The case over the 16th century Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh state is one of the biggest security challenges in India this year, along with a Maoist insurgency and a Kashmiri separatist rebellion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said.
The verdict could prove a major political quandary for the government led by the Congress Party, a left-of-centre party with secular roots.
A verdict in favour of the Hindus would force the government to uphold the verdict, making it unpopular with Muslims, a key vote bloc.
A ruling for the Muslims would mean the government would have to push Hindu groups out of the site, a political minefield.
Any outlook is almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court and a final decision could take years to come.
The government has other problems, including the separatist revolt in Kashmir that has claimed more than 100 lives.
“The worst case scenario for Congress would be some judgement that makes them restore the mosque,” said Praveen Swami, security expert at the Hindu newspaper.
“They don’t want to take sides in this.”
About 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion plus population are Hindus, but Muslims represent 13 percent — some 140 million that put it behind Indonesia and Pakistan in the ranks of Muslim populations.
Hindu mobs demolished the mosque in the town of Ayodhya, claiming it was built on the birthplace of their god-king Rama. The demolition triggered religious riots that killed some 2,000.
The Congress-led government had put out half-page appeals in newspapers nationwide, calling for calm ahead of the verdict, mindful that this emerging Asia giant is due to showcase its modernity with the holding of the Commonwealth Games in October.
Authorities in Uttar Pradesh have forbidden public gatherings and will deploy thousands of police and set up extra jails.
There are signals the judgement’s impact will not be as great as feared. Since 1992, India has emerged as an economic power with a middle class that may dampen religious extremism.
But the judgement will give a taste of the strength of Hindu nationalist politics.
On the one hand, the main Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has tried to distance itself from being perceived as an instigator of communal strife, mindful that it must appeal to India’s growing middle class.
But the BJP knows it may be able to garner Hindus after two general election defeats in a row that have seen the Congress Party become the country’s dominant political group.
“The BJP has made more political capital out of price rises,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan, referring to stubbornly high inflation. “But it will be hard for it not to resist the temptation of playing the issue to the hilt.”
The BJP faces a state election in neighbouring Bihar state, where it rules in alliance with a popular chief minister who has warned Hindu nationalists of sparking any communal strife.
But temperatures still run high.
Last November, India’s government published a long-awaited report that accused several top politicians of the BJP of having a role in the destruction of the mosque.
The BJP rejected that report and an uproar in parliament held up proceedings for days, delaying government bills. Reuters