A court will rule on Friday whether Hindus or Muslims own land around a demolished mosque in northern India, a judgment haunted by memories of a 1992 riot, some of the country’s worst violence since the partition.
The case over the 16th century Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh state is one of the biggest security challenges in India this year, along with a Maoist insurgency and a Kashmiri separatist rebellion, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said.
The verdict could prove a major political quandary for the government led by the Congress Party, a left-of-center party with secular roots.
A verdict in favor of the Hindus would force the government to uphold the verdict, making it unpopular with Muslims, a key vote bloc.
A ruling for the Muslims would mean the government would have to push Hindu groups out of the site, a political minefield.
Any outlook is almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court of India and a final decision could take years to come.
The government has other problems, including the separatist revolt in Kashmir that has claimed more than 100 lives.
“The worst case scenario for Congress would be some judgment that makes them restore the mosque,” said Praveen Swami, security expert at the Hindu newspaper. “They don’t want to take sides in this.”
About 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion plus population are Hindus, but Muslims represent 13 percent — about 140 million that put it behind Indonesia and Pakistan in the ranks of Muslim populations.
Hindu mobs demolished the mosque in the town of Ayodhya, claiming it was built on the birthplace of their god-king Rama. The demolition triggered religious riots that killed about 2,000.
The Congress-led government had put out half-page appeals in newspapers nationwide, calling for calm ahead of the verdict, mindful that this emerging Asia giant is due to showcase its modernity with the holding of the Commonwealth Games next month.
Authorities in Uttar Pradesh have forbidden public gatherings and will deploy thousands of police and set up extra jails.
There are signals the judgment’s impact will not be as great as feared. Since 1992, India has emerged as an economic power with a middle class that may dampen religious extremism.
However, the judgment will give a taste of the strength of Hindu nationalist politics.
The main Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has tried to distance itself from being perceived as an instigator of communal strife, mindful that it must appeal to India’s growing middle class.
The BJP faces a state election in neighboring Bihar state, where it rules in alliance with a popular chief minister who has warned Hindu nationalists of sparking any communal strife.
However, temperatures still run high.
Last November, the government published a long-awaited report that accused several top politicians of the BJP of having a role in the destruction of the mosque.
The BJP rejected that report and an uproar in parliament held up proceedings for days, delaying government bills.