AYODHYA, India – In the heart of the Indian city of Ayodhya, a group of police officials are unloading 3-meter (10 feet) high yellow barricades with barbed wire. Large red letters on the metal reveal the reason for the deployment: “Ram’s birthplace, high security area.”
Preparations in this city of about 55,000 people in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh are on the rise ahead of the Supreme Court’s verdict in less than two weeks over the thorny issue of to whom belongs a religious site in the city, over which Hindus and Muslims have sparred for decades.
It is the site of the Babri Masjid (mosque), built in the 16th century by Mughal emperor Babar and razed to the ground by a mob of Hindu fanatics in 1992 over the belief that the exact same spot was the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram.
The event triggered the worst clashes between the two communities since the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, with some 2,000 deaths.
A woman, clad in a green sari, walks along the path leading to the ruins of the mosque after passing through six security controls. She is one of the many Hindu devotees who visit the site daily.
Under the watchful eye of dozens of police officials and at least as many monkeys, the woman arrives at an opening in the gate and her face lights up.
“Rama,” she whispers.
In front of her, at a distance of around 10 meters and on the remains of the old mosque, stands an idol of the god, opulently adorned on an altar.
“Hindus believe that this is the birthplace of bhagwan (god) Ram. It is sacred for the Hindus and should be restored to the Hindus,” says Alok Kumar, lawyer and working president of the conservative organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the plaintiffs in the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid title suit that seeks to build a large temple in honor of the Hindu god.
The land ownership dispute reached the courts in the 1950s after a group of Hindus placed idols of Ram inside the mosque and the authorities closed it to the public.
The courts must decide whether the place belongs to the Muslim organizations that administered the Babri mosque until it was destroyed, or to the Hindus, represented mainly by a group of Hindu ascetics and god Ram himself as the Indian judicial system treats deities as legal entities.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the VHP organized a series of agitations, along with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, currently in power, which brought the Ayodhya conflict back to the political scene.
The movement culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
“See, this fight is going (on) from 50 years and it is to make a point that the Hindus’ self-respect is restored,” adds Kumar, whose organization subscribes to the Hindutva ideology that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and their way of life.
Mujibur Rehman, a political science professor at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university, tells EFE that it is as if, for Hindu nationalists, “all Muslims were in tandem to perpetuate a particular brand of Islamic rule and harass and humiliate Hindu society. Which is not the case.”
In Ayodhya, about 700 kilometers away, Muslims measure their words more than any Hindu – devout or militant.
A mere 6.19 percent of Ayodhya’s population is Muslim.
“We will accept the Supreme Court judgment,” one of the Muslim litigants, Iqbal Ansari, tells EFE in front of a small neon-green mosque he has come to pray in.
Ansari covers the 300-meter distance between the mosque and his home accompanied by two police officials armed with machine guns, who are part of his personal escort. Two hundred meters in the opposite direction is the Babri mosque.
Ansari’s father was one of the original complainants in 1949 when Ram’s idol appeared at the mosque and the authorities closed its doors, and after his death in 2016 the son continued the litigation.
Haji Mehboob, another litigant in his 70s, also says that he will accept the verdict of India’s highest judicial body.
“People say Lord Ram was born there. But we (Muslims) have also prayed there for 450 years and it is Allah’s house,” he says, flanked by the two police officials who watch over his safety. He asks Hindus and Muslims to stay in their homes peacefully when the verdict is delivered.
Seated on a green plastic chair in the courtyard of his house after returning from one of Ayodhya’s 36 mosques, Mehboob recalls the thousands of fanatics who rushed to destroy the Babri mosque in 1992, almost tearing it down with their hands.
“We don’t know who they were, where they came from,” he says.
At least the mob did not pour its anger into the Muslim population after destroying the mosque, he adds.
“There was a divine intervention that protected us. That helped us,” says Mehboob, who hopes that now, almost 30 years later and when the Supreme Court has delivered its verdict, there won’t be any need for him to go to such lengths to protect himself.