India's Supreme Court has rejected a government plea to lift a ban on religious activity around a disputed holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. The verdict has angered Hindu hardliners leading a controversial campaign to build a temple on the site, and they are threatening to take what they are calling "direct action" to gain control of the disputed area.
The Supreme Court says a ban imposed last year on any religious activity at a disputed holy site in the northern town of Ayodhya must remain in place until a lower court decides whether the land belongs to Hindus or Muslims.
The disputed site is in Ayodhya, about 500 kilometers east of New Delhi, where a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th century mosque ten years ago. Hindus insist a temple belongs on the spot, saying it is the birthplace of Hindu god Rama. Muslim groups, on the other hand, want to rebuild a mosque.
Syed Qasim Ilyas, the head of a Muslim group trying to rebuild the mosque, says the courts must settle the dispute. "If anyone has any faith in the constitution of India and the judiciary, they should definitely abide by the court order," he says.
Most Muslims call the court ruling to continue the ban "very fair."
The contentious issue has become a flashpoint for religious violence over the past decade. Last year, the court banned all religious activity at or near the site to keep a lid on tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
Supreme Court judges say Monday's ruling upholding the ban is meant "to maintain communal harmony."
Last month the coalition government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) asked the court to allow Hindus to perform religious rites on land adjoining the disputed site. The Indian government took over this land after the mosque was demolished and will control it until the ownership dispute is settled.
The BJP has close links to the group that is leading the campaign to build a Hindu temple.
Meanwhile, government archeologists are excavating the site to establish if a Hindu temple ever existed there as claimed by Hindu hardliners. A lower court ordered the excavations to settle the conflicting claims. The archeologists are expected to submit their report sometime next month.
The World Hindu Council, which is leading the campaign to construct the temple, has expressed confidence that archeologists will find the remains of a temple at the site. The group also announced last week that it is determined to begin work on building the temple within a year.