The Edition


'Golden moment': PM Modi at Ayodhya temple, built on mosque rubble

05 August 2020, MVT 14:47
People wave India's Prime Minister's convoy arrives outside Hanuman Gadhi temple before the groundbreaking ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020. - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for a grand Hindu temple in a highly anticipated ceremony on August 5 at a holy site that was bitterly contested by Muslims, officials said. The Supreme Court ruled in November 2019 that a temple could be built in Ayodhya, where Hindu zealots demolished a 460-year-old mosque in 1992. (Photo by Sanjay KANOJIA / AFP)
05 August 2020, MVT 14:47

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took centre stage Wednesday at a ceremony for the foundation of a Hindu temple at a flashpoint site that has sparked some of India's worst sectarian violence.

The new temple in Ayodhya will be built on the ruins of a mosque destroyed by a mob of Hindu zealots in 1992, which triggered a wave of religious violence that left around 2,000 people dead across India.

A new temple has been a long-standing demand of Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP, and a court ruling in November clearing the way for its construction was a key victory for the party's supporters.

"Not only the mankind, the entire universe, all the birds and animals, are enthralled by this golden moment," chanted the main priest at the ceremony in northern India carried live on national television.

Latest in triumphs for Hindhu Nationalists

For his fans, both steps confirm Modi -- elected to a second straight term in a landslide last year -- as a decisive, visionary and heroic leader, and India's most important in decades.

His critics see him as 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.

"Modi has certainly been India's most transformative leader in recent memory," Micheal Kugelman from the Wilson Center told AFP.

"This has made him wildly popular, but also highly controversial and quite divisive."

The holy city of Ayodhya in northern India has long been a religious fault line, and the spark for some of its worst sectarian violence.

In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed a centuries-old mosque there that they believed had been built on the birthplace of Ram, an important deity.

This triggered religious riots that killed 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration held against India's new citizenship law in spite of a curfew in Bangalore on December 20, 2019. - Five more protesters died in fresh clashes on December 20 between Indian police and demonstrators, taking the death toll to 14 from more than a week of unrest triggered by a citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim, as thousands rallied at the nation's biggest mosque. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran / AFP)

A lengthy legal battle ensued but in November, in a major victory for Modi's BJP party, India's top court awarded the site to Hindus, allowing a temple "touching the sky" to be built.

"(It's) a huge achievement for (Modi). He is going to make his position permanently in history purely on the strength of this temple," his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told AFP.

The Kashmir Situation

Further cementing Modi's place in his country's annals is Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since 1947, the spark for two wars and the source of much bloodshed.

The BJP had long seen the special status enjoyed by the part of Kashmir controlled by India as a historical wrong, and on August 5 last year, Modi abolished it.

An accompanying security operation turned the region into a fortress for weeks with all telecommunications cut and thousands taken into custody.

Even now, India has "maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights", according to Human Rights Watch.

People from outside Kashmir are now being granted the right to buy land for the first time.

Security personnel question motorists on a street in Jammu on August 5, 2019. - Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir placed large parts of the disputed region under lockdown early August 5, while India sent in tens of thousands of additional troops and traded accusations of clashes with Pakistan at their de facto border. (Photo by Rakesh BAKSHI / AFP)

This has ignited fears that Modi wants to change Kashmir's demographic makeup with an Israel-style "settler" project.

Fearing protests ahead of the anniversary, on Tuesday thousands of Indian troops imposed a tight curfew in Kashmir that was later eased slightly. The streets were all but deserted the following morning.

In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Prime Minister Imran Khan -- who on Tuesday released a new map showing all of Kashmir as part of Pakistan -- was due to lead a protest march.

"We will never accept, and neither will the Kashmiris, the illegal Indian actions and oppression of the Kashmiri people," said Khan in a statement released on Wednesday.

"Full steam ahead"

Numerous other actions have also served to alarm Modi's critics and delight his fans.

Last year, a new law made it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship, but not if they are Muslims.

In this picture taken on May 4, 2020 Muslim youths perform ablutions before conducting prayers in a closed market area during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Delhi. - India's 200 million Muslims have long complained of growing hostility since the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. But the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic added a new dimension, turning Muslims into the new "untouchables", a word usually used to refer to India's lowest castes. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) /

More may be in the pipeline, including a mooted nationwide register obliging people to prove they are Indian, and a uniform civil code doing away with Islamic rules in areas such as marriage.

"Clearly, it's full speed ahead with the Hindu nationalist agenda," Kugelman said.

"The government knows it has some major challenges with the economy and the pandemic. By focusing on the social agenda... it can distract its rank and file and shore up political support."

Ayodhya, India | AFP