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India's Supreme Court Defers Ruling on Disputed Holy Site - 2003-03-06

India's Supreme Court has deferred a ruling on a government plea to lift a ban on religious activity around a disputed holy site, claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.

The supreme court heard day-long arguments about the lifting of a ban on religious activity on land adjoining a disputed holy site in Ayodhya. But it did not give the widely awaited ruling, nor did it say when it would deliver a verdict.

The disputed site, about 500 kilometers east of New Delhi, is where a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th century mosque in 1992. The demolition of the mosque led to riots, in which more than 2,000 people died, and sparked one of India's most heated religious arguments.

Hindu hard-liners insist they will build a temple where the destroyed mosque once stood, because they say it is the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. They are pressuring the government to allow them to perform religious rites on a parcel of land just outside the disputed site, while they wait for another court to decide on the ownership of the site itself.

Last year, the supreme court banned any activity on this land to calm tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The government now says the land should be returned to a Hindu group that owns it. The appeal to the court came after Hindu hard-liners stepped up their controversial campaign to build a temple on the site.

But lawyers representing Muslim groups have argued that nothing should change until all cases relating to the dispute are settled, because religious tensions could flare again.

Meanwhile, another Indian court on Wednesday ordered excavation of the disputed site to determine if an ancient Indian temple or another structure ever existed there. The court wants the excavations completed within a month.

Hindu groups claim that Mughal emperor Babur built the mosque after destroying a temple.

Hindu groups have welcomed this court's decision, saying it could help resolve the long-standing dispute. Several Muslim groups, on the other hand, say the excavation could help disprove the theory that the mosque was built after a temple on the site was razed.

The order to excavate the site came after reports that radar mapping by a private survey company had suggested the presence of some structure underneath.