In­dia braces for rul­ing on key re­li­gious dis­pute

Some fear ri­ots may erupt over a ver­dict on a site in Ay­o­d­hya claimed by both Hin­dus and Mus­lims.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Mark Mag­nier re­port­ing from new delhi mark.mag­nier @latimes.com An­shul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau con­trib­uted to this re­port.

When Mus­lims and Hin­dus went on a ram­page in the early 1990s af­ter a mosque in the north­ern In­dian town of Ay­o­d­hya was de­mol­ished by ex­trem­ist Hin­dus, the vi­o­lence sent po­lit­i­cal shock waves across In­dia.

In one of In­dia’s most an­tic­i­pated de­ci­sions in me­mory, the Al­la­habad High Court is to is­sue a rul­ing Fri­day on a le­gal dis­pute that be­gan 60 years ago over who owns the un­der­ly­ing prop­erty, which could lead to the Babri Masjid be­ing re­built or a Hindu tem­ple erected.

In the run-up, hard-line Hindu groups have or­ga­nized aware­ness cam­paigns and hymn pro­grams to Hanu­man, the mon­key god and as­so­ci­ate of Ram, a de­ity who many Hin­dus be­lieve was born at the site in Ay­o­d­hya.

Though the is­sue ap­pears to have lost some of its po­lit­i­cal po­tency, state of­fi­cials, mind­ful of the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in 1992 that killed 2,000 peo­ple na­tion­wide, aren’t tak­ing any chances with se­cu­rity.

Ut­tar Pradesh state, where Ay­o­d­hya is lo­cated, has mo­bi­lized 40,000 se­cu­rity per­son­nel, while the na­tional govern­ment in New Delhi has can­celled min­is­ters’ trips and dis­patched 5,200 para­mil­i­tary troops to the area. Other states are on alert, with par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on 32 “com­mu­nally sen­si­tive cities,” in­clud­ing Mum­bai, even as wa­ter can­nons are stock­piled, cell­phone text mes­sages mon­i­tored and schools ear­marked as po­ten­tial jails.

“The real ques­tion is whether we’ve out­lived that time of vi­o­lence,” said Ma­hesh Ran­gara­jan, a po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian at Delhi Uni­ver­sity.

An erup­tion of vi­o­lence could fur­ther dent In­dia’s im­age as for­eign me­dia ar­rive in the cap­i­tal to cover the Oct. 3-14 Com­mon­wealth Games. The sport­ing event is al­ready marred by bud­get over­runs, cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions, a foot­bridge that col­lapsed dur­ing con­struc­tion, var­i­ous other struc­tural prob­lems, and poor plan­ning and man­age­ment. A last-minute mo­tion to de­lay Fri­day’s ver­dict is not ex­pected to suc­ceed.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts and cit­i­zens are op­ti­mistic that In­dia’s eco­nomic and so­cial ten­sions have eased rel­a­tive to the early 1990s. Cit­i­zens are now gen­er­ally bet­ter ed­u­cated and In­dia’s lower and mid­dle classes en­joy up­ward mo­bil­ity amid an eco­nomic boom and grow­ing na­tional pride.

“I don’t think there will be any ri­ots this time around, al­though there may be protests,” said Pawan Singh, 48, who runs an Ay­o­d­hya inn. “The anger on both sides has re­lented.”

These days, many hard­line Hindu lead­ers balk at reignit­ing com­mu­nal pas­sions. “The younger gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians is much less in­vested in this,” said Pratap Me­hta, pres­i­dent of New Delhi’s Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search.

Hindu and Mus­lim groups have pledged to op­er­ate within the law and the likely op­tion of fil­ing a Supreme Court ap­peal should blunt anger on the los­ing side.

The case, which com­bines four Hindu and Mus­lim law­suits filed be­tween 1950 and 1989, is epic even by In­dia’s creaky le­gal stan­dards, with many of the 6,000 wit­nesses and orig­i­nal lit­i­gants dead. An ap­peal will add more time.

“The Supreme Court can de­cide in a year, but they could also take 15 years,” said Za­faryab Ji­lani, a lead at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Mus­lim lit­i­gants.

In ad­di­tion to landown­er­ship is­sues, a re­lated and highly emo­tional mat­ter be­fore the court is whether Ram, one of Hin­duism’s most im­por­tant gods (and tech­ni­cally a plain­tiff), was born at the site.

If the court has any sense, it won’t touch that ques­tion with a 10-foot pole, said Soli Sorab­jee, a for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral. “It’s like rul­ing on whether Je­sus ex­isted or not,” Sorab­jee said. “It’s ab­surd.”

Ay­o­d­hya has re­mained rel­a­tively calm through­out the dis­pute, with many lo­cals keen to move on. The town of 50,000, which houses more than 1,000 tem­ples, sev­eral claim­ing to be Ram’s birth site, and a dozen or so mosques, has seen no re­li­gious clashes, even in 1992, and to­day boasts cy­ber cafes, call cen­ters and English­language schools.

Some have even pro­posed that the dis­puted land be used for a hos­pi­tal or a shrine to vic­tims of re­li­gious vi­o­lence.

As with other con­tested sites world­wide, the Babri Masjid’s his­tory is rather opaque. The mosque was built in 1528 by a com­man­der of Mughal Em­peror Babar on land known as Ram Jan­mab­hoomi to Hin­dus. It­was long beloved by both faiths for the sweet, medic­i­nal wa­ters from a well in the cen­tral court­yard.

At some point, be­lief spread among Hin­dus that a Ram tem­ple had been de­stroyed to build the Babri Masjid, said lo­cal his­to­rian Sushil Sri­vas­tava, al­though the arche­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence is in­con­clu­sive.

In 1853, in the first record of re­li­gious ten­sion, both sides laid claim to the site, so a fence was built re­strict­ing Mus­lims to the in­ner part and Hin­dus to the outer.

The cur­rent con­flict dates to 1949, when zealots planted Hindu idols in the in­ner mosque on the night of Dec. 22-23 — hailed by Hindu crowds as a mir­a­cle. When Mus­lims protested, the state ruled it a dis­puted site and locked it up.

Things re­mained rel­a­tively quiet un­til 1986, when Prime Min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi’s govern­ment, keen to curry votes, re­port­edly pres­sured the ju­di­ciary to have the locks re­moved and open the site to Hindu wor­shipers.

The cause was taken up by the Hindu na­tion­al­ist Bharatiya Janata Party, lead­ing to the well-planned 1992 de­mo­li­tion, though sup­port­ers in­sisted it was a spon­ta­neous act. In the mosque’s place, a makeshift tem­ple stands to­day, al­though pledges to build a mag­nif­i­cent Ram tem­ple were never re­al­ized.

“Peo­ple are very aware and con­scious of his­tory,” said Parul D. Mukherji, a pro­fes­sor at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Uni­ver­sity. “They don’t want the same mis­takes re­peated.”

Ad­nan Abidi

ON ALERT: Troops of a rapid-re­ac­tion force pa­trol the north­ern In­dian town of Ay­o­d­hya, where in 1992 Hindu mobs de­mol­ished a 16th cen­tury mosque they said was built on the site of a tem­ple; 2,000 died in sub­se­quent clashes na­tion­wide.

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