NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s Supreme Court on Saturday ruled in favor of a Hindu temple on a disputed religious ground in northern India and ordered that alternative land be given to Muslims to build a mosque – a verdict deplored by a key Muslim body.
The dispute over land ownership has been one of the country’s most contentious issues, with Hindu nationalists demanding a temple for more than a century.
The 16th century Babri Masjid mosque in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state was destroyed by Hindu hard-liners in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left 2,000 people dead.
The verdict paves the way for building the temple in place of the demolished mosque.
As the news broke, groups of jubilant Hindus poured onto Ayodhya’s streets and distributed sweets to celebrate the verdict. But the police soon persuaded them to return to their homes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the decision and said it had settled a long-standing matter.
“Every point of view was given adequate time and opportunity to express differing points of view. This verdict will further increase people’s faith in judicial processes,” Modi tweeted.
Five Supreme Court justices said in a unanimous judgment that 5 acres (2 hectares) of land will be allotted to the Muslim community at a prominent place for building a mosque. The disputed land will be given to a board of trustees for the construction of a temple for the Hindu god Ram.
The court observed that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was “in violation of the status quo orders of this court.” But the justices left it at that and didn’t order any punitive action against those who demolished the mosque in the presence of several top leaders of Modi’s party.
Hindu supporters and activists celebrated the ruling on the court lawns, blowing bugles and chanting “Jai shree Ram,” or “Hail god Ram.”
Zafaryab Jilani, a representative of the Sunni Central Waqf Board, opposed the ruling.
“We are not satisfied with the verdict and it’s not up to our expectation,” said Jilani, who is representing the Muslim community’s Babri Action committee.
“These 5 acres of land don’t mean anything to us,” he said. “We are examining the verdict and whatever legal course is open for us.”
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.
The five judges said Hindus’ belief that their god Rama was born at the demolished structure “is undisputed.”
Muslims have not provided evidence that they were in exclusive possession of dispute site, they said.
The judgment also said the Muslim body, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board, failed to establish its case in the dispute.
On the contrary, Hindus established their case that they were in possession of the outer courtyard of the disputed complex, the judges said.
Vishnu Shankar Jain, an attorney who represented the Hindu community, said the journey over several years 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 defense minister, appealed to all to “accept the court verdict and maintain peace.”
Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh, or the National Volunteer Corps, said the government should now take the initiative in building the temple. The group is the parent organization of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, criticized the verdict, saying it was indicative of the “hate based mindset” of 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.
Hindu hard-liners say they want to build a new temple to the god Ram on the site, which they revere as his birthplace. They say the mosque was built after a temple dedicated to the Hindu god was destroyed by Muslim invaders.
After the demolition of the mosque, Hindus and Muslims took the issue to a lower court, which in 2010 ruled that the disputed land should be divided into three parts – two for Hindus and one for Muslims.
That was challenged in the Supreme Court by both communities.
The five judges started daily proceedings in August after mediation failed to find a compromise.
Modi had promised to build the temple in 2014 elections that brought him to power. But he later decided to wait for the court verdict despite pressure from millions of Hindu hard-liners who asked his government to bring legislation to build the temple
Authorities increased security in Ayodhya, which is located 550 kilometers (350 miles) east of New Delhi, and deployed more than 5,000 paramilitary forces to prevent any attacks by Hindu activists on Muslims, who comprise 6% of the town’s more than 55,500 people.
Overall, Hindus comprise more than 80% and Muslims around 14% of India’s 1.3 billion people.
The strict measures in Ayodhya included a ban on the assembly of more than four people in one place.
The town looked deserted on Saturday, with authorities turning back thousands of Hindu pilgrims who were congregating for a religious event scheduled for Tuesday. Security forces also established a strong presence around the religious site and were not allowing anyone to visit.
People traveling in cars and buses to Ayodhya were being thoroughly checked at security barriers as commandos took up positions in bunkers across the town.
Police have arrested about 500 people for posting provocative messages on social media in the state. Police also have detained 5,000 people with criminal backgrounds across the state to prevent them from creating trouble after the court verdict, according to Uttar Pradesh state government spokesman Awanish Awasthi.
Authorities also stopped the entry of people into the state through the land border from Nepal, and ordered all state schools and colleges to remain closed until Monday.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.