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India holds its breath for divisive Ayodhya ruling

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LUCKNOW, India – India has ramped up security ahead of a high court ruling Friday on a bitter religious dispute responsible for some of the bloodiest sectarian violence since independence.


Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand alert in New Delhi

The decision on the future of the Ayodhya mosque site — and even more so the reaction to it — poses a crucial test for India and its image as an emerging global player and a beacon of stability in a volatile region.

India’s home minister P. Chidambaram appealed for calm Wednesday ahead of the politically charged judgement.

“It is the government’s earnest hope that all sections of society will maintain peace, order, harmony and tranquillity,” he said in New Delhi.

“It would be inappropriate to reach any conclusion that one side has won or the other side has lost” following the ruling that will be extremely complex and is bound to be appealed to the Supreme Court, he added.

In 1992 the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu activists sparked riots that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, and propelled India’s Hindu nationalists into the political mainstream.

Hindus say the mosque had been built by the Moghul emperor Babur on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior god Ram in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since the destruction of the mosque 18 years ago the 47-acre (19-hectare) site has been cordoned off with barbed wire and steel fencing and guarded by troops.

Now a three-judge bench in the state capital Lucknow will rule on ownership of the site between Hindu and Muslim groups.

A senior Uttar Pradesh home department official told AFP in Lucknow more than 200,000 police, paramilitary and other security personnel had been deployed across the state ahead of the ruling.

“Processions of all kind have been prohibited not only in Ayodhya but also in 44 sensitive districts,” added Brij Lal, additional director-general of police.

Muslims called for calm.

“We now wait for Friday’s verdict but no one should celebrate victory or raise protests against the ruling,” said Zafaryab Jilani, lawyer for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, which wants the site handed to Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.

The government and numerous religious leaders have urged both Hindus and Muslims to accept the court ruling, no matter which way it goes.

“The way the country handles this — the aftermath — will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said earlier in the month.

The radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP insisted that the government would have to give the site to the Hindus.

“The Indian government must hand over the (Ayodhya) site to Hindus through an act of parliament because it is linked to faith or else this dispute will never end,” the VHP’s national spokesman Prakash Sharma told AFP.

The drive to build a Ram temple on the ruins of the razed mosque remains a key political aim of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition party in parliament.

India’s chief Muslim cleric, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, echoed the calls for calm, but also criticised hardline Hindu groups for shunning efforts to find an out-of-court settlement.

“One can only strike a compromise with those who want to resolve the dispute through sincere talks,” Bukhari told AFP.

Mahant Gyan Das, a senior member of the Hindu trust seeking to build a Ram temple on the site, insisted that any violence resulting from the ruling would not come from the people of Ayodhya.

The government has taken out newspaper ads warning against any knee-jerk reactions that might inflame communal tensions.

“There should be no attempt whatsoever made by any section of the people to provoke any other section,” the published appeal said.

India has avoided any major outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence since riots in Gujarat in 2002.

The government is especially keen to keep a lid on any unrest ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which begin on October 3, and the visit of US President Barack Obama in November.

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