The post-colonial tension between Hindus and Muslims in India continues to create crises between the two religious communities in the world's second-most populated country.
In the Indian town of Ayodhya, minority Muslims feel under siege as they await a Supreme Court ruling on a centuries-old religious dispute that has cast a shadow over their relations with the majority Hindu community.
After a tangle of legal cases, the Supreme Court in August decided to hear arguments every day in an effort to resolve the dispute over what should be built on the ruins of the 16th-century Babri Masjid, destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. The uproar over the mosque triggered some of India's deadliest riots, in which nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed. The bloody controversy raised lingering questions about the role of religion in the officially secular country and the place of Muslims in it.
Last month, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi finished the hearings and is expected to pronounce his verdict in the next couple of weeks. Whichever way it goes, the decision is likely to have a significant impact on the fraught relationship between India's Hindus and Muslims, who constitute 14% of its 1.3 billion people.
While most Muslim religious leaders want the mosque to be rebuilt, Hindus say there is evidence there was a temple on the site before the mosque was built in 1528 by a commander of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty.
Construction of a "grand temple" in Ayodhya has long been an election promise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a second term with a landslide this year.
Fearing tension after the court decision, Mohammed Shahid, 48, the grandson of the mosque's last Imam, or prayer leader, has decided to move his family away.
He has reason to be afraid.
Shahid's father, Mohammed Shabir, was killed by a mob of Hindus who rampaged through Ayodhya before tearing down the mosque on Dec. 6, 1992.
"In 1992, we decided to stay put – a decision that we live to regret," Shahid said, sitting in the courtyard of his run-down, two-story house. "Other than killing my father, they set ablaze our house and a sawmill, our only source of income."
'BAD ELEMENTS'Shahid said he was glad that his grandfather, who had died in 1990, did not see the destruction of the mosque.
Unlike Shahid, Haji Mahboob Ahmad, a 66-year-old Muslim community leader who lives near the site, doesn't plan to leave, but he shares Shahid's anxiety.
"We're conscious of the fact that some bad elements can try to foment trouble by taking advantage of the situation, and that's why I've requested authorities to ensure the safety of Ayodhya's Muslims," Ahmad said. Ahmad said India's founding fathers established it as a secular democracy, and it must remain that. The day Shahid's father was killed, Hindu Hajari Lal, 57, escaped death. Lal was among the hundreds of Hindus who destroyed the mosque with shovels, hammers and their bare hands, bringing down its domes before the whole structure collapsed. Unfortunately for Lal, part of the building fell on him, trapping him in the rubble with broken bones. "Since that fateful day in 1992, the only objective of my life is to see a permanent temple on the site. I can die in peace if I get to see the temple," Lal said.
For Hindus, Lal said, the site in Ayodhya was as sacred as Mecca is in Islam.
That's because Lal and millions of other Hindus believe the mosque was built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities. Lal helps to guide a steady stream of pilgrims who come to see a model of what they hope will become a new temple. Visitors can also look at an open field of masonry, in pink sandstone, including piles of ornately carved columns. Concrete pillars and blocks for foundations are also ready.
"Once the court green-lights construction of the temple, we can quickly move these concrete blocks from the workshop to the temple site," said Sharad Sharma, spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council.
Top politicians, including some cabinet ministers, regularly visit Ayodhya to pay respect to Nritya Gopal Das, an influential monk and chairman of a trust committed to building the temple.
"I'm sure Modi ji is aware of the sentiments of millions of Hindus who have been endlessly waiting to see the Ram temple," said Das, using an honorific for Modi.
OLD TENSION REMAINS
Another form of tension Indian Muslims have faced is due to the conflict in the disputed Kashmir, an autonomous region. India formally split up the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories, aiming to tighten its grip on the restive region that has been in the grip of a harsh security clampdown for nearly three months. Modi's nationalist government withdrew Kashmir's autonomy on Aug. 5 but in addition, it also announced the division of the state into two territories to be directly ruled from New Delhi, one consisting of Jammu and Kashmir and the other the remote Buddhist enclave of Ladakh. It announced the creation of two separate federally administered union territories coming into effect on Oct. 31. After the controversial move, India poured thousands of additional troops into the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and made sweeping arrests to prevent any outbreak of violence. The government also imposed severe restrictions on travel and cut telephone and internet lines. Some measures have been scaled back, but a security lockdown is still largely in place and broadband and mobile internet connections remain unavailable to most Kashmiris. The U.N. Human Rights office said it is extremely concerned that the population of Jammu and Kashmir continues to be deprived of a wide range of human rights.
The dispute over Kashmir is one of the oldest on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council, along with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The region, which is split between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety, has been the cause of two wars between the neighbors since they were partitioned in 1947. Following the partition of the whole country, into Pakistan and India, the sectarian conflict was crystallized. Kashmir, which is home to Muslims along with Hindus, remained an unresolved dispute. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two of their three wars over the territory and engaged in an aerial clash in February after a militant group based in Pakistan claimed responsibility for an attack on an Indian military convoy.