India's Top Court Defers Mosque Ruling, Seeks Reconciliation

India’s top judges delayed a lower court ruling on the ownership of land where the 1992 razing of a mosque by Hindus sparked nationwide riots, asking parties to the dispute to attempt reconciliation.

The government’s attorney general should help to find some common ground between Hindu and Muslim groups, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court said, ordering another hearing for Sept. 28. Federal and state governments had earlier banned rallies and bulk mobile-phone messaging, fearing a repeat of clashes that killed about 2,000 people 18 years ago.

“There is little hope of reconciliation or negotiation in this complex issue over four days,” said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer in the Supreme Court and a civil rights activist who is not involved in the case. Former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee said asking the sides to bridge differences in such a short time showed “blind irrational optimism.”

At a hearing scheduled for tomorrow, the High Court in Uttar Pradesh state had been expected to award the disputed land in the town of Ayodhya, site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid and where Hindus believe their god Ram was born, to representatives of one of the religious communities.

Muslims claim the site based on the existence of the mosque since 1528, while Hindu groups argued the Babri Masjid was built on the site of an earlier temple.

‘Last Chance’

The Supreme Court gave its ruling after being approached by one of the litigants in the case who argued that the verdict may lead to sectarian violence. The government had deployed more police officers in cities with a history of Hindu-Muslim conflict, and the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had urged calm.

The Supreme Court wanted to give parties a last chance at reconciliation. “If anything goes wrong, the consequences will be for the ordinary people,” H.L. Gokhale, one of the judges, said today. “You are aware of the history.”

Clashes between Muslims and Hindus ravaged India after a campaign led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party for a temple to be built at the spot ended with the destruction of the mosque.

“Any violence will speak of instability and people don’t like to invest in countries like that,” said Prem Shankar Jha, an independent political analyst based in New Delhi before the top court’s judgment. Serious trouble will create a climate for investors that “we cannot afford,” he said.

The BJP used the temple issue to gain support among majority Hindus, surging from having two members of parliament in 1984 to winning 120 at elections in 1991 and leading a coalition government seven years later.

Ram Temple

The BJP now says it still wants to build consensus before constructing a temple to Ram at the site in Ayodhya.

“The way the country handles this -- the aftermath -- will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country,” Prime Minister Singh told a meeting of editors at this official residence this month, the Hindu newspaper reported, referring to India’s most contentious and intractable religious dispute.

India’s gross domestic product has grown nearly six times since 1991, when Singh, then finance minister, introduced free- market measures that cut red tape, removed state-enforced capacity caps on steel and cement makers, and allowed overseas companies including Ford Motor Co. to set up operations.

The Supreme Court in 1994 clubbed together four title suits filed by Hindu and Muslim organizations claiming control of the land. The first two dated from 1950, and were filed after idols of Hindu deities appeared inside the mosque.

Hindus account for 80.5 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion population while Muslims make up 13.4 percent.

An independent Indian commission in November blamed top BJP leaders for igniting sectarian clashes in 1992. The commission named former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and other party chiefs among 68 people who played key roles in sparking the crisis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net; PS Patnaik in New Delhi at ppatnaik2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net

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