November 8, 2019 / 7:48 AM / 4 days ago

India tightens security ahead of verdict on contested religious site

MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - India deployed more than 5,000 troops and police in the northern town of Ayodhya and Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for calm, ahead of an expected court ruling on Saturday over control of a religious site violently disputed by Hindus and Muslims.

Muslims pray for peace ahead of verdict on a disputed religious site in Ayodhya, inside a mosque premises in Ahmedabad, India, November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Authorities fear mass unrest when the Supreme Court issues its ruling over who controls the site where hardline Hindus tore down a mosque in 1992 triggering nationwide religious riots in which 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

The Babri Mosque had stood for centuries at a site Hindus believe is the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the god Vishnu. In the decades since it was razed, religious groups have fought in the courts over who should control it.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has campaigned on promises to build a Hindu temple there.

Thousands of Hindu monks and devotees have been arriving in Ayodhya in anticipation of the judgment of a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the chief justice.

“Whatever decision the Supreme Court arrives at on Ayodhya, it will not be a victory or defeat of anyone,” Modi tweeted on Friday. “I appeal to the countrymen that all of us prioritize that this decision should further strengthen India’s great traditions of peace, unity and goodwill.”

Police and home ministry officials said government agencies were making preparations to thwart any violence.

“Each and every security officer is committed to prevent minor skirmishes or large-scale riots after the court delivers its verdict,” said a senior home ministry official in New Delhi.

“State governments have identified several schools to set up temporary jails if the need arises,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Hindu groups say a temple existed on the site before the mosque was built around 400 years ago by a Muslim ruler, and should rightfully be restored. Muslims and secularists say the destruction of the mosque was a dangerous step towards empowering a violent nationalist mob.

Ayodhya is in densely populated Uttar Pradesh state, home to more than 5% of India’s 200 million Muslims.

Provincial police chief Om Prakash Singh told Reuters that precautionary measures were in place and social media platforms were being monitored to track inflammatory posts ahead of the verdict.

    “We will not tolerate Hindus or Muslims publicly displaying their reaction to the court verdict,” Singh said.

    Muslim clerics in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra called for peace meetings with Hindu leaders in communally sensitive areas ahead of Friday prayers.

Navaid Hamid, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, the top forum for Islamic organizations, said thousands of Muslim religious leaders had vowed to maintain peace and harmony after the court verdict.

    “The land can belong to Hindus or Muslims, but there will be no repeat of the 1992 communal violence,” said Hamid.

Additional reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow and Abhirup Roy in Mumbai; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel

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