India’s Supreme Court settled a 500-year-old dispute over a religious site by ruling that the land should go to a trust that will build a temple to Lord Ram, a Hindu god. The top court also ruled that some land will also be given to the Muslims to compensate for the loss of the mosque that was torn down by a Hindutva mob in December 1992.

The judgment of India’s top court has managed to settle a deeply divisive dispute that has seen numerous riots and terror attacks for nearly three decades. The judgment also comes as a huge boost to prime minister Narendra Modi, whose party, the BJP has championed building a Hindu temple at the site after its cadres demolished it in December 1992.

The top court’s judgment is likely to have major legal and political implications. Police authorities across India have been alerted to maintain vigil to prevent any violence as a fall out of the decision. Muslims form nearly 14% of India’s population making it the second-largest in the world.

The Supreme Court was hearing an appeal to an Allahabad High Court judgment of September 2010 that had ruled that the land be divided into three parts with one-third going to the Muslim parties.  However, the top court struck down the judgment and handed over the land to be used to build a Hindu temple. It ordered the federal government led by Modi to create a Trust in three months, which will then take up the construction of the temple.

A matter of faith

While passing the ruling, the court held that the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu zealots led by several BJP leaders was clearly illegal. It also ruled that the act of placing an idol of Lord Ram in 1949 was also illegal. However, citing that the Hindus had never stopped worshiping at the site for more than 200 years, the court ruled that the temple should come up. It also cited some reports of the Archaeological Survey of India that stated that there was a “non-Islamic” structure beneath the mosque.

Indian Muslim supporters and activists of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) take part in a protest to mark the 26th anniversary of the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid located in Ayodhya, in New Delhi on December 6, 2018. Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP

The Babri mosque is named after emperor Zahir-ud-Din Babur, who arrived in India from what is now modern-day Uzbekistan and established the Mughal empire that ruled India till the middle of the 19th century.

It is believed that Babur demolished a temple at the site in the small town of Ayodhya, which was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The exploits of Lord Ram are recorded in the epic poem Ramayana, which spread to parts of South and Southeast Asia, establishing a wave of Hinduism nearly 2000 years ago. In countries like Thailand, the royal family still maintains its connection with the events depicted in the epic and draws lineage to Lord Ram’s family.

India’s top court has ruled that the demolition of the mosque was illegal as was the placing of an idol of Lord Ram in the mosque in 1949, but agreed to hand over the land to the Hindu petitioners. “This is intriguing because the Supreme Court acknowledges that there were two illegal acts that led to the title dispute in the first place, but agreed to the demand that emanated from those two illegal acts. This needs to be studied and will have major legal implications,” a senior lawyer and constitutional expert told Asia Times.

A political ascendancy

In December 1992, Hindu zealots led by BJP leader L K Advani arrived at the disputed site and demolished the mosque. For the BJP, which draws its origins from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the destruction of the mosque proved to be a huge political boost. From winning merely two seats in India’s parliament, it now commands 303 seats and accorded Modi two consecutive terms as the prime minister.

For decades, the BJP’s signature slogan was “Mandir Wahin Banayenge” (the temple will be built there), signaling that the disputed site will eventually see a Hindu temple. As the BJP’s political clout grew, it continued to build its politics around the proposed Ram Temple, polarizing votes across India on religious lines.

According to government sources, the BJP is keen to set up the Trust quickly so that the work on building the temple can start early. “We believe that construction at the temple will also give a huge boost to our chance for a third term under Prime Minister Modi in 2024,” senior BJP leader told Asia Times. “This is a promise that we had made decades ago and people will remember us for delivering it,” the leader said.

The verdict also comes at an opportune time for the Modi government that has been witnessing a major economic slowdown and unprecedented unemployment. Two days ago international ratings firm Moody’s downgraded India from “stable” to “negative” citing ineffective government policies. Other international agencies have also downgraded India and international organizations like the IMF has raised doubts about the government’s economic data.

The Muslim groups that petitioned the Supreme Court, in this case, have also expressed their disappointment. “We will speak with our Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan and decide whether we will file a review petition or not. We are not satisfied with some aspects of the judgment. We will see the final judgment and decide the course of action,” a member of the Sunni Board told the media.