AYODHYA, India (Dispatches) — Hindus rejoiced Wednesday as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground on a controversial temple at the site of a demolished 16th century mosque.
The temple is expected to take 3 1/2 years to complete. Wednesday marked a year since the Indian Parliament revoked the semi-autonomous status of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir.
The symbolism was impossible to miss since Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had long pledged in its manifesto to strip Kashmir’s autonomy and to build a temple 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 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.
Only 175 religious representatives were invited to the ceremony. But many, including senior leaders of Hindu nationalist organizations, weren’t wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly.
The groundbreaking follows a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last November favoring the
building of a Hindu temple on the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh state.
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.
Muslims comprise about 14% 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 they fear the new temple could embolden Hindu nationalists to target two other mosques in Uttar Pradesh.
Many members of India’s Muslim minority saw last year’s court ruling awarding the site to Hindus as part of a pattern by the Hindu-nationalist government aimed at sidelining Muslims.
The site of Ayodhya and divided Kashmir have been two of the most divisive communal issues of the past 30 years in India, and Modi has attempted to draw a line under both in his second term.
For his fans both steps confirm Modi as a decisive leader, and India’s most important in decades. His critics see him as remolding the country as a Hindu nation, at the expense of India’s 200 million Muslims, and taking it in 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.”
Other actions have also alarmed Modi’s critics and delighted his fans.
Last year a new law made it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighboring countries to get citizenship, but not if they are Muslims.
A "citizenship list” in Assam state left off millions who were unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims, a process many fear the BJP wants to roll out nationwide.
More may be in the pipeline.
On the BJP’s wishlist is a uniform civil code, doing away with personal laws for religious minorities in areas such as marriage, family and death – a policy aimed primarily at Muslims.
"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.”