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India braces for court verdict in 60-year-old case of mosque-temple dispute

AYODHYA, India (AP) — From a distance — and few are allowed to get close — the simple white tent housing the modest idol appears no more threatening than any of the thousands of other Hindu shrines in a town renowned for its temples.

But that makeshift temple, and the ruins of the demolished mosque it sits upon, stand at the center of a religious dispute that has shaken the core of modern India and led to repeated outbreaks of Hindu-Muslim violence.

On Friday, an Indian court will finally issue its ruling in the 60-year-old case and decide whether the site should be given to the Hindu community to build a gigantic temple to the god Rama or should be returned to the Muslim community so it can rebuild the 16th-century Babri Mosque.

Though there are no signs of a repeat of the communal violence that killed 2,000 people in nationwide rioting in 1992 and nearly 1,000 more in the state of Gujarat in 2002, India is worried.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told journalists earlier this month that the judgment was one of his top concerns, and, in an extraordinary move, his Cabinet bought half-page newspaper advertisements appealing for calm.

"Now, the way the country handles this the aftermath will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country," Singh said.

Thousands of extra police and paramilitary troops were sent to the state of Uttar Pradesh to maintain the peace.

An umbrella group of broadcasters has asked TV stations not to inflame emotions by showing images of the 1992 destruction of the mosque by a raging Hindu mob.

Even Bollywood delayed the release of a major film that had been set to open Friday out of sensitivity for the court decision.

The site in Ayodhya, 350 miles (550 kilometers) east of New Delhi, has been under dispute for more than 150 years, when Hindus protested that the mosque, built in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur, had been erected at the birthplace of Rama.

The conflict flared in 1949 when idols of Rama appeared in the mosque. Hindus demanded permission to pray inside; Muslims protested, and by 1950 the dispute wound up in court.

While the legal case lingered, passions simmered and Hindu extremist groups and the hardline Bharatiya Janata Party seized on the issue to gain support in the 1980s.

In 1992, at the urging of Hindu leaders, tens of thousands of militants converged on the town and ripped apart the mosque with spades, crowbars and their bare hands as security forces watched.

The demolition sparked some of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence since the bloodshed that followed the partition of India and Pakistan at independence in 1947. It also called into question India's character as a multiethnic, secular democracy.

A government investigation released last year accused top BJP politicians — who harnessed the controversy to win power in 1998 — of culpability in the violence.

But India is no longer the same country.

While two decades ago the nation was mired in poverty and despair, India is now a rising power with a new generation more interested in economic advancement than communal divisions, said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst at Delhi University.

"The whole mood has changed," Rangarajan said. "It's not striking a chord among the people."

The BJP, badly weakened after losing two national elections, has remained silent on the court case.

The World Hindu Council, which has been accused of inciting the mosque demolition, has appealed for calm. "There will be no trouble from our side, no matter which way the court decides," said VHP spokesman Prakash Sharma.

The loser in the case will still be able to appeal, meaning a final decision could be years away in a case that has taken so long to wind its way through India's sclerotic court system that most of the original petitioners are dead.

Mohammed Hashim Ansari, who joined the case with his own lawsuit in 1961 on behalf of the Muslim community, alternates between coughing fits and outbursts of rage at the government and the courts for letting the dispute fester for so many decades. The conflict was a betrayal of his community, the 90-year-old tailor said, as he rested on a woven bed next to a faded sketch of the three-domed Babri Mosque, his police bodyguard dozing nearby.

Had Muslims known that Hindus would tear down the mosque, they never would have helped India fight for its freedom from British colonial rule, he said.

"It is not the question of only one mosque. If we say, 'Yes, we will leave this mosque,' then they will ask for Varanasi, they will ask for Mathura," he said, referring to other Indian cities with similar disputes.

It is one of the great oddities of the conflict — and a sign that agitators from outside this quiet town are behind much of the tension — that Ansari and one of his opponents in the case, Bhaskar Das, consider themselves friends.

Das, an 82-year-old priest who heads a Hindu trust, and Ansari will sometimes meet for tea before hearings and then head for the court together.

"We are very good friends and we will remain friends, and the court decision will not affect that," said Das.

To reach the tent temple atop the mosque's ruins, worshippers are frisked three times and stripped of pens, combs, belts and anything else that could conceivably be used as a weapon.

They are herded through a winding tunnel of rusted metal screening that brings them to within 10 meters (30 feet) of the tent, where they can offer prayers to the distant Rama idol inside.

About 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, the building blocks of a more permanent Rama temple — elaborately carved red sandstone pillars and enormous numbered floor tiles — are stacked in a courtyard, ready to be rushed to the site and assembled if permission is granted.

A detailed wooden model encased in glass shows that the proposed temple would also have three domes — just as the mosque once did.

Pramod Kumar Tiwari, a priest at the makeshift tent temple, said it was up to the courts to make the final decision about what would stand at the site.

"I know only one thing," he said, smiling. "Trees flattened by a hurricane don't grow again."