Pakistan on Wednesday strongly condemned the construction of a temple at the site of the demolished 16th-century Babri Mosque, hours after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundations of the Hindu place of worship.
In a statement, the Foreign Office (FO) said the "flawed judgment" of the Indian Supreme Court paving the way for the construction of the temple not only reflected the "preponderance of faith over justice" but also the growing majoritarianism in India, where it said minorities, particularly Muslims and their places of worship, were increasingly under attack.
"A temple built on the site of a historic mosque will remain a blot on the face of the so-called Indian democracy for the times to come," it said, adding that the "painful scenes" of the demolition of Babri Masjid by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its "extremist Hindu affiliates" in 1992 remained fresh in the minds of Muslims across the globe.
The FO said the BJP was bent upon constructing a "new illegitimate structure" as part of its agenda of converting India into a "Hindu Rashtra" and today's groundbreaking ceremony in Ayodhya reflected an "unrelenting drive in this direction".
"The RSS-BJP combine is responsible for continued targeting and destruction of places of worship of Muslims in India in an organised manner, whether it was during the Gujarat pogrom 2002 or Delhi pogrom 2020.
"The attacks by Hindu extremists on mosques have continued even during the ongoing pandemic. Not only Muslims have been blamed for spreading Covid-19 but their religious freedom has also come under attack by the BJP-RSS zealots who treat minorities as second-class citizens," the FO noted.
It urged the Indian government to ensure the safety and protection of minorities, particularly Muslims and their places of worship and other Islamic sites on which "Hindu extremists and zealots have laid claims".
"The international community, the United Nations and relevant international organisations should play their part in saving the Islamic heritage sites in India from the ‘Hindutva’ regime and ensure protection and religious rights of minorities in India," the press release added.
Earlier in the day, despite the coronavirus restricting a large crowd, Hindus rejoiced as Modi broke ground on the long-awaited temple of their most revered god, Ram, at the site of the Babri Masjid.
Modi, 69, wore a traditional outfit of a gold Kurta, a long shirt and a white Dhoti — a loose cloth wrapped around his waist — along with a face mask. He shared the stage with the head of the RSS, the militaristic hardline Hindu group that is parent to the BJP and which Modi joined as a young man.
“Not only mankind, but the entire universe, all the birds and animals, are enthralled by this golden moment,” chanted the main priest.
Modi offered prayers to nine stone blocks with Ram inscribed on them and kept in a small pit amid chanting of Hindu religious hymns to symbolise the start of construction of the temple, which is expected to take three and a half years to complete. The blocks will serve as the monument’s foundation stones.
Before the start of the ceremony, Modi prostrated before a small idol of the god Ram that was kept in a makeshift temple set up by Hindu nationalists at the site where the mosque was demolished in 1992.
“It’s an emotional and historic moment. Wait has been worthwhile,” said Lal Krishna Advani, a 92-year-old leader of the BJP who was at the forefront of the party’s temple campaign in the 1990s.
Organisers said the ceremony was set on an astrologically auspicious date for Hindus, but Wednesday also marked a year since the Indian Parliament revoked the semi-autonomous status of occupied Jammu and Kashmir.
The symbolism was impossible to miss since Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP had long pledged in its manifesto to strip occupied Kashmir’s autonomy and to build a temple to Ram where the Mughal-era mosque once stood.
Modi said in a speech that the ceremony was a “historic occasion” for which Hindus waited for centuries.
He recalled that Mohandas Gandhi, India’s independence leader, fondly referred to “Ram Rajya (rule)” as an ideal state where values of justice and equality prevailed and even the weakest people could get justice.
He said the proposed temple will become a symbol of “modern India.”
The main roads of Ayodhya were barricaded and about 3,000 paramilitary soldiers guarded the city, where all shops and businesses were closed. Last week, a priest and 15 police officers at the temple site tested positive for the coronavirus, which has infected 1.9 million people in India and killed more than 39,000.
“Had this function been held on normal days, all these roads would have been chock-a-block with people. Millions of people would have come to Ayodhya to witness this historic event,” temple priest Hari Mohan said.
Only 175 religious saints, priests and Hindu and Muslim community representatives were invited to the ceremony. But many, including senior leaders of Hindu nationalist organisations, weren’t wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly.
Water from Indian rivers in 2,000 earthen pots sent by various Hindu temples and Sikh shrines was poured at the site.
The groundbreaking follows a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last November favouring the building of a Hindu temple on the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh state. Hindus believe Ram was born at the site and claim Muslim Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple there.
The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu radicals with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. The Supreme Court’s verdict allowed a temple to be built in place of the demolished mosque.
Those invited to the groundbreaking ceremony included Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Iqbal Ansari, the main Muslim litigant in the Supreme Court case, who now supports building the temple in Ayodhya.
The court also ordered that Muslims be given five acres of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site.
The temple will be around 235 feet wide, 300 feet long and 161 feet high with five domes with a total area around 84,000 square feet. The complex will also have a prayer hall, lecture hall, visitors’ hostel and museum.
Houses and other buildings close to the temple site were painted yellow to recreate the look when Ram ruled there for thousands of years, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana.
“Yellow is an auspicious color. As per Hindu tradition, yellow symbolises purity and light,” temple priest Mahant Kamal Narain Das said.
Muslims comprise about 14 per cent of Hindu-majority India’s population of 1.3 billion. The temple-mosque dispute badly divided Hindus and Muslims, often triggering communal clashes.
Prominent Muslims have said the community was resigned to the new reality but fear the new temple could embolden Hindu nationalists to target two other mosques in Uttar Pradesh.