Hindus set to defy ban on praying at holy site

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Today is India's day of reckoning. At 2.45pm this afternoon (09.15 GMT), a 93-year-old Hindu "seer", Ramchandra Das Paramhans, will lead a procession to the contested religious site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claimed by some Hindus to be the birthplace of the god Rama, bearing a carved stone.

What becomes of him, his stone and his followers may determine whether India continues to develop or is thrown back into the fiery turmoil of communal violence.

Today is the day that the proponents of a great Hindu temple on this site have vowed to begin construction. Pressure by the government forced them to merely stage a puja or prayer ceremony, but then on Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled that the puja was also out of the question until a lower court reached a judgment on the fate of the site. But the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the extemist group behind the temple- building campaign, has sworn that the puja will go ahead, come what may.

The authorities have made every preparation to prevent it. Thousands of armed paramilitaries are on the streets of the scruffy town, which has been almost abandoned by regular pilgrims. All main routes have been blocked by police checkpoints to prevent karsevaks (Hindu religious volunteers) from massing, and trains towards the town have been rigorously sanitised. This part of Uttar Pradesh is beginning to look like the war-torn Kashmir Valley.

But though such a force can hardly fail to prevent the aged seer and his supporters from doing what they plan to do, it might not be able to prevent him causing mischief.

Yesterday Mr Paramhans was defiant. "We will do puja ... even if the government shoots me," he said. "I will end my life for the Ram mandir [temple]," he said. "I will pray to God to give me a second life so that I can come back and work for the building of the temple."

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad said that if any of the leaders of the campaign were shot or arrested, the group would launch a mass protest. Pravin Togadia, an official in the organisation, threatened: "Millions of Hindus will move towards Ayodhya."

Today's events are particularly ominous because more than 3,000 people died across the country, most of them Muslims, when the mosque was torn down 10 years ago. Communities that had long lived peacefully together turned on one another.

Fresh in the memory is what happened in Gujarat barely two weeks ago: an altercation between karsevaks returning from Ayodhya and a Muslim tea vendor on a station led to the burning of a train compartment with the loss of 58 lives. This in turn prompted a vicious pogrom across much of Gujarat, in which more than 700 died, nearly all Muslims.

Muslims across the country were expressing fears yesterday for the future. "Who knows what will happen?" Naseem Ansari, a mother in Bombay with four children, said. "Why should I stay and suffer? I'm leaving for my village."