Hindus set to defy ban on mosque ceremony

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The Independent Online

India's Supreme Court ruled yesterday against Hindu nationalist demands to hold a religious ceremony near the site of a razed 16th-century Muslim mosque, raising fears of new sectarian violence.

The ruling sets up a possible showdown between security forces and thousands of Hindu fundamentalists determined to hold prayers and dedicate pillars for a proposed temple near the ruins of the Babri mosque tomorrow.

Ramchandra Das, the chairman of a trust set up to build a Hindu temple on the disputed sacred site in the northern town of Ayodhya, said: "I will donate the pillars and perform prayers at the undisputed site as scheduled, and will not restrict the number of devotees during [the] march."

Mr Das, a Hindu priest, said that if the worshippers were attacked, the reaction would be the same as in the western state of Gujarat earlier this month. Hindu mobs rampaged for a week, killing more than 650 Muslims in Gujarat, after a Muslim crowd in Godhra set alight a train carriage carrying temple supporters, killing 60.

"The March 15 programme will be peaceful," he said. "But if they are attacked like in Godhra, the reactions will match the Gujarat post-Godhra incidents."

Hindu and Muslim mobs fought again in Godhra yesterday and, in another part of Gujarat, a Muslim teenager was found stabbed and burnt.

The national government said it would enforce the court's ruling. More than 12,000 police and paramilitary troops are surrounding Ayodhya to keep the Hindu activists out. Police chiefs in India's cities called for calm as they prepared for possible religious violence.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), which has spearheaded the campaign to build at the mosque site, called the ruling a blow to India's dominant religion. Praveen Tokadia, the general secretary of the council, said: "We accept the decision of the Supreme Court, but we have to say with regret that, for the first time, Hindus have been denied the fundamental right to worship in independent India – something not done even by the British rulers and their courts."

Standing by the Supreme Court's 1994 decision, three judges ruled that no religious ceremonies would be allowed near the site or on government-owned land around it, until the court determined whether Hindus or Muslims should own it. Hindu activists believe the mosque was built by Mughal rulers on top of the ruins of a Hindu temple that supposedly marked the birthplace of Ram, Hinduism's chief deity.

Hearing a petition filed by a Muslim-rights activist, Mohammed Aslam, the court banned any ceremonies "of any kind by anyone" on the land. "We will not allow any [ceremony] which will escalate the situation," said Justice G B Pattanaik, who also criticised the government for letting the dispute run on for years.

Allies of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, in his 22-party alliance joined the opposition in demanding to know why the government had directed the Attorney General to seek court approval for the ceremony. Parliament adjourned twice in an uproar as MPs shouted that the government's role in the case was an attack on the secular nature of India's democracy.

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