Modi launches construction of temple at site of Babri mosque

06 Aug 2020

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AYODHYA: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the temple’s foundation-laying ceremony.—Reuters
AYODHYA: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the temple’s foundation-laying ceremony.—Reuters

AYODHYA: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched on Wednesday construction of a Hindu temple at the site of a historic mosque that has sparked some of the country’s bloodiest communal violence.

The ceremony in Ayodhya, with Modi surrounded by saffron-clad priests, came on the first anniversary of the removal of the special status enjoyed by occupied Kashmir. For his Hindu nationalist supporters, both steps confirm Modi as a “decisive leader”.

His critics, however, assert that he is remoulding the officially secular country of 1.3 billion as a Hindu nation at the expense of India’s 200 million Muslims, and taking it an authoritarian direction.

The city of Ayodhya in northern India has long been a religious tinderbox, providing the spark for some of its worst communal violence. In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri mosque here, which triggered riots that killed 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.

The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board criticises court ruling

A lengthy legal battle ensued, but in November India’s top court awarded the site to Hindus, allowing a temple to be built where the historic mosque once stood. The Supreme Court also ordered that Muslims be given five acres of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site. The Hindu temple will be around 235 feet wide, 300 feet long and 161 feet high, with five domes and a total area of around 84,000 square feet. The complex will have a prayer hall, lecture hall, visitors’ hostel and museum. The temple is expected to be built in about three and a half years.

Wednesday’s elaborate religious ceremony, involving priests in saffron masks and bricks made of silver, was shown live on television.

Modi, 69, sharing a stage with the head of the RSS militaristic and hard-line Hindu group, compared the building of the temple to India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

“The whole country is thrilled, the wait of centuries is ending,” he said in a speech, after taking off a white mask that he wore as a novel coronavirus precaution.

Reaction by Muslims

Many Muslims saw last year’s court ruling as part of a pattern by the Hindu-nationalist government aimed at sidelining the minority community.

“Usurpation of the land by an unjust, oppressive, shameful and majority-appeasing judgment can’t change its status,” the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board said on Twitter.

“No need to be heartbroken. Situations don’t last forever.”

To be sure, legal battles over the site are still not over. Three former prominent BJP government ministers are facing trial on criminal conspiracy charges linked to speeches suspected of inciting the crowd that destroyed the Babri mosque in 1992. The main roads of Ayodhya were barricaded for the event 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.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2020