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Indian Prime Minister lays 'controversial' foundation stone for Hindu temple

Artist rendition of the Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya India. The first stone was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 5 August 2020.
Artist rendition of the Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya India. The first stone was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 5 August 2020. © Murali Krishnan

Twenty eight years after the demolition of the centuries-old mosque by a Hindu mob, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launched the construction of a temple in Ayodhya at the spot where Hindus believe Lord Ram was born, a move which has angered many Muslims and political opponents.

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The north Indian temple town of Ayodhya was decked out in resplendent purple and yellow as Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday unveiled a plaque to mark the laying of the foundation stone of the temple in a tightly choreographed ceremony.

Just 175 people were called for the ceremony who received security coded invites because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and strict physical distancing norms.

"I am grateful to witness history being made. Indians cannot believe that this day has come. The entire country is in the spell of Lord Ram,” said Modi, laying down a silver brick to mark the foundation ceremony.

Devotees donate inscribed bricks

As many as 200,000 bricks inscribed with "Shri Ram" (Lord Ram) that have been collected from devotees over the years will be used to build the foundation of the temple.

“It is not only a historic but also an emotional moment as after 500 years the Ram temple work will start. It will be the foundation of a new India,” said Yogi Adityanath, the state chief minister.

A campaign for the temple marked the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the national spotlight in the 1990s.

But critics opposed Modi holding the ground-breaking ceremony.

"The prime minister has freedom of religion. Every Indian citizen has freedom of religion. But does the government of India have a religion? No, because the Constitution clearly says that secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution," said Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), an Indian regional political party.

The foundation ceremony caps a long running saga that has been at the heart of religious tensions in the world’s largest democracy.

Ever since Modi’s election in 2014, hardliners in the BJP have been pushing for an agenda that would establish Hindu supremacy in a country that was envisaged by its founders as a secular state.

Years of conflict

There has been a bitter history to the dispute. On December 6, 1992, right-wing Hindu activists known as kar sevaks razed the Babri mosque with hammers, crowbars and pickaxes.

They were supported by organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India's current ruling BJP.

The kar sevaks hoped to resurrect the ancient temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya, his mythical birthplace.

Communal riots broke out in several Indian cities in the following weeks, leading to the death of over 2,000 people, many of them Muslims.

Political observers have described the demolition of the mosque as a defining moment in the country’s modern history.

Separate site for mosque

In November 2019, after years of protracted legal wrangles, India’s Supreme Court said the site would be handed over for the building of a temple and an alternative five-acre site would be given to Muslims.

The court ruled that Hindu litigants were able to establish their case that they were in possession of the outer courtyard. It added that the Muslim side was unable to prove their exclusive possession of the inner courtyard.

The 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya went entirely to Hindus, and Muslims were given an alternative piece of 5 acres to build a mosque.

The scrapping of Article 370, which gave the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir special status in 2019, and the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya are two key victories of the BJP's policies over the decades.

Muslims across the country expressed mixed reactions to the court verdict last year, some were unhappy with the decision while many others hoped for closure and communal harmony going forward.

The temple is expected to be completed in three years once construction begins.

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