NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's government on Tuesday (Jan 29) asked the Supreme Court to allow it to hand over land to a Hindu trust that wants to build a temple in the northern town of Ayodhya, long a flashpoint for minority Muslims.
The move comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling alliance faces a tightening race for an election due by May, with opinion polls suggesting it could fall short of a parliamentary majority.
The government, under pressure from its Hindu base to build a temple to the god-king Rama on a site where zealots demolished a 16th-century mosque, said land around the disputed site could be given to the trust while the court decided the title suit.
"A large part of the remaining superfluous land comprises properties of which the title is not even in dispute," the government said in asking the judges to allow the land transfer.
After the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque that triggered Hindu-Muslim riots across India which killed at least 2,000 people, the Supreme Court ordered a freeze on activity at the disputed site and surrounding areas.
But it has not moved forward in resolving the dispute, prompting a renewed campaign by Hindu hardliners for the construction of the temple at the site they believe to be the birthplace of Rama.
Leaders of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party hope the handover will help assuage the hardliners, who can begin some form of construction ahead of the election.
"We are trying to do it in the legal way," said Subramaniam Swamy, one party leader, adding that if the Supreme Court allowed the surplus land to be given to the Ram Janambhoomi Trust, it could start construction of the temple.
But one leader of India's tiny Muslim minority, which makes up 14 per cent of a population of 1.3 billion that is 80 per cent Hindu, said the government's latest proposal on the Ayodhya dispute was aimed at shoring up its base.
"Threatening the judicial process like this is another (failed) attempt to save BJP from their rapidly diminishing political fortunes," said Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of the All India Majlis e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party.
The BJP lost power in three states in assembly elections in December, and wants to avoid a similar result during the general election in Uttar Pradesh, a state of 220 million people where Ayodhya is located.
The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to the petition. In the past, it has urged parties to the Ayodhya dispute to observe the status quo and deployed security forces to ensure there is no activity in the area.
The handover to the trust was "the least that can be done in the face of inordinate delays in the Supreme Court," Ram Madhav, another BJP leader, said on Twitter.