With up to 100,000 Hindu nationalists set to descend on the Indian city of Ayodhya on Sunday, some Muslim families are preparing to skip town rather than risk the potential for communal violence.
Muslim leaders say they fear a repeat of the scenes of 1992, when a violent Hindu mob tore down a centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya that they claim was built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most revered figures.
More than 2,000 Muslims were killed across India in the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque almost 26 years ago. In Ayodhya itself, the mob of around 150,000 spread out from the site and attacked Muslim-owned property, razing shops and killing 18 people.
Sunday’s protests, led by two hardline Hindu nationalist groups, represent the largest gathering of this kind since the events of December 1992. The groups, both closely tied to Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party, are calling for the creation of a temple to Ram on the site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
“People in Ayodhya are worried,” said Zafaryab Jilani, a senior member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “They are apprehensive, and they feel threatened.”
Mr Jilani told The Independent he was aware of plans for Muslim families to temporarily leave town ahead of the Hindu gathering. “I don’t have any definite [numbers], but some people have informed me that they will go,” he said.
“The government has a responsibility to protect law and order and the constitution. If they do that, then minorities stand protected. We have written to the home secretary and the [federal] police, asking them to take preventive measures, so that the demonstrators may not do anything.”
Authorities have made efforts to reassure the community. More than 900 extra police and a large number of military units will be deployed during Sunday’s event, supported by drones.
“The government will ensure that the event passes off peacefully and the local administration has put in place an elaborate security apparatus,” said Anil Pathak, district chief of the wider district of Faizabad. “No one will be allowed to disturb peace and order in the city.”
Few in Ayodhya can forget the events of 1992, however, when police lines around the Babri Masjid melted away in the face of an overwhelming number of protesters, and officers pushed past their subordinates to be the first to get out of the way.
“Although the administration is vigilant, the planned meeting does bring back memories of 1992 when violence broke out after the demolition of the mosque,” Haji Mahboob Ahmad, a 65-year-old Muslim community leader in the city, told Reuters.
Sunday’s protest reflects a growing movement for the creation of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, an idea which has support from Hindus across the country.
The leaders of the movement say there is evidence that a Hindu temple stood on the site before the construction of the Babri Masjid in 1528.
And while Prime Minister Modi himself has been near silent on the issue, it has been taken up by some of the most powerful figures in the BJP, not least its president, Amit Shah. The BJP included a pledge in its 2014 manifesto to “explore all possibilities within the framework of the constitution” to build a Ram temple at the site.
Ayodhya is located in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and one where a strong showing for the BJP is seen as essential if it is to succeed in a general election in spring 2019 and hand Mr Modi a second term.
The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is himself a hardline Hindu monk and one of the leading voices calling for the construction of a Ram temple.
The protests on Sunday are the work of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the regional Shiv Sena, which share the objective of making India a Hindu state.
Demonstrators will stage a “dharma sabha” a short distance from the Babri Masjid site itself, which is under court control until the dispute over its future is resolved and permanently guarded by walls, watchtowers and military checkpoints.
Surendra Jain, general secretary of the VHP, said “more than 200,000 people will attend”, though others generally estimated an attendance of half or even a quarter of that number. “We assure everyone, though we don’t need to, that not even a twig will be disturbed,” he said.
Both Muslim leaders and the government have said they will wait for the Supreme Court to decide on the site’s fate. But the rhetoric coming from groups like the VHP and Shiv Sena, as well as their criticism of the BJP for failing to get the temple built, has become increasingly divisive.
Uddhav Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena, arrived in Ayodhya on Saturday and demanded the government provide “the date for the construction of the Ram temple today”. “Tell us, when will you construct the temple,” he said, addressing an audience.
And on Friday, a senior Shiv Sena politician stoked the controversy further by boasting about how quickly the Hindu mob was able to destroy the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992.
“We demolished the Babri Masjid in 17 minutes, how much time does it take to draw up papers?” he said. Demanding the BJP produce an executive order speeding up the process of building the temple, he said the party controlled every level of government “from the president’s house to Uttar Pradesh”. “What else do you want?”
Nationalist leaders plan to hold two further pro-temple demonstrations, both in the capital Delhi, on 6 December – the anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s demolition – and 18 December. They claim the largest of the two will attract as many as half a million people, building pressure ahead of the next Supreme Court hearing on the matter in early January.