In northern India, government archeologists have begun excavating a disputed holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. A court ordered the excavation to settle the conflicting claims to the site, but there are fears that the work may complicate the dispute.
Under heavy security, a team of archeologists began digging Wednesday at a site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state, where a 16th century mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992.
Last week, a court asked the archeologists to determine within a month if a Hindu shrine ever existed at the site of the destroyed Babri mosque.
The court is trying to decide if the land should be handed over to Muslim groups who want to rebuild the mosque or to Hindu groups, who are leading a controversial campaign to construct a temple at the site.
Hindu groups claim the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple that marked the birthplace of supreme Hindu god, Rama. The explosive dispute has triggered riots that killed more than three thousand people and it continues to inflame communal passions.
The effort to establish the disputed site's past has raised new concerns among Muslim groups. The Babri Masjid Committee, a Muslim group spearheading efforts to rebuild the mosque, says the dispute must be confined to the narrower issue of who owns the land.
"If they come out with the conclusion that something was there a thousand years back, or 2,000 years back, or 10,000 years back, what will be its relevance to the present dispute, because the dispute is who owns the property [now]," said Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, the committee's chairman.
Several political observers have expressed fears that excavating the site could trigger more disputes in a country where some historians say Muslim rulers may have built thousands of mosques on the ruins of Hindu temples.
They said the excavation may open a "Pandora's Box," with extremist groups pressing for a similar action on other religious sites.
The World Hindu Council is a hard-line Hindu group that is spearheading the campaign to build the temple at Ayodhya. Its senior leader, Acharya Giri Raj Kishore, said the group wants Muslims to return at least two other holy sites to Hindus, in addition to the site at Ayodhya.
"Actually speaking, more than 30,000 Hindu shrines have been destroyed in the Muslim rule. We are not demanding all, but minimum three we are demanding, and they [Muslims] are hesitating about it. If they hesitate on three, there may also be hue and cry about others," Mr. Kishore said.
Archeologists said the excavation at Ayodhya could provide clues to whether a Hindu temple existed at the site but may not offer proof that would satisfy Muslim or Hindu groups.
Some Muslims worry the excavation may be biased because it is being done by government archeologists, under a Hindu nationalist government that favors building a temple at the site.
J.N. Dixit is a former director at the Archeological Survey of India. He thinks it will be difficult for archeologists to provide definitive answers in just a month, because archeology is painstaking, and evidence has to be carefully examined to arrive at "scientific conclusions."
"The excavation takes time because we have to go from layer to layer, and everything has to be documented and removed and studied properly. Until it is not properly documented, you cannot proceed further," Mr. Dixit said.
The excavation work is being carried out in the presence of representatives of the Hindu and Muslim groups involved in the dispute. But it is not clear whether the archeologists will be able to resolve the bitter dispute.