Hindus gather at wrecked mosque

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The Independent Online
NEW DELHI (Reuter) - Hindus began praying yesterday to their god Rama on the site of a mosque whose destruction by Hindu zealots plunged India into turmoil last month.

Sixty Hindu holy men were the first to offer prayers at the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, just two days after Muslims were refused permission to pray there.

The question of whether to allow Hindus to pray on the spot where devotees believe Rama was born has proved highly controversial. A local court on Friday directed the government to open the site to Hindu prayer. But Muslims have said such a ruling will reward the zealots who tore down the mosque and plunged the country into widespread violence in which more than 1,100 people were killed.

More than 200,000 Hindu devotees gathered at Ayodhya on 6 December for what were intended to be ceremonial rituals. Instead, a small group attacked the mosque, and others followed suit.

They ripped down the 16th-century building, carried away the stones, built a makeshift temple and installed an idol of Rama, before security forces moved in to retake control of the town.

The Ayodhya mosque had become the symbol of the political struggle in India between supporters of the secular constitution and Hindu nationalists who demanded that it be replaced by a Rama temple.

Since 1990, the temple campaign has propelled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the political fringes to become the second biggest party in parliament. Now, the mosque's destruction appears to have given it another big boost.

A poll in the latest issue of India Today magazine predicted that if an election were held now, the BJP would win 170 seats compared with its current 117 in the 545-member parliament. While that would not be enough to wrest power from Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao's governing Congress (I) party - with a forecast 233 seats - it would produce a hung parliament.