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Ayodhya: India's religious flashpoint

Hindu hardliners celebrate the destruction of the Babri mosque.
Hindu hardliners celebrate the destruction of the Babri mosque.

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(CNN) -- The dispute over a historic religious site in the central town of Ayodhya has come to define the often fiery mix of politics and religion in India.

The fight over just who owns the patch of ground has caused deep divisions between Hindus and Muslims and has been at the core of secular violence throughout the past decade.

In December 1992, angry Hindu mobs descended upon the site and tore down the Babri Mosque that had stood there since the 16th century.

The razing of the mosque ignited nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots that left over 3,000 dead.

In March 1993 a series of blasts in Mumbai killed more than 200 and injured over 1,000.

The bombings were blamed on underworld gangs seeking to avenge the killing of scores of Hindus during the riots.

Tensions over the site simmered until last February when a Muslim mob firebombed a train in Gujarat carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya where they had been attending a campaign to build a temple at the site.

More than 50 Hindus were killed in the attack -- itself then sparking weeks of bloody sectarian violence.

Over 3,000 people -- most of them Muslim -- are believed to have died in the rioting.

Now, more than 10 years after the mosque was destroyed, there are fears of more religious bloodshed.

Muslim protesters torch a Hindu temple during the bloody 1992 riots.
Muslim protesters torch a Hindu temple during the bloody 1992 riots.

Many Hindus say the disputed land in Ayodhya was the birthplace of the god Rama -- one of the most revered deities in Hinduism.

Muslims, however, say they have claim to land because the mosque was built there in 1528.

India, which prides itself for its secular freedoms laid down in its constitution, is home to the world's largest Muslim minority population of 140 million.

The surge of Islamic fundamentalism in the past 20 years has been matched by a rise in equally vociferous Hindu nationalism.

And the circle of clashes is predicted to continue at least until a legal decision over the site's rightful owners is made -- and, many fear, well beyond that.

In the meantime a Hindu nationalist campaign to build a new temple at the site has been put on hold in the wake of last year's violence after a court ordered archaeological excavations to determine its history.

The achaeologist's report was presented to the court this August and contained a potentially explosive finding.

Although it hasn't officially been released, reports say the study by the Archeological Survey of India found remnants of an ancient Hindu temple under the rubble of the Babri mosque.

The study apparently appears to confirm the long made claim by Hindu hardliners who say they will use the report to put more pressure on the central government to build a temple at the site.

But analysts have warned that while the court report may be one key to the final solution in Ayodyha, it could also be the spark for a fresh round of violence over a piece of land that has already claimed so many lives.


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