India’s Supreme Court has given the ownership of a disputed religious site in the northern town of Ayodhya to Hindus for the construction of a temple, in a landmark verdict announced on Saturday amid heightened security across the country.
Muslims will be given a five acres land at an alternative site in Ayodhya, in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
The five-judge bench, in a unanimous decision over the Babri Mosque site, asked the government to set up of a trust that will construct a temple for Hindu deity Ram.
Hardliners among India’s majority Hindus, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believe that Lord Ram, the warrior god, was born at the site where the Babri mosque existed. They say that the first Mughal emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple at the site.
Muslims said they prayed at the mosque for generations until 1949, when Hindu activists placed idols of Ram.
The 460-year-old mosque was demolished in 1992 by Hindu mobs triggering nationwide religious violence that left about 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
The top court said a structure existed under the Babri Mosque, which was not built on vacant land.
A 2010 lower court ruling had divided the disputed 2.77 acres (1.12 hectares) into three equal parts, with two-thirds going to the Hindu community and one-third to Muslims. That order was challenged by both sides.
Prime Minister Modi has called for calm as police went on alert, with thousands of extra personnel deployed and schools closed in and around the northern city of Ayodhya, centre of the bitter dispute, and elsewhere.
The BJP has campaigned for years for a temple to be built at Ayodhya, and a verdict clearing the way for that would be a major victory for the 69-year-old Modi, just months into his second term.