By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 9:35 PM
NEW DELHI - An Indian court ruled that a disputed Hindu-Muslim holy site in the northern part of the country should be divided between the two faith communities, an attorney for one of the Hindu parties in the suit said Thursday.
The 60-year-old case has been a tinderbox of religious tensions and has triggered thousands of killings in the past two decades. Both Hindus and Muslims have laid claim to the temple-mosque site in the town of Ayodhya, which has become a heady but volatile cocktail of history, mythology and law.
In delivering the verdict on the site's ownership, a three-judge bench dismissed the Muslim claim that the site should hold a mosque and upheld the Hindu belief that it is the sacred birthplace of the god Ram. But the judges - one Muslim, two Hindu - said that a part of the 64-acre property should be given to the Muslims.
Tensions around the site rose dramatically in 1992, when angry Hindu mobs razed a 16th-century Babri mosque that they claimed stood on the site of the birthplace of Ram. Many protesters believed that a medieval Mughal emperor had torn down an ancient Hindu temple on the property and built the mosque. The mosque's demolition sparked nationwide riots; 3,000 people were killed in two months.
The court determined that "the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram," adding that the demolished mosque had been "built against the tenets of Islam. Thus, it cannot have the character of a mosque."
The court also ruled that the Hindu idol at the site not be removed. The property will be split among two Hindu groups and one Muslim group, and the status quo is to be maintained at the site for the next three months, the court said.
Efforts to replace the mosque with a grand temple have been a rallying point for Hindu fundamentalists, while many Muslim groups want the mosque to be rebuilt from the rubble.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the attorney for one of the Hindu parties, appealed to the Muslims to "humbly accept the verdict and help the Hindus build a grand temple and see the birth of a new India."
The judgment, however, might still be in debate because the Muslim petitioner said he will appeal to the Supreme Court, and a final decision might take a few more years.
"I am of the firm view that no public resentment is required. There is no reason for loss of hope in favor of the mosque," said Zaffaryab Jilani, the attorney for the Muslim petitioner. "But we hope peace and tranquility will prevail and the issue will not be taken to the streets."
Some observers called the verdict a please-all. But it was immediately unclear whether the ruling will help heal the deep religious fissures that have haunted modern India. The dispute over the site has stained the fragile fabric of the predominantly Hindu but secular nation of more than a billion people, where Muslims make up a little over 13 percent. Political leaders have said that the future of the diverse nation is at stake as India addresses the Hindu-Muslim fault line.
Among the 28 issues that the four lawsuits examined were the ownership of the site, whether the Hindu god Ram was really born there, and whether there was a temple at the site before the year 1528, when the mosque was built. In one of the lawsuits, the god Ram is named as a petitioner.
"This paves the way to the building of a grand temple at the spot," said Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. "This is not to be seen as a victory or a loss. It is important that everybody forgets the bitterness of the past."
Before the verdict was handed down, the town of Ayodhya was turned into a fortress, with riot police guarding the streets and highways. Almost 190,000 troops were deployed in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
On Tuesday, India's Supreme Court rejected a plea to defer the judgment in favor of a last effort for an out-of-court settlement between the communities.
The Indian government fears that the verdict might stoke religious passions ahead of the upcoming Commonwealth Games, which begin this weekend, and President Obama's visit. (In New Delhi on Thursday, about 100 people protested the games as too costly and called for a boycott. That followed a similar demonstration the day before.)
Officials hoped that after 18 years, the issues over Ayodhya may have diminished in the new economically resurgent India. One-fifth of India's population was born after the demolition of the mosque.
"I think that India has moved on, young people have moved on. And young people recognize that India story is a much bigger story and it should not be in any way derailed by dispute over a place," P. Chidambaram, India's home minister in New Delhi, said Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that "the way the country handles this - the aftermath - will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country."
The Times of India media group ran a campaign called "Indians First" for two days starting Tuesday, calling upon citizens to put aside religious identities in the interest of the nation.
All processions in Ayodhya have been banned, and religious leaders appealed for calm and advised members not to celebrate or mourn the verdict. Telecom companies banned all bulk text-messaging service this week to prevent rumors and crowd mobilization. The Editors Guild of India urged the media to exercise restraint in their coverage of the verdict.