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Ayodhya dispute: The complex legal history of India’s holy site


The Ayodhya dispute, which stretches back more than a century, is one of India’s thorniest court cases and goes to the heart of its identity politics.

Hindus believe that Ayodhya, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, is the birthplace of one of their most revered deities, Lord Ram.

But Muslims say they have worshipped there for generations.

A court case pertaining to the ownership of the land has been dragging on in the Supreme Court for years, but a verdict is expected next month.

The court concluded its final hearing into the case on Wednesday.

What is the row actually about?

At the centre of the row is a 16th Century mosque that was demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992, sparking riots that killed nearly 2,000 people.

Many Hindus believe that the Babri Masjid was actually constructed on the ruins of a Hindu temple that was demolished by Muslim invaders.

Muslims say they offered prayers at the mosque until December 1949 when some Hindus placed an idol of Ram in the mosque and began to worship the idols.

Over the decades since, the two religious groups have gone to court many times over who should control the site.

Since then, there have been calls to build a temple on the spot where the mosque once stood.

The case currently being heard by five judges in the top court is to determine who the land in question belongs to.

A verdict is expected between 4 and 15 November.

Hinduism is India’s majority religion and is thought to be more than 4,000 years old. India’s first Islamic dynasty was established in the early 13th Century.

Who is fighting the case?

The long and complicated property dispute has been dragging in various courts for more than a century.

This particular case is being fought between three main parties – two Hindu groups and the Muslim Waqf Board, which is responsible for the maintenance of Islamic properties in India.

Ramu Ramdev, OSD at the City Palace, points out Lord Ramas birth place in an old dilapidated map of Ayodhya depicting the birthplace of Lord Rama, being taken out from archives of erstwhile royal family of Jaipur, at City Palace, on August 11, 2019 in Jaipur, India.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

The Hindu litigants are the Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing political party, and the Nirmohi Akhara, which is a sect of Hindu monks.

They filed a title dispute in the Allahabad High Court in 2002, a decade after the mosque was demolished.

A verdict in that case was pronounced in September 2010 – it determined that the 2.77 acres of the disputed land would be divided equally into three parts.

The court ruled that the site should be split, with the Muslim community getting control of a third, Hindus another third and the Nirmohi Akhara sect the remainder. Control of the main disputed section, where the mosque once stood, was given to Hindus.

The judgement also made three key observations.

It affirmed the disputed spot was the birthplace of Lord Ram, that the Babri Masjid was built after the demolition of a Hindu temple and that it was not built in accordance with the tenets of Islam.

The Supreme Court suspended this ruling in 2011 after both Hindu and Muslim groups appealed against it.

What are the other important legal developments?

In 1994 the Supreme Court, which was ruling on a related case, remarked that the concept of a mosque was “not integral to Islam”. This has bolstered the case made by Hindus who want control of the entire site.

In April 2018, senior lawyer Rajeev Dhavan filed a plea before the top court, asking judges to reconsider this observation.

But a few months later the Supreme Court declined to do so.

VHP saints at Karsevak Puram taking park in Hindu Swabhiman Sammelan organized by the VHP to mark 25th anniversary Babri Masjid demolition, on December 6, 2017 in AyodhyaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionHindu activists are demanding the construction of the Ram Temple

Have religious tensions eased in India in recent years?

Ever since the Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist BJP first came to power in 2014, India has seen deepening social and religious divisions.

The call for the construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya has grown particularly loud, and has mostly come from MPs, ministers and leaders from the BJP since it took office.

Restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows – considered a holy animal by the majority Hindus – have led to vigilante killings of a number of people, most of them Muslims who were transporting cattle.

An uninhibited display of muscular Hindu nationalism in other areas has also contributed to religious tension.

Most recently, the country’s home minister Amit Shah said he would remove “illegal migrants” – understood to be Muslim – from the country through a government scheme that was used recently in the north-eastern state of Assam.

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