NEW DELHI — India's Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Hindu group on Saturday in a centuries-old dispute with minority Muslims over a place of worship in northern India that has been a lightning rod for tension between the two communities.
The court said the disputed land be handed over to a Hindu trust to build a temple while Muslims will be provided a separate parcel of land. A lawyer for a Muslim group said the decision was disappointing and the group was likely to file a review petition.
In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque at the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, triggering riots in which nearly 2,000 people were killed.
Millions of Hindus believe the mosque in Ayodhya was built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities who is considered a physical incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
They say the mosque was built after a temple dedicated to the Hindu god was destroyed by Muslim invaders.
Muslims say Islamic prayers have been offered at the site since 1528, when the Babri Mosque was first built during the rule of the Islamic Mughals.
Hindu supporters and activists celebrated the ruling on the court lawns, blowing bugles and chanting “Jai Shree Ram,” hailing the god Ram.
An attorney representing the Muslims deplored the ruling.
“We are not satisfied with the verdict,” said Zafaryab Jilani, who is representing the Muslim community’s Babri Action committee.
“These 5 acres of land don’t mean anything to us,” he said. “We are examining the verdict and whatever legal course is open for us.”
Vishnu Shankar Jain, an attorney who represented the Hindu community, said the journey over several years had been a struggle.
“It was a huge legal battle and we are happy that we convinced the Supreme Court. It’s a historic moment for Hindus,” he said.
Raj Nath Singh, India’s defense minister, appealed to all to “accept the court verdict and maintain peace.”
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, criticized the verdict, saying it was indicative of the “hate based mindset” of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Modi had promised to build the temple in 2014 elections that brought him to power.
But he later decided to wait for the court verdict, despite pressure from millions of Hindu hard-liners who asked his government to bring legislation to build the temple.
Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a second term in power with a landslide election victory this year.
The Supreme Court's ruling is likely to have a significant impact on the fraught relations between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of its roughly 1.3 billion people.
Authorities increased security in Ayodhya, 350 miles east of New Delhi, and deployed more than 5,000 paramilitary forces to prevent any attacks by Hindu activists on Muslims.
The strict measures included a ban on the assembly of more than four people at one place.
The BJP had mobilized tens of thousands of people in Ayodhya in 1992 when fiery speeches inflamed the crows and led to a Hindu mob tearing down the mosque.
The destruction of the mosque sparked some of the deadliest riots in independent India's history and deepened communal divisions.