Some 2,000 baton-wielding Indian police were on duty in the flashpoint city of Ayodhya on Thursday to prevent any clashes around the anniversary of the destruction of a mosque.
Hindu zealots reduced the Babri mosque to rubble in 1992, kicking off riots across India that left thousands dead, most of them Muslims, and the site’s future has become a major touchstone issue in Indian politics.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 pledging to construct a temple on the same spot, but the issue remains tied up in the courts.
The anniversary of the destruction is always tense with some hardliners seeking to commemorate the event, and on Thursday police were taking no chances, standing behind yellow steel barricades, checking vehicles and stopping some passers-by.
With around 1,500 Hindu devotees visiting the city, watchtower guards and security cameras were trained on the ruins of the Babri mosque, which are protected by a high steel fence.
There was no violence but police arrested eight people including a local priest who threatened to set himself on fire.
Many Hindus believe Ayodhya marks the birthplace of the deity Ram, and that the mosque which stood there for 460 years was only built after the destruction of an earlier temple.
Modi, running for a second term in 2019, has faced some disquiet from his core supporters who feel that he has not done enough for the cause of having a temple built.
Uttar Pradesh’s state premier Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand monk who has long campaigned for the temple, has also unveiled plans to build the world’s largest statue in Ayodhya — a 221-metre (725-foot) bronze Ram.
– ‘Hail Lord Ram’ –
On an average day, a few thousand Hindu devotees visit the makeshift temple that was established after 1992.
On Thursday dozens of holy men dressed in saffron robes meanwhile gathered at an auditorium, chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (“Hail Lord Ram”) and pledging to have a temple in place before next year’s anniversary.
Muslim groups meanwhile held small commemorations of those who lost their lives in 1992.
“All we want is peace and harmony. Muslims and Hindus of Ayodhya have always lived in harmony but it is the politicians who stoke hatred for their electoral gains,” said Mohammed Shahzad, who runs a meat shop in the city.
“The mosque in my neighbourhood was attacked during the riots in 1992. Our home was set on fire, we somehow managed to save our lives. We don’t want a repeat of the violence at any cost.”
Kalyani Ubhe, a tourist, said: “A temple must be built here. It is a matter of Hindu faith and devotion. We have a right to pray at the birthplace of Lord Ram.”
This was echoed by Sharad Sharma, the local spokesman for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant right-wing outfit linked to Modi’s BJP that co-organised a rally by tens of thousands of devotees in Ayodhya last Sunday.
Another rally is set to take place in Delhi this Sunday.
“Our Lord Ram is being made to run around the courts for so many years… There is no question about the fact that Ayodhya is the birthplace of Ram. We want a magnificent temple to be built there,” Sharma said.
“Our patience is running out. We can’t wait indefinitely for something which is our right. It is a question of Hindu identity and faith. We want an ordinance to be brought as the courts have been sitting on this matter for decades,” he said.
“Once a grand temple is built here, tens of thousands of devotees will come.”