A coalition of advocacy organisations — including Muslim, human rights, anti-fascist and secular groups — has asked advertisers in Times Square not to display images from a Hindu group that is celebrating the building of a temple on disputed grounds in northern India.
The groundbreaking for the Hindu temple was performed on Wednesday in the Indian city of Ayodhya and supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will gather in New York City’s Times Square throughout the day to mark the occasion.
Modi laid the first silver bricks at the temple site, which will be built on top of the Babri Masjid, which Hindu hardliners destroyed in 1992. The communal violence sparked by the mosque’s destruction also left some 2,000 people dead.
Hindus believe their god Ram was born at the site and claim that the Muslim Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple there.
The organisers of the celebration in Times Square had bought prime billboard space to display a model of the temple as well as images of Ram, Jagdish Sewhani told the Press Trust of India, which described him as the president of the American India Public Affairs Committee.
“We are just doing a celebration and it is not against anyone. This is a once in a mankind event and we thought what better place for it than Times Square,” Sewhani told The Associated Press, reached at the phone number listed on the website for the New York gathering.
The American India Public Affairs Committee itself does not have a website, nor is a 1099 tax form available on ProPublica’s nonprofit database. There is no corporation registered under that name in New York State.
When asked specifically for details about his organisation, Sewhani described it as a “group of people” concerned with US-India relations and then said, “Let us focus on our Lord Ram.”
In an interview with the South Asian Insider Show, Sewhani described himself as one of the founders of a US wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist ruling party of India — a secular nation since independence from Britain in 1947.
Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony follows a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last November favouring the building of a Hindu temple on the site in Uttar Pradesh state. The court also ordered that Muslims be given five acres of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site. But the ruling disappointed Muslims, who comprise around 14 per cent of Hindu-majority India’s 1.3 billion people.
The coalition wrote to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking him to stand against the images of Ram and of the planned temple being shown in Times Square. They called the planned display Islamophobic and a symbol of violence against Muslims in India.
“It shows not only glamorising and glorifying an evil and cruel act,” said Shaik Ubaid, president of Indian Minorities Advocacy Network in an interview with the Associated Press. “They are so confident they are doing this in Times Square, the heart of America.”
The mayor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
The coalition also asked supporters to call major advertising companies, including Disney, Clear Channel and Branded Cities, to ask them not to run the images on their billboards. A representative of the company Branded Cities told the coalition on Monday that they would not run digital advertising for the celebration in Times Square, Clarion India reported.
Sewhani disputed that any of the planned billboard advertisements had been cancelled.
Emails from the AP sent to Disney, Clear Channel and Branded Cities were not immediately returned. Lamar, which also sells advertising space in Times Square, said in an email that they were not contacted about any ads for this event.
Invites have gone to only 175 religious saints, priests and Hindu and Muslim community representatives for the Ayodhya ceremony. Those invited include Iqbal Ansari, the main Muslim litigant in the Supreme Court case, who now supports building the temple.
Zafaryab Jilani, who represents the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, previously said that while the Muslim community in India is not satisfied with the Supreme Court’s ruling, it will respect the decision and not protest the building of the temple. Several prominent Muslim writers, academics and activists, who didn’t want to be identified, refused to discuss the issue, suggesting that the community in India was resigned to the new reality.
Billboards highlight Indian atrocities
On Tuesday, billboards in New York’s Times Square lit up in solidarity with Kashmiris as the Indian siege of the occupied valley was entering its second year.
“Kashmiris Lives Matter,” said a sign, written in white letters with a red line, against a black background.
As passersby in one of the world’s busiest squares looked on, another sign lit up: “Kashmir Siege Day,” it said. It also showed two hands raised in protest, symbolising the determination of the Kashmiri people to continue their struggle.
The display at Times Square started on Monday night and will continue for a week. On Wednesday, hundreds of Kashmiris plan to protest Indian atrocities at Times Square while a larger crowd gathers outside the UN headquarters, about two miles down the road, to draw the world’s attention to the plight of eight million Kashmiris.