India holds its breath as court divides historic mosque site

Hindus awarded two-thirds of Ayodhya, the holy ground that has sparked centuries of conflict

An Indian court sought to find a compromise solution to one of the country's most testing and sensitive disputes when it ruled that a demolished 16th Century mosque should be divided between Hindus and Muslims and that both could use the site for worship.

In a case considered a crucial test of the country's much vaunted claim to be place of mutual religious tolerance, the court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh said the site where the Babri Masjid once stood should be split, with a third given to Muslims and two-thirds to Hindus. Not for the first time in the history of the subcontinent, partition was deemed the best solution.

Last night, with full details of the complex judgment still emerging and the court's website carrying the full assessments by the three judge-panel repeatedly overloaded, officials were holding their collective breath to see whether the event would trigger much-feared violence. Initial reports suggested they had not, but India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, appealed to the nation for continued calm, saying: "I have full faith in the people of India. I also have full confidence in the traditions of secularism, brotherhood and tolerance of our great country. I know that often it is only a few mischief makers who create divisions in our society. I would appeal to my countrymen to be vigilant and not let such people succeed in disrupting peace and harmony."

The Babri mosque was built in the town of Ayodhya in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur and used until 1949 when Hindu devotees slipped idols of the deity Ram inside the complex. The Hindus claimed the mosque had fallen into misuse and was built on the site of an older temple that marked the site of the birthplace of the god. Lawsuits were filed, triggering the legal battle that has lasted six decades. One plaintiff attached to the suit is in his 90s.

But in an incident seared into the minds of hundreds of millions of Indians, in 1992, with Uttar Pradesh under the control of the right-wing Hindu national Bharatiya Janata Party, activists took matters into their own hands, demolishing the mosque and setting off religious clashes that left around 2,000 dead. Ahead of yesterday's decision, more than 200,000 police and paramilitaries were on duty across northern India and text messages that might be used to rally crowds were blocked.

Leaders in both Hindu and Muslim communities had also appealed for calm. Veteran journalist MJ Akbar said: "The judgment is less important than the reaction. The calmness with which both Hindus and Muslims have put the primacy of law over sentiment is the testament to India."

It is unlikely that the court's judgment will end the dispute. At least two plaintiffs, the Muslim Sunni Waqf Board and a Hindu trust, intend to take the matter to the country's Supreme Court.

The fact that the ruling by the Allahabad High Court, sitting in Lucknow, was not final may have been an additional reason for the lack of agitation. In the run-up to the announcement, the country's home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, claimed that India had changed since 1992 and that younger people had a different world-view.

What was true was that India could ill-afford more bad publicity. After several weeks in which its shambolic preparations for the Commonwealth Games received international coverage. A violent response to the ruling in Lucknow would have been a major blow.

The three judges had heard from dozens of witnesses and experts over an 11-year period starting in 1996 and had asked the government's Archaeological Survey of India to investigate the history of the 64-acre site and claims over its links to Ram. The judges reached different conclusions on some aspects of the lawsuits, creating initial confusion and meaning that some rulings stood on a 2:1 majority basis.

One judge ruled that the site was indeed considered the birthplace of Lord Ram while another found no evidence that the centuries-old mosque was built on Hindu ruins. The court decided that part of the site occupied by a makeshift Hindu temple but where the mosque had been located should go to the Hindu plaintiffs. The court ruled nothing should be done for three months.

"The High Court verdict is a significant step towards building a grand temple," claimed BJP leader LK Advani, who was accused of creating an atmosphere in which the mosque was torn down.

Zaffaryab Jilani, a lawyer for the Muslim community, said he would appeal. "It's not a victory or defeat for any party. It's a step forward. We hope this matter will be resolved," he said.

Timeline: A historic dispute – a modern-day flashpoint

1528 The Babri mosque is built in the town of Ayodhya by the Mughal emperor on the site where many Hindus say that Lord Ram, one of the most revered gods in Hinduism, was born.

1853 The first incidents of religious violence at the site are recorded. Six years on, British colonial administrators put up a fence to separate the Hindu and Muslim places of worship.

1949 Legal battle begins after Hindus allegedly put idols of Lord Ram in the mosque. The government takes over the land.

1987 The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party begins a campaign for the demolition of the mosque in order to build a temple on the site in honour of Lord Ram.

1992 Radical Hindus clamber on to the mosque and destroy it. It triggers riots between Hindus and Muslims that leave around 2,000 people dead.

1993 A series of bombings in the commercial city of Bombay, co-ordinated by elements in the city's Muslim underworld, kill 257 people on a day dubbed 'Black Friday'. Prosecutors said that the attack was planned as a response to the riots triggered by the tearing down of the mosque. Bombers left explosives primed inside vans and scooters outside strategic targets in the city, including the stock exchange.

1998 The BJP wins power on the back of a Hindu nationalist movement and leads a coalition government until 2004.

2002 A train fire blamed on Muslims, kills 59 Hindu pilgrims on the way back from Ayodhya. The incident sparks anti-Muslim riots and around 2,000 people are killed. A commission three years later rules that the fire was an accident.

2003 Bombs explode in a crowded jewellery market and historical landmark in Bombay, killing at least 44 people on the same day as an archaeological report was released about Ayodhya. The survey says there was evidence of a temple underneath the mosque.

2005 Islamic militants attack the disputed site with explosives. Security forces shoot six people.

2009 A commission delivers its verdict on the destruction of the mosque 17 years after it was set up. It implicates senior BJP leaders and sparks uproar in India's parliament.

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