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India court says mosque site to be divided

Image: An Indian policeman stands guard in front of the landmark Charminar in Hyderabad, India.
An Indian policeman stands guard in front of the landmark Charminar, ahead of a court verdict on whether Hindus or Muslims should control a disputed holy site in Ayodhya, in Hyderabad, India, on Thursday.Mahesh Kumar A. / AP
/ Source: news services

The site of a demolished mosque in India is to be divided between Hindus and Muslims, an Indian court ruled Thursday.

The court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh gave the Hindu community control over the section where the now demolished Babri Mosque stood and where a small makeshift tent-shrine to the Hindu god Rama rests.

Muslims revere the compound in Ayodhya as the former site of the mosque, built in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur, while Hindus say it is the birthplace of Rama and contend that a temple to the god stood on the site before the mosque.

Hindu mobs demolished the mosque in 1992, triggering some of India's worst riots. About 2,000 people died because of the violence.

Hindus want to build an enormous temple to Rama there, while Muslims want to rebuild the mosque. The ruling Thursday would almost certainly force both groups to scale down those plans.

While both Muslim and Hindu lawyers vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, the compromise ruling seemed unlikely to set off a new round of violence, as the government had feared.

There were no immediate reports of violence after the ruling, but as a precaution, more than 200,000 police fanned out in India on Thursday to guard against riots.  

If the ruling soothes tensions, it would be a boost for the ruling Congress party, a left-of-center group with secular roots that does not want to upset either voter bloc. The government and the parties to the dispute had appealed for calm in the wake of the verdict.

'Not a victory or defeat'
The Allahabad High Court ruled that the 64-acre site should be split, with the Muslim community getting control of one-third and two Hindu groups splitting the remainder. The Hindus will keep the area where the mosque once stood, according to the court judgment.

The court said archaeological evidence showed a temple had predated the mosque.

"The majority ruled that the location of the makeshift temple is the birthplace of Rama, and this spot cannot be shifted," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lawyer for one of the Hindu groups who sued.

The court also ruled that the current status of the site should continue for the next three months to allow for the land to be peacefully measured and divided.

Zaffaryab Jilani, a lawyer for the Muslim community, said he would appeal the verdict, which could delay a final decision in the 60-year-old case for years.

"It's not a victory or defeat for any party. It's a step forward. We hope this matter will be resolved," he said.

H.S. Jain, one of the Hindu plaintiffs, said he also would appeal. "100 percent of the land belongs to Hindus. Why split it?" he said.

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was implicated in the destruction of the mosque, said the ruling should clear the way for the construction of the Rama temple.

"I appeal to everyone, including Muslims, to forget the past and come forward to take part in our national culture."

Some Muslims welcomed the judgment, including one member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. "The judgment can begin a process of reconciliation," Kamal Farooqi said.

Verdict's outcome as a barometer
The conflict over the compound in Ayodhya, 350 miles east of New Delhi, has sparked violence between Hindus and Muslims that killed thousands of people and challenged India's ethos as a secular, multicultural democracy.  

The verdict came only days before Sunday's opening of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, with the government wanting to project an image of stability and modernity to the world.

Its outcome will be a barometer of whether a rapidly globalizing India with a growing middle class and an interest in investor stability has shed some of the religious extremism that often marred its post-independence years.

About 80 percent of India's 1.1 billion plus population are Hindus. Muslims represent 13 percent — some 140 million people — putting it behind Indonesia and Pakistan in the ranks of Muslim populations.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm as the government extended its ban on bulk texting to stop people from sending mass messages that could incite violence.

Singh has called the verdict one of the country's biggest security challenges.

The High Court in the state of Uttar Pradesh was locked down ahead of the verdict and only those directly involved in the case were allowed inside.

Preparing for violence
Commentators said the verdict is unlikely to spark widespread riots that hit Mumbai and other cities in 1992. There is little electoral headway to be made in egging on religious riots in post-economic reform India.

But from the capital New Delhi to the financial hub Mumbai and towns of the northern Hindu "cow belt" along the holy Ganges river, many Indians waited with apprehension on the verdict, some staying at home and stocking up with food ahead of the verdict.

Leaving nothing to chance, the government flooded the streets with troops.

Police arrested more than 10,000 people to prevent them from inciting violence, while another 100,000 had to sign affidavits saying they would not cause trouble after the verdict, a top official said.

Helicopters hovered over holy sites in the state as people entering temples were checked with metal detectors, police said.

"We have deployed around 200,000 security personnel at sensitive places to prevent any violence post the Ayodhya verdict," top state official Shashank Shekhar Singh said.

More than 40,000 police fanned out across the city of Mumbai, which had erupted in anti-Muslim riots and retaliatory bombings after the Babri Mosque demolition, but played host to scattered peace marches in recent days. Still, many schools were closed Thursday and many businesses planned to close early.

"Everybody is very happy with the verdict. People were scared but now everything seems to be normal. People are now opening their shops," said Ghulam Mohammad Sheik, social worker in Mumbai.

In Hyderabad, capital of the southern Andhra Pradesh state, authorities deployed more than 20,000 additional police. Some 460 arrests to stop possible violence were made, said police chief Abdul K. Khan.

Orders were posted banning the gathering of more than five people in the city, and liquor shops were closed and religious processions and meetings barred, Khan said.