India’s Top Court Orders Mediation on Contested Temple Site

(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court ordered petitioners to mediate and find a solution to a land-ownership case in the northern city of Ayodhya, the latest attempt to solve the nation’s most polarizing religious dispute over construction of a temple on the site of a demolished mosque.

A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi appointed a panel to begin proceedings within a week. The decision came amid a Supreme Court hearing on an appeal against a 2010 lower court verdict that gave Muslims one-third of the land and the rest to Hindu groups. The Hindu groups claim the site is birth place of Lord Ram.

India’s Top Court Orders Mediation on Contested Temple Site

The top court’s order for mediation, which could potentially influence the outcome of the general elections due by May, pushes the hearing on the emotive issue beyond the polls. Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have reinvigorated their pitch for expediting the temple’s construction.

The three-member panel will comprise former Supreme Court judge F.M. Khalifulla, spiritual leader Ravi Shankar and advocate Sriram Panchu, the constitution bench said in its verdict. The proceedings will be confidential and media cannot report on it.

In 1992, Hindu mobs razed a 16th-century mosque in Uttar Pradesh state’s Ayodhya, triggering deadly riots that killed at least 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. The site remains at the heart of India’s most politically divisive row. Hindu groups say the Babri mosque at the disputed site was built over the ruins of a temple that marked the birthplace of their god, Lord Ram.

The court’s suggestion for mediation is a departure from the approach so far to treat the case as a “pure land dispute” over the 2.77 acre property. “After so many years and all that has happened, do you really think it is about property?” Justice S.A. Bobde said in previous hearing mooting the idea of mediation.

Elections

Although a positive verdict could have boosted the BJP’s electoral chances, mediation will still benefit the BJP by prolonging an issue that animates the party’s Hindu nationalist supporters, said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank.

“As long as this issue remains alive, it’s politically beneficial for the BJP,” he said.

Even though mediation is likely to fail, the court could still delay the process past voting and then claim to have exhausted legal options before asking lawmakers to legislate on the matter, Sahoo added.

“The judiciary knows its limitations on a matter of faith that is so politically volatile,” he said. “But at least this bench has taken some positive steps and gone to mediation. And if it doesn’t work, they can always say there should be a political solution.”

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