Ayodhya verdict: Hindus win possession of India site disputed by Muslims

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent
Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Indian supreme court has ruled that India’s most hotly contested piece of religious land rightfully belongs to Hindus, with judges granting permission for a temple to be built on the site in Ayodhya.

In their unanimous and historic judgement, the five supreme court judges stated that the site rightfully belonged to Hindus, based upon the claim it is the birthplace of their god Ram.

In their statement the judges ruled a mosque that had stood on the site since the 16th century, and was the basis of the Muslim claim to Ayodhya, was “not built on vacant land” and had displaced a previous temple.

Related: Ayodhya ruling: Hindus win case over site disputed by Muslims

The judges declared that a separate “prominent” five-acre piece of land would be allocated to the Muslim community to build a mosque near the contested site.

The ruling, just six months after his landslide election win, is another huge victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, who have made the restoration of Ram Temple at Ayodhya a focal point of their Hindu nationalist agenda. The supreme court judges said plans for the temple would be drawn up within the next three months.

“It is a historic judgement,” said Varun Kumar Sinha, Lawyer for Hindu Mahasabha, a right wing Hindu political party who advocated for the rebuilding of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. “With this judgement, the Supreme Court has given the message of unity in diversity.”

However, Zafaryab Jilani, the lawyer for the Muslim claimants, the Sunni Wakf Board, said they would challenge the verdict while also appealing for calm. “We respect the Supreme Court, we respect the judgment, but we are not satisfied with this,” he said. “There are a lot of contradictions within the judgment. Five acre has no value.”

Conflict over who has rightful claim to the land in Ayodhya has been raging between India’s Muslims and Hindus for over 150 years. While Muslims say it is a historical place of worship, Hindus claim that the mosque, built by the Mughal emperor Babur, was on the site of an older temple honouring the birthplace of Ram.

Amid fears of religious violence and rioting following the verdict, the country was put on high security alert, with thousands of police and paramilitary troops dispatched to the state of Uttar Pradesh and around 500 people arrested in the days before. Protests and parties were also banned in Ayodhya.

The supreme court judges stated that their ruling in favour of the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya was conditional on the “maintenance of peace and order and tranquility”.

The city remained quiet in the aftermath of the verdict, with all non-residents made the leave the city on Friday night and no-one allowed to leave their house without their identity cards. While a few firecrackers were released, the heavy police presence kept celebrations and protests muted.

Rajatram Maurya, a tailor in Ayodhya who used to grow flowers on the temple land before it was claimed by the government, had a mixed response to the ruling. “The verdict is good for all but I lost my land in this and the compensation I got from the government was barely anything. I used to grow flowers there but since the government acquired the land as the birthplace of Ram, I lost it. But I am glad there is peace in Ayodhya.”

Related: India: Hindus demand building of temple on disputed Ayodhya site

Modi appealed for peace and urged people to respect the judges’ ruling. “Whatever the verdict … it won’t be anybody’s win or loss. My appeal to the people of India is that our priority is to ensure the verdict strengthens the values of peace, equality and goodwill of our country.”

In December 1992, members of the BJP led a march to Ayodhya, where hundreds of thousands descended onto the Babri Masjid and demolished it to rubble with hammers and axes. The violent rioting between Muslims in Hindus in Uttar Pradesh that followed took more than 2,000 lives and members of the BJP are still facing trial for their role in the violence.

This destruction of the mosque has been cited as a pivotal moment for the failures of secularism and religious inclusivity in India, fracturing the country down religious lines that have been politically exploited ever since.

The sensitive decision over whether to rebuild a mosque or a temple on these 2.77 acres has been dragged out for the past 27 years. A 2010 court ruling divided the land between Muslims and Hindus but was rejected by both sides and the decision was taken to the supreme court in August.

Since Modi and the BJP took power in 2014, the rebuilding of the Ram temple at Ayodhya has been at the forefront of their Hindutva agenda, which has pushed India away from its secular roots and towards the nation adopting a strongly Hindu identity.

This has manifested in increasing hostility and violence towards the country’s 200 million Muslims, with Muslim history being removed from school textbooks and increased reports of vigilante Hindu mobs murdering Muslims suspected of killing cows, which are sacred in Hinduism. In June, a Hindu mob tied a Muslim man to a lamp and lynched him to death, with cries of “hail Lord Ram”. The Modi government’s actions in Kashmir in August, stripping the state of its long-held semi-autonomy, was also seen to directly target its majority-Muslim community.