India’s top court Friday named a three-man panel including a famous guru to resolve a seemingly intractable and highly emotive dispute raging for decades over the flashpoint religious site of Ayodhya.
The conflict over whether a temple or a mosque should be constructed in the holy city is a major flashpoint between Hindus and India’s sizeable Muslim minority.
It has become a hot-button issue once again with Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking another term in a general election due to be announced soon.
Many Hindus believe a spot in Ayodhya marks the birthplace of Lord Ram and that the medieval Babri mosque that stood there for 460 years was only built after the destruction of an earlier temple.
In 1992, Hindu zealots reduced the mosque to rubble, kicking off riots across India that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on the political margins until the 1980s when it backed the movement for construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
The case has been tied up in courts since the 1950s, and moved to the Supreme Court in 2011.
On Friday, a five-judge bench set up a three-member panel to resolve the dispute through mediation and gave it eight weeks to complete the process.
The panel includes guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and advocate Sriram Panchu, and will be headed by retired judge F. M. Kallifulla.
“This move towards mediation… is in the best interest of the country and all parties concerned,” tweeted Shankar after the court’s decision.
“We should not leave any stone unturned in resolving this burning issue amicably.”
The court-monitored mediation process should be held in “utmost confidentiality”, the bench said, taking into account the religious sensitivities.
Nominated for the Nobel peace prize and described by Forbes magazine in 2009 as the fifth most powerful person in India, guru Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation which boasts millions of followers worldwide.
He is also close to PM Modi and the pair have meditated together.
Critics accuse Shankar of having a biased view on Ayodhya, latching on to his comments that Muslims should give up their claim on the site and that there would be bloodshed if a temple was denied to Hindus.
In 2010 a court had ruled the site should be divided — two-thirds controlled by Hindus and the remainder by Muslims.
But the decision was contested by both parties, and the case has stalled in the Supreme Court ever since.