India’s supreme court has ruled in favour of a Hindu temple on disputed religious ground and ordered that alternative land should be given to Muslims to build a mosque.
The dispute over land ownership has been one of the country’s most contentious issues.
The 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque in northern Indian town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state was destroyed by Hindu hard-liners in December 1992, sparking widespread sectarian violence that left 2,000 people dead.
Five supreme court justices said in a unanimous judgment that five acres 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 Hindu god Ram.
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 our expectation,” said Zafaryab Jilani, who is representing the Muslim community’s Babri Action committee.
“These five acres of land don’t mean anything to us. 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.
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 defence minister, appealed to all 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 the Indian prime minister Narendra 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 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.
Mr 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, 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.
The strict measures included a ban on the assembly of more than four people at one place.