politicization of the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid case started, it is apparent that it has at various stages influenced politics, both at the local and national level—never so momentously as it did in the 1990s.

The dispute intensified when a district judge of Faizabad, in 1986, ordered the gates of the mosque—closed since 1949—to be opened to allow Hindus to worship.

“This was a mistake committed by then Rajiv Gandhi government," said Ramesh Dikshit, a professor of political science from Lucknow University.

This, analysts say, was a result of the shift in political focus by the Congress as part of its efforts to target the Hindu vote bank. They cite the decision of the Congress government to allow a Vishwa Hindu Parishad-backed shilanyas, or stone-laying ceremony, in Ayodhya in 1989.

Although the shilanyas site was not on the disputed land, Muslims—who form India’s largest religious minority group—were upset by both developments and distanced themselves from the Congress. In 2001, Muslims were estimated to account for 18.5% of the Uttar Pradesh population.

“These events hurt Muslims," said the Babri Masjid Action Committee’s Zafaryab Jilani. “It seemed the Congress was trying to appease the majority community. I would call them watershed moments in the long history of the dispute."

The shift in the Muslim vote from the Congress coincided with the rise of the Samajwadi Party, which aggressively sought out the alienated community even as the BJP banked on growing polarization to consolidate its Hindu vote bank. It was the beginning of the marginalization of the Congress in the state—which elects 80 members to Lok Sabha, the largest by any state—and its decline at the national level, something that it managed to reverse only in 2004.

The BJP, on the other hand, has come full circle. It rightly sensed that the cause of building a Ram temple at the disputed site would strike a chord, particularly in northern India.

Advani campaigned for the cause on his 1990 rath yatra (journey by chariot) that commenced in Somnath, Gujarat, and travelled towards the disputed site. By the time the trip was cut short by Advani’s arrest in Samastipur, Bihar, the BJP had made its political point even if it was unable to deliver on its promise.

“We will ask Parliament to enact a legislate to facilitate the construction of the temple," says BJP national vice-president Vinay Katiyar. “How can we abandon the soil where Ram was born?" Katiyar’s views seem to find less resonance among the young.

Shivam Gupta from Faizabad district in which Ayodhya is located, said he had seen too many policemen in his hometown since childhood.

“The situation is always tense, schools, colleges and businesses always closed. I have been sent here (Lucknow) because there are no opportunities there. I can tell you that the people of Ayodhya and Faizabad want development and peace," said the 18-year-old commerce undergraduate.