India’s Supreme Court Is About to Settle a 500-Year-Old Religious Dispute
Security personnel in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. (Source: PTI)

India’s Supreme Court Is About to Settle a 500-Year-Old Religious Dispute

(Bloomberg) -- To Hindus, it’s the revered birthplace of the god Ram. To Muslims, it’s the site of a 16th century mosque that was razed in 1992 by Hindu extremists. After a long legal fight -- and much bloodshed -- India’s Supreme Court is set to rule on which of the country’s biggest religions owns the site. Either way, the court’s decision is likely to inflame religious tensions at a time when Hindu hardliners are feeling increasingly empowered under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government.

1. What’s it about?

Ostensibly a plot of land of 2.77 acres (1.12 hectares) in Ayodhya, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. For more than seven decades, right-wing Hindu campaigners have been pushing to build a grand temple there for the warrior god Ram, who they believe was born on the site where the Mughals, India’s most illustrious Islamic dynasty, later built the Babri mosque.

India’s Supreme Court Is About to Settle a 500-Year-Old Religious Dispute

2. What’s the history?

During colonial rule, the British kept the site divided -- much like Temple Mount in Jerusalem -- permitting Muslim worshipers to pray inside the mosque and Hindus to worship outside. In 1949, two years after independence, Hindu activists broke into the mosque and placed an idol of Ram inside. Anticipating violence, the Indian government locked the main gate. Lawsuits were then filed by religious groups seeking control. In the 1980s, Hindu nationalists in the fledgling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, launched a campaign to build a temple to Ram there (Modi was among the organizers). On Dec. 6, 1992, a Hindu mob gathered and, in the presence of senior BJP leaders, demolished much of the mosque. That provoked nationwide riots in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, lost their lives. On March 12, 1993, more than 250 people were killed in retaliatory bombings in Mumbai for which the fugitive mobster Dawood Ibrahim remains wanted.

3. Why is this case still being talked about?

It brought religious identity back to the center of Indian politics. The violence stirred memories of the bloodshed witnessed after the country was divided in 1947 into India and Pakistan. While Pakistan became an Islamic nation, the founders of India chose to build a secular state where all citizens were on par before the law. Not everyone agreed in a country where more than 80% of the population is Hindu, and hardline Hindu nationalists have seized on the temple dispute to help legitimize exclusionary politics. In 2014, only 3.7% of members of parliament’s lower house were Muslim, compared to 9% in 1980, even as the Muslim share of the population rose to 14.2% from 11.1% in the same period.

4. What’s before the Supreme Court?

A lower court in 2010 ordered the disputed land be split into three parts, two going to Hindu groups and the third to the Sunni Waqf Board, representing Muslims. All three parties appealed to the Supreme Court. (Meanwhile, a fourth group that says it represents Shiite Muslims joined the case, asking for the land to go to the Hindus.) Final hearings began in August and ended Oct. 16. A verdict is expected before Nov. 17, when Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who is heading the five-judge bench hearing the case, is slated to retire.

5. What’s Modi’s position?

A verdict in favor of building a Ram Temple at Ayodhya would be touted as a political victory for Modi, who was easily re-elected to a second term in 2019. The BJP has included a call for that in every election manifesto since 1996. But Modi has also sought to restrain some of the louder voices in his party. At a rally in September, Modi called on them to have faith in the Supreme Court and the Indian Constitution. “For Lord Ram’s sake, close your eyes and have reverence in the judicial system of the country,” Modi said. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- parent organization of the BJP -- and the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is closely linked to the BJP, canceled all public events planned in November and decided against holding celebratory processions across India if the verdict goes in favor of the Hindus, to avoid provoking sectarian violence.

6. What’s the bigger picture?

Recent government decisions have shown a clear push toward a tougher stance with minorities. For instance, in Kashmir -- India’s only Muslim majority region -- political rivals to Modi’s BJP remain under detention and communication restrictions have been in place since Aug. 5. Modi’s government has scrapped autonomy held by Kashmir and is pushing for a national citizens registry in the eastern state of Assam, which threatens to render stateless close to 2 million Indians, including Muslims. India’s home minister wants to broaden the registry plan nationwide. There’s also a push for a controversial uniform civil code for all citizens. Critics say the rise of religious identity politics has shifted focus from critical problems such as malnutrition, quality of education, lack of sanitation and rising income inequality.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Mihir Sharma looks at economic dangers facing India, while Pankaj Mishra focuses on Kashmir.
  • “Ayodhya: deceit and force.” An essay by jurist A.G. Noorani in India’s Frontline magazine.
  • Sarvepalli Gopal wrote a book on the rise of communal politics, and Valay Singh on faith and discord in Ayodhya.
  • “Ayodhya Isn’t A Hindu-Muslim Dispute; It’s A Battle Between Communal And Secular Forces,” an essay by historian Irfan Habib.
  • Atul Dev in the Atlantic Magazine sees India’s Supreme Court teetering.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.