NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court on Saturday ruled in favor of Hindus over a piece of land Muslims also claim, greenlighting the construction of a temple on the site where a mosque stood before it was demolished by a Hindu mob three decades ago.
The destruction of the 400-year-old mosque spurred riots that have set the tone for the country’s sectarian tensions ever since.
In the lead-up to the decision, right-wing Hindus said the ruling would cement their status as leaders of India after centuries of rule first by the Muslim Moghul Empire and then by British colonialists. But Muslims fear that the decision will relegate them to second-class citizens and potentially empower Hindu extremists.
In the highly anticipated ruling, the five-judge panel placed the sliver of barren land — barely three acres — in a government-run trust.
The decision allows Hindus to construct a temple, which they have planned since the Babri Mosque was destroyed in 1992. Many Hindus believe that the disputed site was the birthplace of their revered god Ram, and an earlier temple was demolished during Moghul rule to build the mosque.
The court also ruled that Muslims would be given five acres to build a mosque at a prominent site in Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
When the Babri Mosque was demolished by Hindu extremists, it set off riots across the country that killed around 2,000 people in some of the worst violence India had seen since its bloody partition in 1947. In place of the mosque, Hindus erected a tent resembling a temple that still stands and draws thousands of tourists every day.
The mosque was built in the 1500s during the era of Mughal rule, a period of history that many right-wing Hindus believe serves as a reminder of their humiliation under Muslim occupation. Although sites like the Taj Mahal — also built during Mughal rule — are iconic symbols of India, some right-wing Hindus see them as testaments of their past oppression.
Some Hindu nationalists want to erase that history and replace it with symbols that reinforce India as a Hindu nation. About 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu.
Hindus from around the world have donated hundreds of bricks carved with the inscription “Sri Ram” hoping that the court would rule in favor of building the temple. The bricks have sat in a pile next to the contested site, ready to be fixed and shaped into a temple after the ruling.
“Post the independence of our country, we have erased all the symbols of British imperialism,” said Ram Madhav, general secretary of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. “The names of our roads have been changed, the statues of Queen Elizabeth and all of them have been removed.”
India should undergo a similar exorcism of certain symbols of Moghul rule, including the Babri Mosque, Mr. Madhav said, calling the 300-year reign of the Mughal Muslim emperors “cruel.”
“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “This is not about religion. We are not against any religion. India is one of the most religiously diverse places in the world.”
The B.J.P., the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has risen to power on a wave of Hindu nationalism, and restoring a temple to Ram in Ayodhya has become a central issue of its platform.
The party’s leaders deny that they have stirred anti-Muslim fervor and insist that India is an inclusive nation that embraces it minorities. But B.J.P. officials have seldom condemned the lynchings of Muslims across the country, and some party members have been implicated in sectarian violence including the destruction of the mosque.
A rush of Hindu pilgrims visited Ayodhya over the weekend ahead of the court’s verdict. Sudarshan Jain and his family, pilgrims from Rajasthan, a state hundreds of miles away, visited an open-air workshop where craftsmen chiseled floral designs and figurines of Ram on pink sandstone slabs that will form the temple. The first floor of the would-be temple is ready to be fixed in place, the craftsmen said
“These are not stones, but feelings of millions of Hindus,” Mr. Jain said, “Now the dream is going to be a reality.”
Sitting in the courtyard of his home in Ayodhya, Haji Mahboob Ahmad, a litigant who supports rebuilding the mosque, said before the decision that if the court ruled in favor of a Hindu temple, Muslims would accept it.
But he feared that right-wing Hindu forces would be emboldened and more mosques would be destroyed, cementing the feeling of many Muslims that they are slowly becoming second-class citizens.
“Violence against Muslims will rise, and it will become institutionalized,” said Mr. Ahmad, 75, who had to flee the town for a month after the mosque was demolished nearly 30 years ago.
“Those people who say there is no fear, they are lying,” he added.
For decades, Mr. Ahmad said, living steps from the destroyed mosque felt like living in an open-air prison because of the security around the neighborhood.
“Now the issue should be solved forever and everyone should live in peace,” he said.
Ahead of the verdict, schools were shut and 4,000 security officers were deployed to the area. Rallies were banned, shops barred from selling kerosene and people prevented from collecting bricks or stones. Social media was alight with anticipation, and citizens and community leaders appealed for calm.
Mr. Modi, on Twitter, appealed for calm in the wake of the verdict.
“Whatever verdict is delivered by the Supreme Court will not be anyone’s victory or loss,” he wrote. “I appeal to my countrymen that everyone’s priority should be that the verdict strengthens the great tradition of peace, unity and good will of India.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Hindus’ favor on Ayodhya hands Mr. Modi a major victory just six months after his party swept elections and he was granted a second term as prime minister.
The ruling also comes just three months after Mr. Modi’s government achieved another key B.J.P. goal, when his government stripped the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir of its autonomy in August, increasing central government control over the territory, which Pakistan also claims.
Many in the B.J.P. say they believe that Muslims and other minorities in India, including Christians, have been given a special status that has set them apart from their Hindu peers, creating a nation that has a tiered structure they would like to flatten.
Hindu temples, for example, are controlled by the government, while Christians and Muslims control their own churches and mosques and can partly be governed by their own religious laws.
“If the Supreme Court hands them a victory, all stars will have aligned in the B.J.P.’s favor,” Milan Vaishnav, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program, said before the decision.
“There is short-term fear about communal tensions,” he said. “The soil is pretty fertile for conflict.”
Maria Abi-Habib reported from New Delhi, and Sameer Yasir from Ayodhya, India. Suhasini Raj and Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.