A vendor arranges newspapers with headlines about Supreme Court's verdict on a disputed religious site claimed by both majority…
A vendor arranges newspapers with headlines about Supreme Court's verdict on a disputed religious site claimed by both majority Hindus and Muslim in Ayodhya, in Ahmedabad, India, Nov. 9, 2019.

NEW DELHI - India’s Supreme Court will deliver a key verdict Saturday on the country’s oldest and most contentious dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups: control of a 2.77-acre site in the small northern town of Ayodhya, where a Hindu mob tore down a mosque more than 25 years ago, triggering the country’s worst religious violence.

While Hindus want to erect a grand temple on the spot, which they believe is the birthplace of their god Rama. Muslims want the mosque rebuilt.

Security has been tightened ahead of the verdict, with nearly 5,000 police and paramilitary patrolling Ayodhya, a small temple town of about 55,000 people. Messages of restraint have gone out from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other political leaders, while both Hindu and Muslim organizations have made calls to maintain peace. Processions in the town have been banned.

Hajari Lal, a devotee who participated and was injured during the demolition of Babri mosque, poses in front of the model of proposed Ram temple that Hindu groups want to build at a disputed religious site in Ayodhya, India, Oct. 22, 2019.

Decades-long bitter dispute

The bitter contest for the disputed site in Ayodhya had dragged on for decades before coming to a head in 1992 when militant Hindus demolished the 16th-century mosque, which they say was constructed by a Muslim ruler on the ruins of a Hindu temple.

The case landed in the Supreme Court after both Hindu and Muslim litigants challenged a 2010 judgment that had handed two-thirds of the disputed area, including the site where the mosque stood, to Hindus and one-third to Muslims.

After several efforts at mediation failed, a five-judge bench of the top court concluded hearings last month.

The head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, the right-wing group that spearheaded the campaign for a temple, is optimistic. 

“I am very hopeful regarding our suit,” said Champat Rai, the group's president. “It is not a matter of victory or defeat between the two communities. It is not a matter of Hindus or Muslims. This is a case of a historical wrong, which is to be undone.”

The populist temple issue has played a key role in catapulting the ruling BJP to national prominence. During this year’s election that brought the party back to power with a bigger mandate, it reiterated pledges of building the temple.

Policemen check a scooter at a security barricade on the road leading to a disputed religious site where Hindu religious groups are demanding the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, India, Oct. 22, 2019.

'We want peace'

Anxiety has built up in Ayodhya where many want to see the temple built, but both Muslim and Hindu residents say that above all they want to see an end to the protracted dispute. 

“We want the issue to be resolved once and for all,” said Arun Kumar, a resident. “We have full faith that the temple will be built, but more than anything we want peace.”

In a joint appearance ahead of the verdict, a Hindu priest, Mahant Dharma Das, who is a litigant in the case, and a Muslim litigant, Iqbal Ansari, sent out a message of communal harmony and expressed confidence that people will maintain peace in the town. They said they would accept the judgment.

For years, life in the quiet pilgrim town has revolved around the temple. Its supporters have been painstakingly chiseling huge sandstone pillars. Models of the temple are ready. Hundreds of Hindu pilgrims pour in to worship in a makeshift tent that serves as a temple where idols of Rama have been placed.

Analysts say the temple campaign brought religious identity to the center of Indian politics, and whichever way the verdict goes, it could have far-reaching implications in a country where assertive Hindu nationalism is gaining steam under Modi’s right-wing government.

Hindus make up about 80 percent of India and Muslims 14 percent.

Muslims pray for peace ahead of verdict on a disputed religious site in Ayodhya, inside a mosque premises in Ahmedabad, India, Nov. 8, 2019.

Mix of sentiment, faith, myth

As the Indian Supreme Court wrapped up hearings last month, Muslim litigants told the top court that its decision might impact the minds of millions in India, which adopted a secular constitution in 1950. “It is for the court to consider the consequences of its historic judgment by molding the relief in a fashion that will reflect the constitutional values that this great nation espouses.”

But the task of balancing the two sides in a case that is a complex mix of faith, sentiment and myth is challenging, according to Sandeep Shastri, vice chairman of Jain University.

Expressing regret at the fact that efforts at an out-of-court settlement failed, he said that “ultimately when a court gives a judgment, it is very difficult to satisfy all parties. So at the end of the day, a judgment is very often a zero-sum game. That is my disquiet with critical, emotional issues seeking to be resolved in courts.”

Shastri fears that it could exacerbate the divide between India’s majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities. 

“I do have that fear that this judgment could actually further deepen the polarization that is already there in society,” Shastri said.

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