AHMEDABAD, India: Supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) militant organization celebrate the Indian Supreme Court’s verdict to award the disputed religious site in Ayodhya to Hindus yesterday. – AFP

NEW DELHI/AYODHYA/KARTARPUR: India’s Supreme Court yesterday awarded a bitterly contested religious site to Hindus, dealing a defeat to Muslims who also claim the land that has sparked some of the country’s bloodiest riots since independence. The ruling in the dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups paves the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, a proposal long supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist party.

Yesterday’s judgment, which is likely to be viewed as a win for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its backers, was criticized as unfair by a lawyer for the Muslim group involved in the case. However, the group’s leader said ultimately it would accept the verdict and called for peace between India’s majority Hindus and Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of its 1.3 billion people.

In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque on the site, triggering riots in which about 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed across the country. Court battles over the ownership of the site followed. Jubilant Hindus, who have long campaigned for a temple to be built on the ruins of the mosque, cheered and set off fire crackers in celebration in Ayodhya after the court decision was announced. Thousands of paramilitary force members and police were deployed in Ayodhya and other sensitive areas across India. There were no immediate reports of unrest.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision has given the nation the message that even the most difficult of all problems falls within the ambit of the constitution and within the boundaries of the judicial system,” Modi said in a televised address yesterday evening, calling for “a new India” free of hatred. He had earlier tweeted that the verdict should not be seen as “a win or loss for anybody”.

The ruling comes months after Modi’s government stripped the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region of its special status as a state, delivering on yet another election promise to its largely Hindu support base. Neelanjan Sircar, an assistant professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, said the verdict would benefit the BJP, which won re-election in May, but a slowing economy would ultimately take center stage for voters. “In the short term, there will be a boost for the BJP,” said Sircar. “These things don’t work forever … Ram Temple isn’t going to put food on the table.”

Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and say the site was holy for Hindus long before the Muslim Mughals, India’s most prominent Islamic rulers, built the Babri mosque there in 1528. The five-judge bench, headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, reached a unanimous judgment to hand over the plot of just 2.77 acres (1.1 hectares), or about the size of a football field, to the Hindu group.

The court also directed that another plot of five acres (two hectares) in Ayodhya be provided to the Muslim group that contested the case, but that was not enough to mollify some critics. “The country is now moving towards becoming a Hindu nation,” Asaduddin Owaisi, an influential Muslim opposition politician, told reporters.

Across the border in archrival Pakistan, the foreign ministry said the decision “shredded the veneer of so-called secularism” in India and showed minorities were no longer safe. India’s foreign ministry responded that Pakistan’s “pathological compulsion to comment on our internal affairs with the obvious intent of spreading hatred is condemnable”.

Modi’s party hailed the ruling as a “milestone”. “I welcome the court decision and appeal to all religious groups to accept the decision,” Home Minister Amit Shah, who is also president of the BJP, said on Twitter. A lawyer for the Sunni Muslim group involved in the case initially said it would likely file a review petition, which could have triggered another protracted legal battle, but its chairman Zafar Farooqui later yesterday told reporters the verdict had been accepted “with humility”.

Muslim organizations appealed for calm. The Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the parent organization of Modi’s party – had already decided against any celebrations to avoid provoking sectarian violence. The BJP owes its origins to the RSS, a militaristic group that has long espoused “Hindutva”, or Hindu hegemony in officially secular India. Under Modi, a former RSS cadre, Islamic-sounding names of several cities have been changed, while some school textbooks have been altered to downplay Muslims’ contributions to India. There has been a string of lynchings of Muslims by Hindu mobs over cows, sacred for many Hindus, and other hate crimes including Muslims forced to perform Hindu chants.

Restrictions were placed on gatherings in some places and Internet services were suspended. Elsewhere, police monitored social media to curb rumors. Streets in Ayodhya were largely deserted and security personnel patrolled the main road to Lucknow, the capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Indian Sikhs made a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan yesterday, crossing through a white gate to reach one of their religion’s holiest sites, after a landmark deal between the two countries separated by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. Cheering Sikhs walked joyfully along the road from Dera Baba Nanak in India towards the new immigration hall that would allow them to pass through a secure land corridor into Pakistan, in a rare example of cooperation between the nuclear-armed countries divided by decades of enmity.

Some fathers ran, carrying their children on their shoulders. Buses were waiting on the Pakistani side to carry them along the corridor to the shrine to Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometres inside Pakistan where he is believed to have died.

For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, the white-domed shrine is one of their holiest sites. However for Indian Sikhs, it has remained tantalizingly close – so close they could stand at the border and gaze at its four cupolas – but out-of-reach for decades. When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at the end of British rule in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border, while most of the region’s Sikhs remained on the other side. Since then, the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the temple, known in Sikhism as a gurdwara.

Pilgrims on both sides of the border hoped the corridor might herald a thaw in South Asian tensions. “When it comes to government-to-government relations, it is all hate and when it comes to people-to-people ties, it’s all love,” one of the Sikh pilgrims, who did not give his name, told Pakistani state TV as he crossed. Among the first pilgrims was former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a “big moment”.

The opening even inspired a singular message of gratitude from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for “respecting the sentiments of India”. For his part, Khan said a day would come “when our relations with India will improve”. “I am hopeful that this the beginning,” he told the pilgrims at the shrine.

For years India had been asking Pakistan to grant Sikhs access to the shrine. Many believe it has happened now because of the friendship between Khan, a World Cup winning cricketer-turned politician, and India’s Navjot Singh Sidhu – another cricketer-turned-politician. “When Sidhu asked me to open the border, I kept it in my mind,” Khan told devotees yesterday. He compared the situation to Muslims being able to see holy sites in Madinah, but never visit.

The opening comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on Nov 12 – an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community, and which may also have played a role in the timing. Sikhs from around the world have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for days already. An estimated 7,000 were at the shrine to hear Khan’s speech, though it was not clear how many had come via the corridor and how many had arrived from elsewhere. Indian officials said just 700 were expected to cross through the corridor yesterday.

Many were emotional, some in tears. Others posed for selfies before a giant gold- and silver-colored kirpan, the dagger which Sikhs must carry with them at all times as an article of their faith. There are an estimated 20,000 Sikhs left in Pakistan after millions fled to India following the bloody religious violence ignited by partition, which sparked the largest mass migration in human history and led to the death of at least one million people. – Agencies