18,000 Hindus held as temple deadline looms

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The Independent Online

India was close to collective panic, and facing the prospect of massive religious violence, as the self-imposed deadline of the Hindu right to begin building a temple to the god Ram on the disputed site of Ayodhya ticked closer yesterday.

India was close to collective panic, and facing the prospect of massive religious violence, as the self-imposed deadline of the Hindu right to begin building a temple to the god Ram on the disputed site of Ayodhya ticked closer yesterday.

Police detained more than 18,000 Hindu nationalists across the country, fearing that a showdown at the place where an important mosque once stood would trigger sectarian violence once more.

Renewed fighting erupted in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. Hindus clashed with Muslims coming out of mosques after Friday prayers. One Hindu was killed and seven others injured. Police beat protesters, fired tear gas and imposed a curfew on the city.

Ten years ago, the demolition of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, an unimposing city near Faizabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, sparked communal violence across the country, in which thousands were killed. Two weeks ago, Gujarat's Muslims were dying by the hundred in a pogrom.

But hardline Hindus paraded peacefully through Ayodhya yesterday to bless plans for the temple. They were watched by 37,000 security personnel inside the town, about three per square metre.

The foundation of the temple was laid, but in a vacuum. Two "shilas", carved sandstone pillars, were laid across bicycle rickshaws and propelled slowly and perilously from the workshop where they had been made to the spot chosen for the ceremony. Ashok Singhal, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and 93-year-old Ramchandra Das, the spiritual figurehead of the temple builders, followed closely behind in a white Ambassador car, at a crawl.

The dreaded karsewaks, or religious volunteers, who caused all the damage 10 years ago led the cheers, but were far outnumbered by paramilitaries and even journalists. Thanks to multiple roadblocks and military manpower, the fort that Ayodhya has become over the past weeks was not breached.

And in another humiliation for the Hindu temple builders, the site picked for the puja, or prayer ceremony, was almost a mile shy of where the mosque was pulled down. It was even outside the "uncontested land", 67 acres the government holds in trust pending a judgment in the eight-year-old case to decide who is the true owner of the site, Hindus or Muslims.

The aged "Saint" Ramchandra Das had threatened to commit suicide on Thursday if he was not allowed to perform the puja at the locality of his choice. Yesterday he justified compromise on the basis that the whole area, including the spot imposed for the ceremony, falls within the area called Ramkot, "Ram's place". So all this area belonged to the god Ram and the puja could as well be carried out in one part as another.

A lay person looking on in bemusement could ask that, if such an innocuous spot is good enough for the puja, why should it not also be good enough for the temple itself? The Muslims could rebuild their mosque where it once stood and the Hindus could build their temple, as big as they liked and within Ramkot. End of problem.

But that, of course, would be to miss the point. For Singhal, Das and their followers, the temple must rise precisely where the mosque stood. "The intention" of the Babri mosque, according to a booklet published recently by the temple campaign, "was deliberately offensive and meant to give an ocular demonstration of Hindu humiliation for all time." The temple is intended to have the same effect, but the other way around.

India scraped through its testing day yesterday, but none of the problems has been solved, only deferred. Ten years ago, a Hindu nationalist politician called Lal Krishna Advani was inside the city of Ayodhya on the day the mosque was demolished; his enemies say he engineered the demolition. It was the temple issue that brought the ruling BJP to prominence. It energetically exploited the chauvinistic sentiments of the Hindu majority, which the Congress Party under Jawaharlal Nehru had always been at great pains to avoid waking.

The ploy worked. As the ethnic mob violence and murder in Gujarat so sickeningly proved two weeks ago, there is no easier way to galvanise India's semi-educated urban masses than by giving them licence to loot and kill.

But, 10 years on, Mr Advani is India's Home Minister, and he was on the phone until late on Thursday night pleading with the VHP to accept a compromise. The BJP rode a tiger to power. But where that is taking it now, nobody knows.

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