India convulsed by sectarian violence after Muslim attack on disputed temple

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The Independent Online

Six people were injured in violent clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the eastern city of Ranchi. In Delhi, police had to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse an angry crowd of 1,000 Hindu protesters led by the leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lal Krishna Advani.

There are fears that the attempted attack in Ayodhya could set off clashes between Hindus and Muslims like those in 1992, when more than 3,000 people died after Hindu extremists tore down a 16th-century mosque on the site. At least 2,000 more died in riots in Gujarat in 2002 that started after Hindu pilgrims visiting the site died in a train fire believed to have been started by Muslims.

Mobs of Hindu vigilantes roamed the streets of Ayodhya yesterday to enforce a strike called by the BJP, threatening shopkeepers who did not put their shutters down. The authorities ordered a partial curfew in the city to prevent clashes.

In the central city of Indore, around 200 protesters from the far-right World Hindu Council stormed the domestic airport, forcing their way in through a police cordon. The protesters wanted to enforce the strike, and managed to hold up a Delhi-bound flight for an hour, before they were overpowered by police reinforcements. The protesters smashed up the airport's VIP lounge, and police made more than 40 arrests.

Elsewhere, Hindu extremists blocked trains on several major routes by sitting on the lines.

Yesterday's protests came after six militants broke into the heavily guarded complex in Ayodhya armed with assault rifles and hand grenades. The attack was thwarted by security forces who killed the militants in a two-hour gun battle before they could damage the site or kill any Hindu pilgrims. The scale of the response is testament to how high passions run over the disputed site. Many Hindus believe it to be the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of the most powerful Hindu gods. Hindu extremists alleged that the 16th-century Babri mosque, which stood there until 13 years ago, was built on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. In 1992 a Hindu mob tore down the mosque. Today a makeshift temple stands on the site, but hardliners want to build a permanent temple in its place. India's Muslims have mounted a legal battle against the plans, and it has gone to the Supreme Court.

The militants behind Tuesday's attack have not yet been identified, but it is widely assumed in India they were Muslim. There have been several reports that Indian security forces suspect Lashkar-e Toiba, a militant group based in Pakistan, was behind the attack.

"Down, down Pakistan," the crowds in Delhi chanted, and there are concerns the attack may derail the peace process between India and Pakistan. The Indian government has insisted it will not, and has been careful not to link the attack to Pakistan, as previous Indian governments have done with past attacks. But Hindu right-wing parties have accused Pakistan of involvement.

The destruction of the Babri mosque and the wave of killing it unleashed has come back to haunt India. The BJP leader Mr Advani said that the attack had brought the Ayodhya movement back to the forefront of Indian politics, and vowed that a permanent temple would soon be built on the site - regardless of the decision of the Supreme Court. "The Ram temple will be constructed at Ram Janmabhoomi. If the Supreme Court gives a favourable verdict, it is good. Otherwise, this will be done after talks," he said.

Yet even as he spoke, another court was ordering that he must stand trial for his part in inciting the mob that tore down the Babri mosque in 1992. The Allahabad High Court overturned the verdict of a lower court that exonerated Mr Advani in 2003. The BJP and its right-wing Hindu allies have seized upon the attack on the Ayodhya site. They were desperate for a popular cause to unite behind after a series of setbacks that began when they lost last year's general election to the secular Congress party and its allies.

It was Ayodhya that first galvanised mass support for the BJP, and made Mr Advani into a national figure. But by seizing on its again, he and his allies risk unleashing the passions that led to 3,000 deaths in 1992, and 2,000 more in 2002.