By PAUL BECKETT and KRISHNA POKHAREL
NEW DELHI—An Indian court ruled Thursday that a sacred site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims should be divided, in a complex decision that will test whether India has moved beyond the violent religious passions that bedeviled the nation in the 1990s.
In the decision, two of the three judges ruled that the site should be divided into three parts—two for the Hindu side and one for Muslims. Two of the judges also found that the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram, a significant ruling for the Hindu side and a rare foray into religion for a civil court.
The court said no action would be taken for three months, and the Muslim side said it would appeal to the Supreme Court of India. One Hindu group also said it would appeal to the top court, a sign of how the judgment didn’t fully satisfy either side.
A policeman stood guard in front of the Charminar in Hyderabad, India, Thursday.
The case, before the Allahabad High Court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has been running since 1950 and had been closely watched not just for its historic and religious significance but for the country’s reaction; a Hindu mob partially destroyed a mosque on the site in 1992, which was followed by widespread violence.
To minimize the risk of post-verdict violence, the government has deployed hundreds of thousands of security personnel across the country, including 190,000 in Uttar Pradesh alone. Officials had repeatedly called for calm whatever the verdict, and they banned bulk instant messaging to make it harder for demonstrators to organize.
Some businesses around the country informally advised some of their staff to stay home Thursday. In the state of Karnataka, the government closed all schools and colleges Thursday and Friday. In Madhya Pradesh, the administration imposed a rule that disallows any gathering of more than four people. There were no immediate reports of unrest hours after the verdict.
India’s self-image can ill-afford another blow so soon after the chaos surrounding New Delhi’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games, which begin Sunday. Filthy athletes’ accommodation, a lack of readiness at venues, and a construction accident have been widely criticized by delegates from Commonwealth member countries and viewed by many Indians as a setback to the nation’s efforts to project its modernity. If the country remains calm in the wake of the verdict, it will help counter the negative impression of the country’s progress created by the Games mess.
Hindu litigants claimed the site, in the town of Ayodhya, as the birthplace of Lord Ram and the location of an ancient temple; the Muslim litigants said they have historical title to the site, where the Babri Masjid, a mosque, stood until it was partially destroyed in 1992.
The bench issued judgments from all three judges. It wasn’t a clear-cut win for either side. An order from one of the judges declared that the site was in the joint possession of the Muslim and Hindu litigants, but also said that the central dome on the site, a key issue in the dispute, be given to Hindus. It therefore may be the site of a future temple. And one judge said that the mosque that stood on the site was built against the tenets of Islam so therefore couldn’t be considered to be a mosque at all.
In all, the judges gave more relief to the Hindu litigants than the Muslim, and they bypassed legal claims by the Muslims that they held title to the site by saying too much time had expired for that question to be considered.
The verdict was seen as a litmus test of whether India’s rapid economic growth, and secular government by the Congress party for the past six years, has moved beyond the conservative Hindu nationalism that was fomenting at the time of the mosque’s destruction.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, now the main opposition and a party with strong links to Hindu fundamentalism, was trounced in national elections a year ago and has been struggling to strike a new chord with the electorate since then. Leaders of major parties, including the BJP, and of India’s major religions had called in advance of the verdict for a calm reaction.
Nalin Kohli, a BJP spokesman, said of the ruling: “The High Court has come up with a solution in the larger interest of peace and paved the way for the construction of the temple. This would cease to be a thorn if all the parties come up with a compromise.”
From the years surrounding India’s partition in the 1940s to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the early 1990s, India had experienced almost annual outbursts of widespread communal violence, said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank. But since the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, he said, there has been virtually no such widespread episodes of violence.
“This is clearly a different India,” he said. “India has become more modern, more connected through communications, more prosperous.”
He called the high court’s decision “predictable,” saying it did what is typical in India—it didn’t strictly interpret the law but attempted a political middle ground. “It passed the buck instead of resolving the issue,” he said. “Nobody is satisfied.”
The case itself was notable for the parties’ invocation of spirituality and for the sheer length of time that it has taken to reach a decision. The judges weighed oral testimony from 33 witnesses produced by the Muslim side and 54 witnesses produced by the Hindu side. The court started recording witness statements from the two sides in 1996 and continued until 2007.
Both sides marshaled the local residents of Ayodhya, adherents to their respective religions, clerics, priests, historians, archaeologists, epigraphists and book authors who spoke about whether Muslims or Hindus were using the disputed site for religious purposes before 1950, what the religious texts and traditions suggest, and what the history and archaeology of the place reveal.
“The mosque was vested in the Almighty which has, since the time of its construction, been used by the Muslims for offering prayers,” the Muslim plaintiffs claimed. The lead Hindu suitor claimed the site has been in the uninterrupted “ownership of Lord Shri Ram.”
—Geeta Anand in Mumbai contributed to this article.