November 25, 2018 / 6:21 AM / 17 days ago

Hindu temple site protest ends peacefully as 200,000 disperse

AYODHYA, India (Reuters) - More than 200,000 Hindu activists and monks protesting near a disputed religious site in northern India dispersed peacefully on Sunday after demanding the government build a temple at the site of a 16th-century mosque.

Sadhus or Hindu holymen shout slogans during "Dharma Sabha" or a religious congregation organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organisation, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

A similar rally in 1992 near Ayodhya led to a Hindu mob tearing down the mosque, sparking riots that killed about 2,000 people in one of the worst instances of communal violence in India since the 1947 partition.

Tensions have again been running high ahead of the latest rally, with a heavy security presence at the site.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu activists affiliated with it have ratcheted up demands for a temple at the site ahead of a general election due by May next year. Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of warrior-God Lord Ram..

The mosque, which was built by a Muslim ruler in 1528, has been at the center of conflict between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims who constitute 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Hindu groups say there was a temple at the site before the mosque was built.

Both Hindu and Muslim groups have petitioned India’s Supreme Court to resolve the issue. But the top court has sought more time and the heavily fortified site, which looks like a small garrison town, is under its control.

Speakers criticized the Supreme Court for not delivering a quick verdict in the favor of the temple, while protesters chanted: “To hell with the Supreme Court”.

The delay has disappointed India’s majority Hindu community, which can not wait endlessly for a verdict, said Sharad Sharma, spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or the World Hindu Council, which has close ties with the BJP.

Both the BJP and VHP and their parent movement, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have asked the government to issue an executive order to build a temple and by-pass the Supreme Court.

Anti-Muslim chants rang out on roads leading to the gathering, while the streets of the towns of Ayodhya and Faizabad were deserted as local residents feared violence.

“Many people thought that the issue of the temple had died down but we must warn them that now we’ll not sit idle until we see a temple of Lord Ram,” Krishna Gopal of RSS said.

Sunday’s gathering would be followed up with bigger protests in India’s capital New Delhi, Sharma of the VHP said.

Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Michael Perry/Euan Rocha/Alexander Smith

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