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Tight security as India braces for religious dispute verdict

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-09-29

An Indian court is set to rule Thursday on a centuries-old dispute over a religious site in the northern town of Ayodhya, sparking a security clampdown. But will the old wounds reopen this time?

For six decades, the highly toxic Ayodhya religious dispute has been dragged through the Indian courts, a festering wound that has sometimes silently oozed and at others erupted with deadly consequences.

On Thursday, a court ruling on a dispute between Muslims and Hindus over a religious site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya could either tear open old wounds or unobtrusively slip into another round of low-intensity legal wrangling.

In any case, Indian authorities aren’t taking any chances.

Thousands of security forces have fanned out across the country with helicopters deployed to keep a vigil on known flashpoint sites. Police in riot gear have been posted at "sensitive" zones across India, military and paramilitary troops are braced for deployments, and the air force has been put on alert.

Top politicians have released full-page ads in newspapers urging calm, and religious leaders are calling for peace.

“We are appealing to our people to maintain peace in the country,” said Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a parliamentarian and leading Indian Muslim cleric in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “We will welcome the verdict, whatever it is.”

Even text messages have been targeted, with the Indian government imposing a nationwide ban on bulk text messaging in an attempt to curb the “incitement of violence”.

If the bristling security clampdowns seem excessive to startled tourists trying to make their way around a testy country, few Indians believe it’s an overreaction.

“The government has taken major steps to maintain peace and we welcome it,” said Burhanuddin Qasmi, a Muslim community leader and director of the Mumbai-based Markazul Ma'arif Education and Research Centre. “Nobody wants violence.”

Dating back to 1528

Nobody wants to see a return to the bad old days, especially not India’s Muslims, who comprise about 15 percent of the country's billion-strong population, and have traditionally borne the brunt of the bloody tit-for-tat violence that this dispute has sparked.

The Ayodhya controversy is one of India’s bitterest domestic disputes, one that has periodically threatened the complex fabric that binds this overpopulated, multi-religious subcontinent.

At the heart of the matter lies a 27-meter piece of land in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, where a 16th century mosque once stood.

The Babri mosque, which was built in 1528 under the reign of Mughal Emperor Babur, was torn down in 1992 by Hindu hardliners who claim the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

Some historical accounts suggest that for centuries, barring a few squabbles, both Hindus and Muslims worshipped at the site until the British erected a barrier to divide religious worship during the colonial era.

The legal squabble began not long after India’s independence in 1947, when someone slipped in the Babri mosque and left idols of Ram and another Hindu deity, prompting a local Hindu to file for title of the site in 1950. A Muslim group then filed a counter-suit in 1961 and the protracted legal jamboree was set in motion.

On Thursday, the court will rule on three key issues, which ultimately will decide who owns the land: is the disputed site the birthplace of Rama, was the Babri mosque built after the demolition of a Hindu temple and was it built in accordance with the tenets of Islam?

Thousands dead, billions lost and a city irreparably scarred

While the legal process rumbled on, Ayodhya turned into a political hot potato in the mid-1980s when Hindu extremist groups vowed to bring down the mosque and build a temple on the disputed site.  

The 1992 levelling of the mosque plunged the country into paroxysms of communal violence, the worst to hit the subcontinent since the 1947 partitioning of the former British colony into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

In Mumbai, India’s thriving commercial capital on the Arabian Sea, deadly riots broke out shortly after the December 6, 1992 razing of the Babri mosque. A month later, a brutal Hindu backlash ripped through the city as Hindu hardliners targeted the city’s minority Muslim community.

Two months later, 13 bomb explosions on a single day rocked landmark sites across the city. The March 12, 1993 serial bombings are believed to have been coordinated by an organised crime syndicate headed by a Muslim in retaliation for the violent attacks against Muslims during the December 1992 and January 1993 riots.

In three months, more than 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed. The estimated property damage ran into billions of dollars and the metaphysical loss of the famed secular “spirit of Bombay city” – as India’s commercial capital was then known – was unquantifiable.

Can prosperity bust odium theologicum?

Religious hatred, or odium theologicum, has plagued societies throughout history. Often, the flashpoints are disputed religious sites. In September 2000, for instance, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon marched onto Jerusalem's most disputed religious site, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram-al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), sparking the second Palestinian intifada.

In India, a country of over a billion people and home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, religious violence is a perennial threat.

And yet, this time, many experts believe India could be spared another communal convulsion.

“This issue does not have the same kind of traction it did in the 1990s,” said Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University. “For the vast majority of Indians today, the priority is economic advancement. It’s not possible to scapegoat this issue by mobilising unemployed, frustrated youth. The benefits of economic growth are spreading and this issue cannot be raked up the way it used to be.”

Until the next time in another court…

Ganguly, like most experts, predict that the loser in Thursday’s court ruling will appeal to the Supreme Court, where the case could rest a while in the country’s infamously sluggish court system.

The legal wrangle over the disputed site has dragged on for so long that most of the original petitioners have died.

Thursday’s court ruling was due earlier this week, but was postponed following a petition that the ruling be deferred given the sensitivity of the case.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court rejected the deferment petition, a verdict welcomed by many Indians. “We welcome the verdict,” said Qasmi. “This has gone on for too long.”

But closure for India’s nastiest religious dispute is not quite around the corner and the old wounds are likely re-open another time in another court.

Date created : 2010-09-30