A day after India’s Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple could be built on a holy site contested by Muslims, marking a victory for ruling Hindu nationalists after decades of religious tension, the historic city of Ayodhya was in lockdown amid fears of sectarian violence.
While the usually busy streets were deserted, some jubilant visitors braved tight security to get to the three-acre site, where a 16th century Moghul mosque was destroyed in 1992 by rightwing Hindus, sparking riots that killed more than 2,000 people. “We are so happy. I wanted the [ Hindu] temple built in my own lifetime, my dream has come true,” said Vijaymati Shukla, visiting from a nearby district.
For decades building a temple on the site — which Hindus claim is the birthplace of Ram, a revered god — has been a key objective of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, re-elected this year with a thumping majority. “It is only because of Modi that this has been made possible,” said Ms Shukla, beaming with joy. “Now Modi will keep on getting the support of the people because he will build this temple.”
The judgment also provides a boost for Mr Modi at a time when his government is struggling to counter an economic slowdown, which has seen growth slow to a six-year low. “The immediate issues — unemployment, GDP going down — these things will once more be sidelined,” said Heramb Chaturvedi, a professor at the University of Allahabad. “It would be these religious issues that would help bring them to power.”
Mr Modi has sought to play down fears of tensions and said the Ayodhya verdict “shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody”.
“The Supreme Court verdict has brought a new dawn. Now the next generation will build a new India,” he said. “There is no place for fear, bitterness and negativity.”
Under the Supreme court ruling, the government will, within three months, create a trust which would be responsible for the construction of a temple on the site. It ruled that Muslims will get a separate, five-acre plot of land elsewhere in Ayodhya to construct a new mosque, overturning a 2010 lower-court decision that divided the plot between the religious groups. In its ruling, the Supreme Court cited government-appointed archaeologists who had found evidence of a temple-like structure underneath the mosque as support for building a new temple.
Critics of the judgment highlighted the apparent inconsistency of a ruling that allowed the construction of a temple to go ahead while ruling that the destruction of the mosque in 1992 was illegal. Prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of its destruction has been stalled in the courts for years.
“This is a victory of faith over facts,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP and president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party. “There is this atmosphere being created where the BJP wants to make Muslims second class.”
The Ayodhya verdict came after Mr Modi stripped India’s only Muslim-majority state Kashmir of its special status in August and imposed a lockdown on the region, where residents still do not have access to internet and several high-profile politicians are detained.
Building the Ram temple, abrogating Article 370 that defined Kashmir’s status and getting rid of separate laws for religious minorities have been the three core issues of the Hindu right, said Asim Ali, political researcher at the University of Delhi. “Having fulfilled two of these historical demands, Modi has fundamentally transformed the country,” said Mr Ali. “Modi would now unquestionably be the tallest leader in all of the historical pantheon of the Hindu right.”
“The fundamental question is whether this ruling will embolden the Hindu right or if it will satiate them because they have achieved their goals,” said political analyst Amitabh Dubey. “This is a triumphant moment, but the story has not yet played out.”
In the neighbouring city of Faizabad, Rahib Haider called the verdict “one-sided”. Speaking at a mosque, where boys played with kites in the courtyard, Mr Haider said that he hopes that the ruling would help India move beyond the painful past.
“But if this decision is used for furthering a political agenda, then it is dangerous for Muslims and the growth of India,” Mr Haider cautioned. But Mr Modi’s supporters in Ayodhya are focused on the construction of the temple — and an eventual celebration with their prime minister. “Now Mr Modi will come to inaugurate the temple,” said Hanuman Yadav, a security guard. “Nobody can stop Modi, he will have 20 more years in power.”