India’s Supreme Court on Saturday ruled in favour of a Hindu temple on a disputed religious ground in the country’s north and ordered that alternative land be given to Muslims to build a mosque — a verdict in a highly contentious case that was immediately deplored by a key Muslim body.
The dispute over land ownership has been one of India’s most heated issues, with Hindu nationalists demanding a temple on the site in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state for more than a century. The 16th century Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu hard-liners in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people dead.
Saturday’s verdict paves the way for building the temple in place of the demolished mosque.
It is expected to give a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party which has been promising the majority Hindus a temple of their most revered god Ram in Ayodhya town as part of its election strategy for decades. The minority Muslims fear that the court verdict will embolden Hindu hardliners in the country.
As the news broke, groups of jubilant Hindus poured into Ayodhya’s streets and distributed sweets to celebrate the verdict, but police soon persuaded them to return to their homes. As night fell, a large number of Hindus in the town lit candles, lamps and firecrackers to celebrate, and police faced a tougher time in curbing their enthusiasm.
The five Supreme Court justices who heard the case said in a unanimous judgment that 5 acres (2 hectares) of land will be allotted to the Muslim community to build a mosque, though it did not specify where. The court said the 5 acres is “restitution for the unlawful destruction of the mosque.”
The disputed land, meanwhile, will be given to a board of trustees for the construction of a temple to the Hindu god Ram.
Hindu hard-liners have said they want to build a new temple to Ram on the site, which they revere as his birthplace. They say the mosque was built after a temple dedicated to the Hindu god was destroyed by Muslim invaders.
Zafaryab Jilani, a representative of the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board, a key Muslim body in the state and a party to the dispute, opposed the ruling.
“We are not satisfied with the verdict and it’s not up to our expectation,” he said. “These 5 acres of land don’t mean anything to us. We are examining the verdict and whatever legal course is open for us.”
Jilani hinted at filing a review petition in the Supreme Court challenging the verdict. At the same time, he appealed to members of all communities to maintain peace.
The judges said that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was “in violation of the status quo orders of this court.” But they didn’t order any punitive action against those who demolished the mosque in the presence of several top leaders of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi hailed the decision and said it had settled a long-standing matter.