India’s Supreme Court is preparing to hand down its final verdict on a decades-old flashpoint in Indian politics, which set off violent riots in 1992 and facilitated the rise of Hindu nationalists to political dominance.
Hindus believe that centuries ago a temple once stood in the city of Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, marking the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most widely-worshipped Hindu gods.
But a sixteenth century Muslim mosque stood on the site for hundreds of years, until it was demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992 following a long campaign of religious agitation.
In riots that followed in Mumbai, some 700 Muslims were killed. The state government, run by a local Hindu nationalist party, was accused of directing mobs toward Muslim areas and turning a blind eye to the violence.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the India-wide political wing of the Hindu nationalist movement, was at that time a marginal force in the country’s politics. But it seized on the Ayodhya dispute and now, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is the dominant party in Indian politics.
India’s Supreme Court is expected to rule on the dispute on Saturday, deciding with finality who the land belongs to. Hindu and Muslim leaders in India have urged people to “exercise restraint” from violence ahead of the ruling. But more than 12,000 police have reportedly been deployed to Ayodhya, and roads leading to the site have been blocked. Officials say they are prepared to shut off internet access if necessary.
Here’s what to know about the Ayodhya ruling.
Why is Ayodhya so significant in Indian politics?
The Ayodhya case is a land disagreement between two Hindu and Muslim groups, who both believe a 2.77 acre plot of land in Ayodhya to be a site holy to their religion.
But the Ayodhya case is more than a land dispute. It’s political. And it goes to the heart of India’s identity politics.
To understand why, look at the history. British India had a long history of religious violence, particularly between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. When the country was divided under Partition in 1947, it was decided that India would be a secular state with no state religion — though there were some family laws that applied only to Muslims.
But by the 1970s and 1980s, Hindu nationalist leaders began embarking on tours of the country, drumming up support for a new kind of politics. They argued that Hindus had been discriminated against by “pseudo-secularism,” that Muslims had received a better deal, and that India should be a Hindu nation not a secular one. It was an idea that would fundamentally reshape India over the coming years.
The ruling Congress Party, while ostensibly secular, reacted by also beginning to take advantage of Hindu nationalism’s electoral potential. In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates of the Babri Masjid — the disputed mosque in Ayodhya — for Hindus to worship inside. That act had significant consequences.
What’s the background to the Ayodhya dispute?
The controversy over Ayodhya long predated Rajiv Gandhi.
From the 1500s to the 1800s, the Muslim Mughal Empire covered much of India. It is during that period that the Babri masjid (the mosque in Ayodhya) was built.
According to records stretching as far back as the 1850s, Hindus have been attacking the Babri masjid, claiming a temple marking Rama’s birthplace had previously stood there until it was demolished by the Mughals.
In 1949, soon after independence, a group of Hindus broke into the mosque and placed idols of Ram inside, claiming they had miraculously appeared. A legal case ensued, and in response, police locked the gates.
The case proved a useful tool for the Hindu nationalist movement. A Hindu nationalist group affiliated with the BJP began a campaign to “reclaim” the site for Hindus.
In response, in 1986, Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates to Hindus. He also commissioned a TV dramatization of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, detailing the life of Rama, which aired from 1987-88. The series was wildly popular, and many considered watching the show to be a spiritual experience.
The historian Arvind Rajagopal argues it laid the foundations for the religification of Indian politics, and played into the new vision of the Indian nation being engineered by Hindu nationalists. The soap opera, he writes in his book Politics after Television, was really “an ancient epic … thoroughly scrambled with a national origin myth of more recent vintage.”
What happened to the Babri mosque in Ayodhya?
In 1990, the Hindu nationalist campaign to “reclaim” the “Ramjanmabhumi” (Rama’s birthplace) reached its zenith. L.K. Advani, then the leader of the BJP, embarked on a month-long pilgrimage around India, holding rallies agitating for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque.
He was arrested on the way, but thousands of supporters reached Ayodhya and attempted to storm the mosque. They were rebuffed by security forces, leaving 20 dead. In response, the BJP pulled its support from the coalition government, leading to national elections in which they made gains.
Then, in 1992, Advani spoke at a rally in Ayodhya attended by 150,000 people. That day, a mob stormed the mosque and tore it down.
The demolition led to a wave of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, according to the historian Ramachandra Guha.
At the next national elections in 1996, the BJP won its first majority in the Indian parliament. Its manifesto included a pledge to build a temple to Rama on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya.
That pledge was repeated in the BJP’s 2019 manifesto.
What is the Supreme Court deciding?
The Supreme Court will decide who the 2.77 disputed acres in Ayodhya belong to.
The parties to the dispute are the Muslim Waqf Board, which controls Islamic property in India, the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist political party close in ideology to the BJP, and the Nirmohi Akhara, a sect of Hindu monks.
If the court rules in favor of the Hindu parties, it will be a win for the BJP and could open a door for them to deliver on their campaign pledge to build a temple to Ram on the spot where the mosque once stood.
Whichever way the court rules, however, the decision could inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims—at a time when anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise.