India's top court cleared the way on Saturday for a Hindu temple to be constructed at a hotly disputed holy site, in a huge victory for Hindu nationalists under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Supreme Court ruled that the site in Ayodhya in northern India, where Hindu mobs destroyed a 460-year-old mosque in 1992, must be handed over to a trust to oversee the construction of a Hindu temple, subject to conditions.
A separate piece of land in Ayodhya would be given over to Muslim groups to build a new mosque, the court ruled in a historic judgement aimed at ending a bitter and decades-old legal and sectarian battle.
Thousands of paramilitary force members and police have been deployed in the northern town of Ayodhya, where an ancient mosque was razed in 1992 by hardline Hindus who believe the site is the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
The destruction of the mosque triggered religious riots in which about 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed across the country and led to a series of court battles with various groups staking claim to the site.
A final verdict will be delivered by a five-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the court said late on Friday.
The verdict will decide the ownership of a plot of land of just 2.77 acres (1.1 hectares) that has been heavily protected since the 1992 clashes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has long campaigned on a promise to support the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the razed mosque.
“It may seem to be just a piece of land but for us it is a pious place where our god was born,” said a senior Hindu leader affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.
“We hope the court rules in favour of the Hindus,” said the leader, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Whichever way it goes, the court decision is likely to have a significant impact on fraught relations between India’s Hindus and Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of its 1.3 billion people.
The government has stepped up security not just in Ayodhya but in other communally sensitive areas and rapid action forces have been put on a high alert.
For more than seven decades, right-wing Hindu campaigners have been pushing to build a temple on the site, which they believe was holy for Hindus, long before the Muslim Mughals, India’s most prominent Islamic rulers, built what they called the Babri mosque there.
A verdict in favor of building a Ram Temple at Ayodhya would be seen as a political victory for Modi, who won a second term in a landslide general election win this year.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - parent organization of Modi’s party - has decided against celebratory processions if the verdict goes in favor of the Hindus, to avoid provoking sectarian violence.
Muslim organizations have appealed for calm to prevent communal flare-ups.