India’s Supreme Court has awarded Hindus control of a disputed religious site in the town of Ayodhya for the construction of a temple, in a landmark verdict announced amid heightened security across the country.
Muslims will be given five acres of land at an alternative site in Ayodhya, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, the top court ruled on Saturday.
In a unanimous decision over the site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, the five-judge bench asked the government to set up a trust that will construct a temple for Hindu deity Ram.
“The judgement is not satisfactory but we respect it. We will have discussions and then decide further course of action,” Zafaryab Jilani, Sunni Waqf Board lawyer, was quoted as saying by NDTV news channel.
Faizan Mustafa, vice-chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, termed the verdict “controversial”.
“The judges tried their best to have a kind of a balance but ultimately it’s the mystery of the faith over rule of law, because they [judges] said that we can’t be doing anything about the Hindu belief and if they believe that Ram was born here … we have to accept it,” he said.
“Belief is good for the purposes of religion, but can it become a basis to resolve property disputes?”
Al Jazeera’s Anchal Vohra, reporting from New Delhi, said a board of trustees [appointed by the government] would be formed in three months to essentially decide how to go about the construction of the temple.
She added the alternative site for Muslims would be decided by the central government or the state government.
“Muslim intellectuals had already offered this when the mediations took place early this year as a possible solution to have broader peace between the two communities,” Vohra said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the verdict, saying it had “amicably” ended the decades-old dispute.
“The halls of justice have amicably concluded a matter going on for decades. Every side, every point of view was given adequate time and opportunity to express differing points of view. This verdict will further increase people’s faith in judicial processes,” Modi tweeted.
Hardliners among India’s majority Hindus, including supporters of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believe that Lord Ram, the warrior god, was born at the site where the Babri mosque existed. They say that the first Mughal emperor Babur built Babri Mosque on top of a temple at the site.
Muslims said they prayed at the mosque for generations until 1949, when Hindu activists placed idols of Ram.
The 460-year-old mosque was demolished in 1992 by Hindu mobs triggering nationwide religious violence that left about 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
Muslim-majority Pakistan, India’s rival neighbour, responded to the decision on Saturday.
“This decision has shredded the veneer of so-called secularism of India by making clear that minorities in India are no longer safe; they have to fear for their beliefs and for their places of worship,” the foreign office in Islamabad said in a statement.
“The Indian government should ensure the protection of Muslims, their lives, rights and properties and avoid being yet again a silent spectator of Muslims becoming the victims of Hindu extremists and zealots.
“The international community, the United Nations and other human rights organisations in particular should play their role by restraining India from its pursuit of an extremist ideology.”
Hindus welcome verdict
The streets of Ayodhya wore a deserted look with very few businesses operating.
At some places, people were seen raising slogans of Jai Shree Ram (Hail Lord Ram) and congratulating each other.
Most Hindus celebrated the court’s decision while Muslims hoped that Ayodhya would remain peaceful. In 1992, dozens of Ayodhya Muslims were killed in the wake of violence.
“The Hindus of India have for so long wanted a temple at the place where Ram was born,” Rajesh Kumar said.
December 6, 1992 and November 9, 2019, will be remembered as days of death of secularism in India.
Pappu Singh, of the neighbouring state of Bihar, said the verdict was a victory for the entire nation.
“I have been waiting for this moment for several years. Finally, the courts have heard my plea and this nothing less than a miracle.
“With this verdict, the court has given a new life to Ram. The court has ensured that both the parties got something.
Muslims in the Hindu holy town, however, expressed disappointment at the verdict.
“The court has not specified where it would give the land for the mosque. If the court would have specified it, Muslims would have been pleased,” said Mohammed Shibu Khan from the Syed Bada area of Ayodhya.
“However, I am happy that this has come to an end as the people of Ayodhya are tired of frequent shutdowns throughout the year.”
In the Muslim-majority area of Jamia Nagar in the capital New Delhi, people said they did not get justice.
“[That] the Hindu mob which demolished Babri Masjid went unpunished only proves India’s incompetence as a democracy,” Nabiya Khan, a student, told Al Jazeera.
“December 6, 1992 and November 9, 2019, will be remembered as days of death of secularism in India.”
Mohammad Mussa, 58, of Zakir Nagar, said the mosque on the site belonged to Muslims.
“Whatever the judgement is, we should accept it because we live in an India run by the right-wing BJP which thinks this country belongs to Hindus only. Muslims should stay calm and not react to anything because there are forces who want bloodshed in the country.”
Appeals for calm
The Supreme Court on Saturday said a structure existed under the Babri Mosque, which was not built on vacant land.
A 2010 lower court ruling had divided the disputed 2.77 acres (1.12 hectares) into three equal parts, with two-thirds going to the Hindu community and one-third to Muslims. That order was challenged by both sides.
The five-judge bench, headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, opted to hand over the site to one of the Hindu groups that had staked a claim to it.
I have been waiting for this moment for several years. Finally, the courts have heard my plea and this nothing less than a miracle.
After Saturday’s verdict, Modi called for calm and police went on alert, with thousands of extra personnel deployed and schools closed in and around Ayodhya, the centre of the bitter dispute, and elsewhere.
In some towns, internet services were also suspended to stop the spread of rumours.
Muslim organisations have appealed for calm to prevent communal flare-ups.
The BJP has campaigned for years for a temple to be built at Ayodhya, and a verdict clearing the way for that is a major victory for 69-year-old Modi, just months into his second term.
The verdict, it is hoped, will put an end to an angry and at times arcane legal wrangle that British colonial rulers and even the Dalai Lama tried to mediate.
Additional reporting by Bilal Kuchay from New Delhi and Akash Bisht from Ayodhya