India’s Top Court Hands Bitterly Disputed Ayodhya Site to Hindus
Supreme Court of India. (Source: BloombergQuint)

India’s Top Court Hands Bitterly Disputed Ayodhya Site to Hindus

(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court handed Hindus complete ownership of a controversial plot of land for construction of a temple in the northern city of Ayodhya, an order that may deepen religious polarization in the South Asian country.

In the unanimous verdict, the Supreme Court’s five-judge panel ruled the land where a 16th century mosque was razed in 1992 originally belonged to Hindus and will be handed to a trust managed by the government for now. Hindu groups believe the site is the birthplace of the god Ram.

Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who heads the panel, read out the verdict to a packed courtroom on Saturday. Muslims will be given an alternate site for construction of a mosque, the court ruled.

Security was tightened across India for the ruling on the centuries-old religious dispute that remains at the heart of the country’s most politically divisive row. “This verdict will further increase people’s faith in judicial processes,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. “The calm and peace maintained by 130 crore Indians in the run-up to today’s verdict manifests India’s inherent commitment to peaceful coexistence,” he said, referring to the nation’s 1.3 billion population.

At stake is control over 2.77 acres -- the size of two football fields -- where the razing of the mosque by a Hindu mob sparked riots that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. The event laid the groundwork for the formation of the country’s Hindu-nationalist government six years later.

India’s Top Court Hands Bitterly Disputed Ayodhya Site to Hindus

Since his first term in 2014, Modi has been focused on transforming the nation into a destination that’s both attractive to global investors and unabashedly Hindu. In August, his government revoked the special autonomous status of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, and implemented a harsh security and communications crackdown that saw political rivals placed in detention for months on end. His administration is also pushing for a national citizens registry in the eastern state of Assam, which threatens to render stateless close to 2 million Indians, including Muslims, while the home minister wants to broaden the registry plan nationwide.

The verdict will test secular India’s ability to deal with the sensitive case at a time when Hindu hardliners are feeling increasingly empowered. The promise to build a grand temple at the Ayodhya site was a key part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda that risks fueling social divisions in the country, which has a history of religious riots.

“This is not only the verdict about the title suit, it also about turning the page on what has been a very vexed and divided issue,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Ashoka University. “At the moment it is positive that there is calm across the country. There is a sober mood. India should now move on.”

Police Deployed

Federal and local governments deployed extra police in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, while schools have been closed and restrictions put in place in the capital New Delhi, as well as other states including Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

India’s Top Court Hands Bitterly Disputed Ayodhya Site to Hindus

It’s a significant verdict for Modi and his ability to deliver for his base, said Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “It could be a test of India’s ability to clamp down on violence and not allow this to spiral out of control. It would reflect negatively on Modi if empowered citizens used this as an excuse to enact violent measures.”

On Oct. 16 the court concluded hearing 40 days of arguments on a series of appeals against the 2010 High Court verdict that gave the Sunni Waqf Board one-third of the land and split up the rest between two Hindu groups -- Nirmohi Akhara, a group of Hindu ascetics and Ram Lalla Virajman, the presiding infant deity. The Supreme Court’s earlier attempt for an out-of-court settlement through mediation failed.

Muslim organizations claim the land based on the existence of the mosque since 1528. Hindu groups argue the Babri Masjid was built on the site of an earlier temple. Some legal claims date back to 1950, shortly after idols of Hindu deities appeared inside the mosque.

Over the next four decades both sides went to court over the control of the site and the right to offer prayers there.

“We will focus on construction of a Ram temple,” said Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organization of the BJP. “One should not see this verdict as victory or loss.”

Political Support

The Bharatiya Janata Party used the temple issue to gain support among Hindus, increasing its vote share from two members of parliament in 1984 to winning 120 seats at the 1991 election and leading a coalition government in 1998. Hindus account for 79.8% of the country’s 1.3 billion population, while Muslims make up 14.2%.

The top court asked federal government to allot a five-acre plot to the Sunni Waqf Board for building a mosque and said possession of the disputed land rights would be handed over to the deity of Ram Lalla.

“It will push India’s 200 million Muslims to margin further.” said Ashok Swain, professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. “They have been politically and socially marginalized for the last five years, this verdict has made them legally marginalized.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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