By Krittivas Mukherjee
NEW DELHI, Sept 29 (Reuters) - India put tens of thousands of police on the streets and the air force on high alert ahead of possible violence when a court on Thursday rules on a century-old religious dispute between Hindus and Muslims.
The issue is haunting the ruling Congress Party, a left-of-centre party with secular roots, which will have to stand by a verdict that is likely to upset one or other major voter bloc.
"My humble request is that whatever be the decision, please accept it in the highest tradition of magnanimity," Sonia Gandhi, Congress party chief and the country's most powerful politician, said in a statement.
The government appealed for calm once a northern Indian court decides on the ownership of the site of a 16th century mosque, a communal flashpoint which flared in 1992, triggering some of India's worst riots that killed about 2,000 people.
The ruling, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called one of the country's biggest security challenges, comes just before the high-profile Commonwealth Games which kick off in New Delhi from Oct. 3.
Hindus and Muslims have quarrelled for more than a century over the history of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Hindus say it stands on the birthplace of their god-king Rama, and was built after the destruction of a Hindu temple by a Muslim invader in the 16th century.
Hindus wants to build a temple on the site. Muslims want the mosque rebuilt.
The court will rule on three key issues, which ultimately will decide who owns the land: is the disputed site the birthplace of Rama, was the Babri mosque built after the demolition of a Hindu temple and was it built in accordance with the tenets of Islam?
Thousands of police in riot gear were posted at communally "sensitive" zones across India. The air force has been asked to remain alert, officials said.
SECURITY FORCES IN AYODHA
In Ayodhya, security forces patrolled mostly empty streets. Shops, businesses and schools remained closed.
Public gatherings have been forbidden in the town and India has banned bulk mobile text messaging nationally to prevent the spread of rumours and religious extremism.
"All the state governments have been asked to identify sensitive and hyper-sensitive areas, keep forces on high alert and co-ordinate with the centre round the clock," U.K. Bansal, India's internal security chief, told Reuters.
The verdict is almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court and a final decision could take years.
It poses a major challenge for the ruling Congress Party.
A verdict in favour of the Hindus would force the government to uphold the verdict, making it unpopular with Muslims.
A ruling for the Muslims would mean the government would have to push Hindu groups out of the site, a political minefield. (Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar and Alka Pandey; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jonathan Thatcher)
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