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Indian politics took a radical turn 25 years ago when Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh. DW examines why the watershed event continues to divide India. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.
On Tuesday, the Indian Supreme Court began its hearing in the Babri Masjid (Babri mosque) dispute. It comes seven years after the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed Ayodhya land equally between Ram Lalla Virajman, the Sunni Waqf Board (belonging to Sunni Muslims) and Nirmohi Akhara. Petitioners, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy, have challenged the Allahabad order.
Last month, the Shia Waqf Board (of Shiite Muslims) proposed that the Lord Rama temple be built in Ayodhya while the mosque could be shifted to the city of Lucknow. Not all Muslims favor this proposal.
The Babri mosque dispute remains as polarizing and politically divisive as it was 25 years ago when the 16th century structure was demolished by Hindu activists in the city of Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Hindu fundamentalists, as well as some historians, claim the mosque was built on the site of Lord Rama's temple on the orders of Moghul emperor Zahir Uddin Babur.
A watershed moment
The Babri Masjid demolition was the culmination of years of campaigns by Hindu fundamentalists to construct a Lord Rama temple on the mosque's site.
On December 6, 1992, the BJP, the hardline Vishva Hindu Parishad and many of its affiliates organized a rally in Ayodhya. Within hours, over 15,000 Hindu activists, known as "kar sevaks," razed the historic mosque to the ground with axes and hammers.
"I witnessed the demolition. It was meticulously planned. The police stood by silently," Praveen Jain, a photo journalist, told DW.
P. V. Narasimha Rao of the Congress Party was prime minister at the time. His handling of the issue has been widely criticized.
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The mosque demolition sparked country-wide violence and communal riots that killed over 2,000 people and shook the secular foundations of the country. Jihadist groups cited the destruction of the mosque as a reason behind the 1993 Mumbai bombings and other attacks in the 1990s.
"December 6 was the day when the Hindu nationalism project was launched on the political stage of the country," Rakesh Batabyal, a media studies expert, told DW.
Batabyal was apparently right in his analysis because the event propelled the BJP into mainstream politics. The party won the general election in 1998 on the slogan of "Hindutva," or Hindu nationalism.
Hindu nationalism a dominant force now
25 years since the Babri mosque demolition, Hindutva has gained tremendous strength under the leadership of charismatic BJP politician and prime minister, Narendra Modi.
"The Babri mosque destruction changed Indian politics forever. The idea of nationalism has been gaining ground and is a dominant force now," says Chandan Mitra, a BJP member of parliament.
Ram Madhav, the BJP's general secretary, recently said the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya is an unfinished business.
The calls for the temple construction have regained momentum as the BJP enjoys a majority in national parliament and also in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly.
"No single event in independent India has polarized public opinion as much as the Babri mosque demolition," historian Ramchandra Guha told DW.
Sociologist Indranil Acharya shares the same view: "It has increased tension between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. In the following years, India witnessed many violent events such as the 2002 Gujarat riots."
Indian liberals accuse the BJP government of deliberately creating rifts between Hindus and Muslims and emboldening right-wing extremists. Several cases of "cow vigilantism" and Muslim killings by radical Hindus have increased communal divisions in India. Experts trace it back to the Babri mosque demolition and the 1990s communal violence in the country.