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30 Sep, 2010 03:19

Sacred row: Hindus and Muslims on edge over religious site

Security is being tightened in northern India ahead of a legal ruling authorities fear may spark massive unrest. A court is set to rule on whether a holy site in the ancient town of Ayodhya belongs to Muslims or Hindus.

An uneasy calm rests on the streets of the ancient city of Ayodhya in northeast India, the battleground for an interfaith legal showdown.

The High Court is due to rule on the ownership of a two-acre plot of land Hindus consider the sacred birthplace of Lord Rama, a Hindu god. However, previously it was an Islamic mosque that stood here until in 1992 a Hindu mob destroyed it.

That and the anti-Muslim riots that followed remain a blot on India’s image as a secular country. Since then the government has resisted attempts to build a temple or a mosque on the disputed site.

Now there are fears that riots will follow whether the court supports the claims of Hindus or Muslims. That angers Ayodhya’s residents of all faiths, because they feel trouble is usually fomented by outsiders.

“The entire Muslim community here wants peace. Whatever the verdict is, whoever the land goes to, we are ready to accept it,” said Muslim resident Muhammad Yunus Ansari. “For so many years, political parties have used the religious sentiments of people to create trouble and gain votes. We will not let them succeed this time.”

There is a real desire for a quick decision to allow people to get on with their lives. Shopkeeper Om Prakash Pandey says his sales are down, because pilgrims are staying away.

“The impact is tremendous,” he said. “This is a temple town, and if people do not visit because of trouble or increased security, I cannot sell them my goods. How can I survive like this?”

Many analysts insist that the India of 2010 is different from the India of 1992, and both people and political parties will show restraint. Indians have moved on from the divisive politics of religion to the more pressing issues of jobs and livelihoods.

“The government should let the verdict come out, whoever it may be,” said local resident Ramesh Kumar. “If it favors the Hindus, then our Muslim brothers should not mind it. They should accept it peacefully, as the decision of the court. And if it favors the Muslims, then my Hindu brothers also should accept it gracefully.”

Whatever the verdict, it will not be the end of the judicial process, as the losing side is certain to appeal to India’s Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for the people to showcase an inclusive India of the 21st century where the rule of law is followed and where religious bigotry has no place.