LUCKNOW, INDIA // Calm appeared to be holding across India last night after a court ruled that the disputed holy site of a demolished mosque should be divided between the Muslim and Hindu communities.
The dispute in the town of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, has led to some of the country's worst communal violence. The court decision split the land into three parts. Muslims were given a third of the site but Hindus were handed control of the section where the 16th century Babri Mosque once stood and where a small makeshift tent-shrine to the Hindu god Ram rests. Last night India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, led appeals for calm. "I know that often it is only a few mischief-makers who create divisions in our society," he said. "I would appeal to my countrymen to be vigilant and not let such people succeed in disrupting peace and harmony."
Hindu leaders said they were happy with the judgment in the 60-year-old case, but Muslims expressed disappointment. Muslim and Hindu lawyers vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, but the compromise ruling seemed unlikely to set off a new round of violence, as the government had feared. Muslims revere the compound and want to rebuild the mosque, while Hindus say it is the birthplace of Ram and contend that a temple to the god stood on the site before the mosque and should also be rebuilt.
The 460-year-old mosque was razed by Hindu mobs in 1992, triggering nationwide riots between Hindus and Muslims in which more than 2,000 people died. Zafaryab Jilani, counsel for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the Muslim group involved in the case, said although he was happy the court had accepted that the demolished structure was actually a mosque, his party was not satisfied with the "one-third formula" used to settle the dispute.
"Today's verdict does not mark a victory or defeat for any party. It's a step forward. The verdict of the Supreme Court will be completely acceptable to us," Mr Jilani said. Many Hindu leaders across the country said the judgment paved the way for the grand Ram temple that Hindus want to build on the site of the mosque. "It is a significant step forward towards the construction of a grand temple of the birthplace of Lord Ram," said the senior Hindu nationalist BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, who launched a country-wide chariot mission in 1990 to mobilise Hindu support to build a temple at the site.
The decision, which came just days before India hosts the Commonwealth Games, was made by three judges at the Allahabad High Court who delivered a two-to-one majority verdict and an 8,500-page judgment. The ruling said archaeological evidence showed a temple had predated the mosque but that the temple had not been destroyed for the mosque to be built. "The mosque was constructed over the ruins of temples which were lying in utter ruins since a very long time before the construction of the mosque and some material thereof was used in construction of the mosque," said Justice Sibghat Ullah Khan, one of the three judges involved in the verdict.
Hindu inhabitants of Ayodhya town - under a security lockdown for a week - lit candles and lamps outside their homes when the verdict was given. But Muslim leaders reacted with dismay. Syed Mohammad Noorur Rahman Barkati, a Kolkata cleric, said the court had depended on the "faith of the majority community" instead of trusting historical evidence. "Archaeologists engaged by the high court in 2003 reported and also the court has observed in its judgment today that 'no temple was demolished' to build the Babri Mosque on the site," he said.
"But strangely it again observes in the same judgment that the place in the middle of the mosque where idols were placed by Hindus is the birthplace of Lord Ram." Aziz Mubarki, the secretary of the South Asia Ulema Council, said Muslims had "almost lost the case" simply because they are a minority in the country. "Hindu groups all along claimed that Muslims pulled down a temple to build a mosque on the site. We are at least partly happy that the Hindu propaganda of demolition of a temple in 1528 [when Babri mosque was built] has been proved concocted and false by the court," he said.
"Unfortunately it is also true that the illegal act of hooliganism of December 6 1992 [the day Babri mosque was demolished] has been legalised today." The government and the parties to the dispute had appealed for calm in the wake 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.
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Associated Press