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Indian court divides disputed holy site

LUCKNOW, India — An Indian court ruled Thursday that a disputed holy site that has sparked bloody communal riots across the country in the past should be divided between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

However, the court gave the Hindus control over the section where the now demolished Babri Mosque stood and where a small makeshift tent-shrine to the Hindu god Rama rests.

While both Muslim and Hindu lawyers vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, the compromise ruling over the Ayodhya site seemed unlikely to set off a new round of violence, as the government had feared.

Immediate reaction to the verdict was muted.

In Ayodhya, Hindus rushed to nearby temples to give thanks, but the atmosphere throughout the town was peaceful.

“It is very clear the case will go to the Supreme Court. It is not our final victory,” said Nitya Gopal Das, president of a Hindu trust involved in the suit.

In Lucknow, where the decision was issued, shops were closed, streets were deserted and police were on patrol in the hours after the verdict.

Hindu and Muslim groups in Mumbai, a flash point for previous Hindu-Muslim violence over the temple dispute, appealed for peace.

“We hope all problems regarding matters with Hindus and Muslims can be settled in this amicable way,” said Haji Arfat, a leader of the Hindu fundamentalist Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Many in India say the country has moved on, with the younger generation more interested in their education and cell phones than communal divisions.

Muslims revere the compound in Ayodhya as the former site of the 16th century mosque, while Hindus say it is the birthplace of Rama and contend that a temple to the god stood on the site before the mosque.

The Allahabad High Court ruled that the 64-acre (25-hectare) site should be split, with the Muslim community getting control of one-third and two Hindu groups splitting the remainder. The Hindus will keep the area where the mosque once stood, according to the court judgment.

The court said archaeological evidence showed a temple had predated the mosque.

“The majority ruled that the location of the makeshift temple is the birthplace of Rama, and this spot cannot be shifted,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lawyer for one of the Hindu groups who sued.

The court also ruled that the current status of the site should continue for the next three months to allow for the land to be peacefully measured and divided.

Zaffaryab Jilani, a lawyer for the Muslim community, said he would appeal the verdict, which could delay a final decision in the 60-year-old case for years.

“It’s not a victory or defeat for any party. It’s a step forward. We hope this matter will be resolved,” he said.

H.S. Jain, one of the Hindu plaintiffs, said he also would appeal. “100 percent of the land belongs to Hindus. Why split it?” he said.

The conflict over the compound in Ayodhya, 350 miles (550 kilometers) east of New Delhi, has sparked violence between Hindus and Muslims that killed thousands of people and challenged India’s ethos as a secular, multicultural democracy.

The government and the parties to the dispute had appealed for calm in the wake of the verdict. Leaving nothing to chance, the government flooded the streets with troops.

Police arrested more than 10,000 people to prevent them from inciting violence, while another 100,000 had to sign affidavits saying they would not cause trouble after the verdict, a top official said.

Helicopters hovered over holy sites in the state as people entering temples were checked with metal detectors, police said.

“We have deployed around 200,000 security personnel at sensitive places to prevent any violence post the Ayodhya verdict,” top state official Shashank Shekhar Singh said.

The Babri Mosque, built in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur, was razed by Hindu hard-liners in 1992, setting off nationwide riots that killed 2,000 people.

Hindus want to build an enormous temple to Rama there, while Muslims want to rebuild the mosque. The ruling Thursday would almost certainly force both groups to scale down those plans.

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was implicated in the destruction of the mosque, said the ruling should clear the way for the construction of the Rama temple.

“I will appeal to Muslims to forget the past. We have got an opportunity to act together,” he said.

The verdict in the explosive case came as thousands of foreign athletes poured into New Delhi ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which start Sunday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm as the government extended its ban on bulk texting to stop people from sending mass cell phone messages that could incite violence.

More than 40,000 police fanned out across Mumbai, which had erupted in anti-Muslim riots and retaliatory bombings after the Babri Mosque demolition, but played host to scattered peace marches in recent days. Still, many schools were closed Thursday and many businesses planned to close early.

In Hyderabad, capital of the southern Andhra Pradesh state, authorities deployed more than 20,000 additional police. Some 460 arrests to stop possible violence were made, said police chief Abdul K. Khan.

Orders were posted banning the gathering of more than five people in the city, and liquor shops were closed and religious processions and meetings barred, Khan said.


Associated Press writers Erika Kinetz in Mumbai and Nirmala George and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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