India is braced for a court ruling on a bitter Hindu-Muslim dispute which led to the razing of a mosque in 1992 and subsequent riots in which 2,000 people died.
Thousands of paramilitary police have been deployed around the north Indian town of Ayodhya — home to the 16th century Babri mosque, which was razed by Hindu extremists in 1992, and is claimed by both religious groups.
The High Court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh will Thursday hand down its ruling on who owns the site, in a judgment which poses serious security concerns for a government preoccupied with hosting the Commonwealth Games, which open in New Delhi on Sunday.
The destruction of the mosque sparked some of the worst communal violence in India since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, leaving 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
The government has issued public appeals for calm ahead of the verdict, as well as placing advertisements in newspapers urging respect for the rule of law and mobilising tens of thousands of security forces.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram on Wednesday said 190,000 security troopers would be on duty across Uttar Pradesh.
Security has been tightened in Ayodhya and 32 other sensitive locations across the country — four of them in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
“Security men, who were sent back to the barracks last week, have been recalled and deployed,” a senior police official told AFP.
“There are around 40,000 security personnel deployed at strategic Ayodhya locations,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Security has also been stepped up in India’s financial hub Mumbai where religious tensions have spilled into violence in the past.
Hindus say the Babri mosque was built by the Moghul emperor Babur on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior god Ram.
The High Court judgement will turn on three key questions: whether the disputed spot was Ram’s birthplace, whether the mosque was built after the demolition of a temple and if the mosque had been built in accordance with the tenets of Islam.
Any ruling is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
Hindus want to build a Ram temple on the site with some predicting a ruling against them would be greeted with violence.
“We will build our temple and if the verdict is against us Hindus, then no force on Earth will be able to contain the reaction,” warned Ayodhya shopkeeper Shivan Gupta.
“There will be bloody riots again,” Gupta warned.
V.N. Arora, who heads the department of strategic studies in Ayodhya’s Saket College, tried to allay fears of a repeat of the 1992 carnage.
“But there is a possibility that a splinter Muslim group could try and offer prayers at the site if the verdict goes in their favour,” Arora told AFP.
Since 1992, the site has been cordoned off and guarded by troops.
A Home Ministry advisory has requested all states to remain on high alert for Thursday’s ruling, which could trigger “sharp reactions and communal passions among both Hindus and Muslims depending on what way the judgement goes.”
India has avoided any major outbreak of Hindu-Muslim clashes since riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.