NEW DELHI: Indian Hindu hardliners hold a cutout of a temple as they participate in a rally yesterday. — AFP

NEW DELHI: Tens of thousands of hardline Hindu protesters marched in New Delhi yesterday, calling for a grand temple to be built on the ruins of a destroyed mosque in a flashpoint Indian city. Trident-waving devotees clad in saffron filled a huge parade ground in the Indian capital under tight security, where speakers warned Prime Minister Narendra Modi they would not let up until the temple was sanctioned. Some of Modi’s supporters feel the Hindu nationalist leader has not done enough to raise a shrine at a site in Ayodhya, a city believed by many to be the birthplace of the deity Ram.

The site was home to a medieval mosque for 460 years until Hindu zealots tore it down in 1992, kicking off riots across India that left thousands dead, most of them Muslims. Its future has been tied up in courts for decades but some hardliners want Modi, who is seeking reelection in 2019, to push parliament to guarantee the temple by law. “The gathering here is telling you that Hindus won’t sit back until the temple is built, and our wishes are respected,” said Champat Rai, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) group that organized the protest.

Demonstrators chanting “Praise be to Ram” packed the Ramlila Maidan, a vast ground capable of holding more than 50,000 people, and filled the surrounding streets. Some carried maces and tridents - weapons traditionally wielded by Hindu gods - and travelled great distances by train and bus to reach the rally. “We have come here to protect our religion and Hindu pride. We want a temple for our Lord Ram,” Hitesh Bharadwaj, a teacher from Delhi’s satellite city Noida, told AFP.

The hardline VHP has applied pressure on Modi in recent weeks, staging a huge show of force in Ayodhya itself last month. A close ally of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the group is spearheading a push to raise the Ram temple, and is calling for more protests as the premier prepares to go to the polls by May. The BJP was on the margins until the 1980s when its top leaders, including Modi, backed a growing movement for the construction of the Ram temple.

Its advocates want parliament to introduce a law bypassing legal hurdles blocking the temple before Modi’s term ends. The Supreme Court has delayed hearings into the disputed site but hardliners have vowed to lay a foundation stone next year regardless. “We don’t care about the courts. A grand temple will be constructed in 2019,” Sushil Chawdhary, a VHP leader, told AFP. Exhorting the crowd to take a vow to build a temple in Ayodhya, Hindu monk Avdheshanand Giri ji Maharaj, said: “The government and the Supreme Court must realize that it is a matter of religious sentiment for Hindus who have been waiting to see a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya.”
As millions of Hindus believe that the mosque stood at the birthplace of Ram, one of their most revered deities, the dispute remains at the core of tensions between the Hindus majority and India’s minority Muslims who constitute 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Hindu groups insist that there was a temple at the site before the mosque was built in 1528 by a Muslim ruler. “I’ve come here to attend the religious congregation as a Hindu woman; not as a politician, as I believe that the issue of Ram temple is linked with the faith of India’s 80 percent people,” said Meenakashi Lekhi, a lawmaker from the BJP.

Ahead of yesterday’s rally, police stepped up security in the city. Anti-Muslim slogans reverberated on roads leading to the gathering near the old part of the city, where many Muslim families live. On their way to attend the religious meeting, some youths brandished swords. In the run-up to a general election due by May 2019, the BJP and other Hindu groups have ratcheted up their demand for a new temple at the disputed site. Most analysts expect Modi’s BJP to fare worse than it did in the 2014 general election, and critics often accuse the party of using communal issues to whip up support.

For the past three decades, the BJP and Hindu outfits associated with it have resurrected the Ayodhya controversy before elections, stoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Uttar Pradesh, the state where Ayodha is located, has suffered repeated outbreaks of communal violence since Yogi Adityanath, a BJP hardliner seen as a potential successor to Modi, became chief minister last year. - Agencies