Over the weekend, India’s Supreme Court pronounced on a title dispute in Ayodhya, a small town in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Like many other property cases in India, this one had been working its way through the judicial system for decades. But it may be the most consequential such dispute in Indian history.
Millions of Hindus believe Ayodhya was the capital of Ram, an avatar of Vishnu and hero of the epic Ramayana, and the dispute was over rights to the site where Hindus say a 16th century mosque was built over Ram’s birthplace. Reversing a lower court’s order that the area be divided between the two sides, judges awarded it entirely to the Hindu applicants, while saying Muslims must be compensated with land elsewhere.
The dispute is inextricably entwined with national politics and the status of Indian secularism. It exploded into the national consciousness in the 1980s and early 1990s, when both the then-ruling Indian National Congress party and today’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party laid claim to Ram’s heritage. Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had the locks on the mosque broken open and began an election