India faces turmoil as Hindus raze mosque

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MORE THAN 200,000 Hindu militants overran and destroyed a mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya yesterday, shaking the foundations of India's secular


It was feared that the country's 120 million strong Muslim population would respond in kind. About 1,000 people were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots in northern India in 1990 after Hindu extremists stormed the mosque.

The government in New Delhi placed security forces throughout the north on high alert, rushed more troops to Ayodhya to bolster the 15,000 already there and imposed presidential rule on Uttar Pradesh state, forcing the Chief Minister, Kalyan Singh, to resign after his riot police failed to protect the mosque.

The Ayodhya mosque had become a flashpoint in relations between India's Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Hindu militants claim that, 460 years ago, Muslim conquerors demolished a temple on the birthplace of their legendary warrior-king, Lord Ram, and built a mosque there.

The Hindu revivalists wanted it back and had grown frustrated at a court order protecting the mosque from demolition. What was supposed to have been a symbolic laying of a few bricks around it yesterday turned into chaos.

Led by Hindu holy men with saffron-daubed faces and carrying tridents, a swarm of kar sevats ('temple construction workers') converged on the Ayodhya mosque. Their mission was not to build but to destroy.

Discipline was imposed at first by militaristic Hindu youths in boy-scout shorts armed with long clubs. But Hindu neo-Fascist skinheads, some of them with 'Lord Ram' picked out in hair on their shaved heads, began hurling stones at riot police guarding the mosque. When the police fled under the barrage of stones, some holy men joined the young kar sevats as they charged the mosque, ripping up barbed wire fences.

As a roar arose from the throng several youths planted a Hindu flag on the mosque's central dome and began demolishing it. The ancient brick exploded under the hammers. They massed in tens of thousands on the mosque like an army of ants, and within six hours it lay flattened. 'Long live Lord Ram,' said a riot policeman, wincing at a near miss by a stone. 'Now I can go home.'

The fury of the Hindu militants also turned on foreign and Indian journalists. Several were badly beaten and one photographer escaped being run through with a sword by ducking into a room at a temple where some Hindu women, at their own risk, hid the photographer under a pile of straw. A family of Hindus gave me shelter in their shrine. Every time one of the mosque's three domes fell, the priest would dance and give a blast on a dented trumpet.

At nightfall, some of us fled Ayodhya by a road through the fields just as Hindu militants were setting fire to several Muslim-owned houses and haystacks. Riot police, who are mainly Hindu, did nothing to stop the mob.

A curfew was imposed in many towns in the densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh. One Muslim lawyer in a town near Ayod

hya said: 'We have guns and bombs and are ready to protect ourselves.'

The Ayodhya crisis was political in the making but no parties gain from yesterday's destruction of the mosque. The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata party, which organised the march on Ayodhya, lost because it could not contain the religious fury it unleashed. Its first casualty was Mr Kalyan Singh, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. Around the mosque itself some Hindu politicians were roughed up by their own disciples.

The attack on the mosque two years ago brought down the Delhi government. It is unlikely that the turmoil whipped up in Ayodhya yesterday will topple the present Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, but he faces fierce criticism from within his own Congress party and from the Muslim leaders for his weak handling of events leading up to the siege of the mosque.

(Photograph omitted)