India’s Supreme Court has cleared the way for a Hindu temple to be built at the country’s most contested religious site in Ayodhya, the culmination of a decades-long legal dispute that has inflamed tensions between India’s Muslim minority and Hindu majority.
Calls to build a temple on the site have become a rallying cry for supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government is seen to have championed a more-muscular, Hindu nationalist ideology.
Supporters of the decision broke into celebratory chants outside the Supreme Court after the verdict, according to local media, but politicians stressed the need for calm to avoid a further tensions.
“The Supreme Court of the country has pronounced its verdict on Ayodhya. This decision should not be seen as a victory or defeat of anyone,” Mr Modi wrote on Twitter after the verdict. “My appeal to [my] countrymen is to maintain peace, harmony and unity.”
Controversy over the three-acre site in Ayodhya, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Ram and also claimed by Muslims, has long been a source of friction between religious groups, leading to horrific violence. A 16th-century mosque on the site, located in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, was destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992, resulting in riots that killed an estimated 2,000 people.
Hindu groups, including Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party and its rightwing parent organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have long demanded that a temple be built on the site. They claim the destroyed mosque was itself constructed over a pre-existing Hindu place of worship in a historic injustice.
Numerous regions around the country were placed in lockdown ahead of Saturday’s judgment, amid concern that it could prompt further violence. Schools were closed, public gatherings restricted in major cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore and mobile-internet services were suspended in other areas. Thousands of extra security personnel were deployed in Ayodhya and elsewhere, while police carried out hundreds of pre-emptive arrests.
Supreme Court chief justice Ranjan Gogoi announced that Muslims would be given an alternative, five-acre site elsewhere in Ayodhya on which they could build a new mosque. The contested site, meanwhile, would be handed over to the government, which would within three months pass it on to a trust which would facilitate the construction of the temple.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court said that the Archaeological Survey of India had found evidence of a temple under the now-destroyed Babri Masjid, or Babur’s Mosque, built by the founder of the Islamic Mughal dynasty Babur in the early 1500s.
But it also said that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was against the law, paving the way for legal action against the alleged perpetrators.
Prominent conservative Hindu voices publicly celebrated the decision. But Nandini Sundar, a sociology professor at the University of Delhi, said the decision was “tragic”, as she said the court had established the “demolition was a violation of the rule of law and then goes on to reward the people who did it”. 
Shekhar Gupta, a prominent journalist and editor-in-chief of Indian site The Print, called it a nuanced judgment that “should bring closure”.
Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalism has resonated through India, handing him a decisive re-election victory earlier this year, but alarmed critics who fear he is undermining India’s secular foundations. Muslims make up about 14 per cent of India’s 1.4bn-strong population.
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin