India’s top court orders mediation on contested sacred site

Hanuman, the Monkey God, is depicted on the facade of a building in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India. (Bloomberg pic)

NEW DELHI: India’s top court directed petitioners to try and resolve the dispute over the politically sensitive issue of land ownership in the northern city of Ayodhya through mediation instead of fighting it out legally.

A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi appointed panel to begin proceedings within a week.

The decision came amid a top court hearing on an appeal against a 2010 lower court verdict that gave Muslims one-third of the land and the rest to Hindu groups.

The Hindu groups claim the site is birth place of Lord Ram.

The top court’s order for mediation of the dispute, which could potentially influence the outcome of the general elections due by May, pushes the hearing on communally emotive issue beyond the polls.

Hindu nationalist groups affiliated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have reinvigorated their pitch for expediting the temple’s construction.

The a three-member panel will comprise former supreme court judge FM Khalifulla, spiritual leader Ravi Shankar and advocate Sriram Panchu, the constitution bench said in its verdict. The proceedings will be confidential and media cannot report on it.

Hindu mobs razed a 16th-century mosque in 1992 in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh – triggering deadly riots that killed at least 2,000 people, mostly Muslims – and the site remains at the heart of India’s most politically divisive row.

Hindu groups say the Babri mosque at the disputed site was built over the ruins of a temple that marked the birthplace of their god, Lord Ram.

The court’s suggestion for mediation is a departure from the approach so far to treat the case as a “ pure land dispute” over the 2.77 acre property.

“After so many years and all that has happened, do you really think it is about property?” Justice SA Bobde said in previous hearing mooting the idea of mediation.