In a rare move, India’s Chief of Justice, Jagdish Singh Khehar, has offered to mediate in resolving a decades-old dispute over a historic religious site in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, that is sacred to both Hindus and Muslims.
The disputed site is referred to by Hindus as Ramjanmabhoomi, the birthplace of Lord Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. A temple that stood there was razed by invading Mughals and a mosque, Babri Masjid – named after their emperor, Babar – was built at the site in 1528.
Hindus and Muslims clashed over the site in 1853, during British rule, and in 1992, when Babri mosque was demolished by Hindu hardliners.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which heads India’s federal government, and its hardline Hindu nationalist parent group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), welcomed Khehar’s offer. However Muslim groups rejected it, saying such talks had failed in the past.
The three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Khehar said on Tuesday that parties should hold talks and reach a consensus on sensitive religious issues. The bench made its thoughts known after BJP lawmaker Subramanian Swamy called for an urgent hearing of the case, which has been pending in the top court for over six years.
The court had stayed the implementation of an order by the Allahabad High Court in September 2010 which said Hindus have the right to worship at the venue. Swamy told the court Muslim parties want an early settlement of the case, which had been dragging for decades.
Talking to media, Swamy said a temple should be built in the disputed area and that a mosque could be built on the banks of Sarayu River.
The court asked Swami to consult the parties concerned and report their feedback in his petition on March 31. The court also said it may appoint a principal negotiator if the parties agree.
Rejecting Khehar’s offer to mediate on the issue, Zafaryab Jilani of the Sunni Islam Waqf Board, a trust organization, told media it wants the Supreme Court to make a ruling on the thorny issue and is not interested in an out-of-court settlement.
The chief justice’s offer comes two days after Yogi Adityanath took office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Adityanath is a proponent of the Ram temple and building the shrine at the disputed site is a key plank in his party’s manifesto. He is also head priest at the Gorakhnath temple.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a former RSS worker, is also an advocate for the Ram temple. He held talks with Adityanath in Delhi on Tuesday.