The Indian Supreme Court ruled on November 9 that a plot of land in the northern city of Ayodhya, which has been a bone of contention between the country's Hindu majority and its Muslim minority, will go to the Hindu community.
The disputed land once housed the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528. In 1992, a Hindu mob, headed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a fundamentalist group affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is currently in power in India, destroyed the mosque, saying a Hindu temple that had stood on the site had been destroyed to build the mosque.
The illegal demolition of the mosque sparked riots across the country, in which around 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The riots were followed by a series of terrorist attacks linked to Islamist groups in the years that followed.
Although India is a secular nation, tensions sporadically flare up between the Hindu and Muslim communities. The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP has worsened communal discord.
The Indian Supreme Court overturned the verdict of the Allahabad High Court in 2010 which had ruled that the 2.77 acre plot should be divided equally between the three plaintiffs - the Sunni Waqf Board for the Muslims, the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu denomination, and the deity Ram Lalla (infant Ram), considered by the court to be a "juridical person" and represented by people associated with the Vishva Hindu Parishad.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, Hindus have now been allotted the land on which the mosque once stood. Muslims will be given 5 acres of land elsewhere. One of the Muslim litigants has said that the land must be allocated within the government's 67 acre plot on which the Babri Masjid stood.
The Supreme Court now says the Allahabad High Court "completely erred in granting relief which lay outside the ambit of the pleadings and the cases set up by the plaintiffs". Despite this, one Supreme Court judge wrote a 116-page addendum on "whether the disputed structure is the holy birthplace of Lord Ram", noting that "faith and belief of Hindus" - both before and after the construction of the mosque - was that Lord Ram was born at the location of the mosque, and concluding that this "faith and belief is proved by documentary and oral evidence".
The judgment comes at a time when Kashmir is still under siege after the central government revoked Article 370, which granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir special status, and 1.9 million people in Assam are at risk of being stripped of their citizenship, detained, and deported under a new national register of citizens.
That Hindu nationalism has infiltrated Indian politics isn't news. But beyond politics, fundamentalism is on the rise in the country. Earlier this year, an Indian scientist quoted Hindu texts as proof that stem cell research was "invented" by Hindus. Another scientist at the same conference said the theories of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are wrong and that gravitational waves would be renamed "Narendra Modi" waves.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the judgment wasn't a win or loss for either side and urged people to maintain "harmony". Just in case they didn't comply, the government invoked Section 144 of the criminal procedure code, which allows magistrates to prohibit the gathering of four or more people in a public place, to curb rioting. In Mumbai alone, 40,000 police personnel were deployed around the city on the day the judgment was announced.
The country has now settled scores for an event that took place in the 16th century, well before "India" even existed as a nation-state. It is unreasonable to compare what happened in the 1500s with what took place in the 1990s - the latter was an act of barbarism in the modern age.
If the government believes this to be the end of the matter, it has forgotten that Hindu fundamentalists are bloodthirsty. The judgment might whet their appetite for more religious sites. "Like the Babri Masjid, temples were also demolished at Kashi and Mathura to build mosques … the mosques must be demolished," said the head of the All India Akhara Parishad. "(Those temples) are revered by the Hindus worldwide … they belong to us and we will take them."
Will India still be constitutionally "secular" by the time Modi's second term is over? For now, it is difficult to be optimistic.
Akanksha Singh is a writer and culture journalist based in Mumbai, India
For another perspective on the Ayodhya ruling, please see: Can Modi use Ayodhya verdict to start afresh?
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