India’s top court has awarded a disputed religious site to Hindus – rejecting a rival Muslim claim.
The verdict threatens to heighten tensions between the two communities, which have been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the land – with deadly riots ensuing.
The unanimous ruling paves the way for the building of a Hindu temple on the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, a move long supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist party.
It will be seen as a political victory for Mr Modi, who won a second term in a landslide general election win this year.
The row over ownership has been one of the country’s most contentious issues.
Hindus believe the three-acre plot of land – which is about the size of a football pitch – was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
They argue the site was holy for Hindus long before the Muslim Mughals, India’s most prominent Islamic rulers, built what was known as the Babri mosque there in 1528.
The mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992, triggering religious riots in which about 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed across the country.
It also led to a series of court battles with various groups staking claim to the site.
The Honourable Supreme Court has given its verdict on the Ayodhya issue. This verdict shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody.
Be it Ram Bhakti or Rahim Bhakti, it is imperative that we strengthen the spirit of Rashtra Bhakti.
May peace and harmony prevail!
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 9, 2019
India’s supreme court directed that an alternate parcel of land be provided to a Muslim group that had staked a claim to the disputed site.
The land has been heavily protected since the 1992 religious clashes.
Ahead of the ruling, security was tightened in Ayodhya and across India, especially in cities that have been the scene of communal violence previously.
In some regions, restrictions were placed on gatherings and police were monitoring social media to curb rumours that could inflame community tensions.
In some towns, internet services were also suspended, while schools and colleges have been closed until Monday.
In a series of tweets last night, Mr Modi said: “Whatever decision of the supreme court will come on Ayodhya, it will not be a victory or defeat for anyone.
“My appeal to the countrymen is that it should be the priority of all of us that this decision should further strengthen the great tradition of peace, unity and goodwill of India.”
Hindu supporters and activists celebrated the ruling on the court lawns, blowing bugles and chanting “Jai Shree Ram”, or hailing the god Ram.
A lawyer representing the Muslims deplored the ruling.
“We are not satisfied with the verdict and it’s not up to our expectation,” said Zafaryab Jilani, who is representing the Muslim community group.
He hinted at filing a review petition in the supreme court challenging Saturday’s verdict. At the same time, he appealed to members of all communities to maintain peace.
Vishnu Shankar Jain, an attorney who represented the Hindu community, said it had been a struggle.
“It was a huge legal battle and we are happy that we convinced the supreme court. It’s a historic moment for Hindus,” he said.
Raj Nath Singh, India’s defence minister, appealed to people to “accept the court verdict and maintain peace”.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, criticised the verdict, saying it was indicative of the “hate-based mindset” of Mr Modi’s government.
“This is nothing but Modi’s government continued policies of cultivating seeds of hatred and promoting differences between the communities and religious segments of the population to achieve its designs,” he said.