Reporting from New Delhi — In a last-minute move that a litigant said could be politically motivated, India's Supreme Court decided Thursday to delay a lower court's verdict in a case between Muslims and Hindus over who has the right to a controversial religious site.
The verdict in the 60-year-old case was due Friday but will now be put off until at least Tuesday.
At issue in the contentious case is whether Muslims or Hindus own the land under the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque in Uttar Pradesh state. The mosque was destroyed in late 1992 by a mob of extremist Hindus.
Zafaryab Zilani, a lawyer for the Muslim side, said "political forces" appeared to be behind the 11th-hour delay without specifying who they are. "We can't blame anyone at the moment," he told local media. "But this shows there are forces" at work.
Shortly after the mosque in the town of Ayodhya was razed, communal violence broke out across India, killing 2,000. Since then, the incident has become a rallying cry for Islamic fundamentalists in India, a predominantly Hindu nation with approximately 160 million Muslims — the third-largest number in any nation after Indonesia and Pakistan.
Many Hindus believe the site was the birthplace of Ram, among the religion's foremost gods in a pantheon of 330 million, and claim a temple in his name was destroyed 482 years ago to build the mosque. Experts said the archeological record is inconclusive.
The government has been bracing for the verdict for weeks, marshalling thousands of troops to the area, banning bulk mobile text messages until Wednesday in a bid to deter violent protests, taking out full-page advertisements appealing for calm and cautioning the press not to speculate on the outcome or broadcast video of the 1992 mosque destruction.
This comes at a time when the Indian government is already stretched after a summer of deadly unrest in divided Kashmir and security challenges surrounding the Oct. 3-14 Commonwealth Games, which have been marred by corruption allegations, this week's collapse of a pedestrian bridge and cleanliness concerns in the athletes' village.
In delaying the verdict by the Allahabad High Court, the Supreme Court said it would hold a hearing on Tuesday so the Hindu and Muslim communities would have a chance to settle the dispute out of court.
"The Supreme Court felt a last attempt should be made to resolve this amicably," Mukul Rohatgi, a lawyer who argued in front of the court for the delay, told reporters.
But Prashant Bhushan, a legal expert, questioned what hope there was of a resolution when efforts by three prime ministers and various other mediators over 19 years have failed to exact a compromise. "It is a futile exercise," he said. "It is really not going to lead anywhere."
Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.