Rising unease over divisive Ayodhya shrine as India election looms

Police officers detain a Hindu protester shouting slogans outside the Indian Supreme Court on Thursday, January 10, after the hearing in the Ayodhya temple dispute case was further deferred to January 29. (AFP)
Updated 15 January 2019

Rising unease over divisive Ayodhya shrine as India election looms

  • ‘Only a Hindu government can realize the temple dream’
  • ‘Political parties want to make electoral gains through this temple-mosque issue’

AYODHYA, India: Young and unemployed, Som Shekhar pines less for a job than the construction of a controversial Hindu temple — and, as India’s election approaches, says he will vote for the only man he believes can deliver it.
“Only a Hindu government can realize the temple dream,” said Shekhar, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that stormed to power in 2014.
Modi is asking Indians for a second term and Shekhar’s “temple dream” — the construction of a Hindu shrine in the flashpoint city of Ayodhya — could muscle its way onto the election campaign as it gets under way in coming weeks.
Hard-liners have been agitating for the shrine for decades but it is a deeply polarizing project, one that has aggravated deadly fissures between India’s Hindu majority and its sizeable Muslim minority.
Temple devotees want a grandiose structure built on the ruins of a medieval mosque that was razed by Hindu zealots in 1992 — sparking religious riots that left 2,000 dead across India.
Those who tore down the Babri Mosque contend the Hindu god Ram was born on the same patch of earth, and accuse India’s erstwhile Muslim rulers of desecrating the site.
A quarter century later the temple’s champions want to lay a foundation stone and see an opportunity in the 2019 election.
Conservative Hindu groups have staged massive rallies — some hundreds of thousands strong — in recent weeks to pressure Modi, appealing to his “saffron” credentials and Hindu political identity.
For some voters, no other issue matters.
“I agree that jobs are tough to come by. But the temple is a question of Hindu faith and it should be placed above everything else,” 24-year-old Shekhar said in Ayodhya.
Not far from the contested site, gigantic pillars embossed with decorative flowers and paving stones lie in wait, some more than 30 years old.
While the dispute over Ayodhya dates back several decades, the mass movement to build a “Ram Mandir” picked up steam in the early 1990s, helping propel the BJP onto the national stage when it was still a nascent political outfit.
After the destruction of the mosque in 1992, the site was sealed off as Hindu and Muslim groups fought in court for its control.
In 2010 a court ruled the site should be divided — two-thirds controlled by Hindus and the remainder by Muslims.
But the decision was contested by both parties, and the case has stalled in the Supreme Court ever since.
It was again adjourned without progress last week. A verdict would prove incendiary, and is unlikely before hundreds of millions of Indians cast ballots in the world’s largest election in April and May.
But critics fear Modi could nonetheless stoke the temple issue to appease Hindu voters, and distract from his administration’s shortcomings.
“The Ayodhya issue has always been a poll gimmick, but it has become more so this time,” said Zafaryab Jilani, a lawyer representing Muslim groups in the long-running dispute.
“They are unable to explain rural poverty, lack of jobs so they are hoping this will lead to polarization of Hindu votes.”
But Hindu hard-liners are impatient.
Some feel Modi has not done enough to raise the shrine and are urging him to use his majority in parliament to bypass the courts with legislation and get construction moving.
“We have waited for too long for this,” said Shekhar, as he admired a wooden miniature of the proposed temple.
Many in India fear fresh calls for a temple could turn ugly.
Those who witnessed the violence in 1992 want no repeat of the arson and lynchings that pitted India’s two largest communities against one another.
For Mohammed Shahzad, a Muslim butcher from Ayodhya whose home was reduced to ash, the signs are ominous.
“Political parties want to make electoral gains through this temple-mosque issue,” he said.
“The temple and the mosque should be built side by side, as there is only one supreme power. Hindus and Muslims must live together in peace. That is the only lasting solution for this country.”


France teacher’s killer had ‘contact’ with militant in Syria

Updated 55 min 13 sec ago

France teacher’s killer had ‘contact’ with militant in Syria

  • Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib

PARIS: The investigation into the murder in France of a teacher for showing caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in class turned to Syria on Thursday, where the killer had a militant contact, a source close to the case said.
Seven people have been charged with being complicit in a “terrorist murder” after 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov killed Samuel Paty on Friday, including two teenagers who helped him identify the teacher.
France paid homage to Paty on Wednesday, with President Emmanuel Macron saying that the history and geography teacher had been slain by “cowards” for representing the secular, democratic values of the French Republic.
In their search for accomplices, anti-terror investigators have now established that Anzorov had contact with a Russian-speaking militant in Syria whose identity is not yet known, the source told AFP.
Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday that Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib, a militant holdout in northwestern Syria.
In an audio message in Russian immediately after the killing, translated by AFP, Anzorov said that he had “avenged the Prophet” whom the teacher had shown “in an insulting way.”
The message was published on social media in a video, accompanied by two tweets, one showing the victim’s severed head and another in which Anzorov confessed to the murder.
Moments later he was shot dead by police. Anzorov decapitated Paty with a long knife.
Many of Paty’s students saw the images online before they could be taken down.
The teenagers who pointed out Paty to his killer in return for money were late Wednesday charged over the killing.

HIGHLIGHT

Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday that Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib, a militant holdout in northwestern Syria.

The parent of one of Paty’s pupils, who started the social media campaign against the teacher even though his daughter was not in class when the cartoons were shown, was also charged.
Also charged was a known extremist radical who helped the father stir up outrage against Paty.
The other three facing prosecution are friends of Anzorov, one of whom allegedly drove him to the scene of the crime while another accompanied him to purchase a weapon.
Two of them also face c harges of being complicit in terrorist murder while the third was charged with a lesser offense, the anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office said.
Paty, 47, became the target of an online hate campaign over his choice of lesson material — the same images which unleashed a bloody assault by gunmen on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
Police have carried out dozens of raids since the crime, while the government has ordered the six-month closure of a mosque outside Paris and dissolved the Sheikh Yassin Collective, a group they said supported Hamas.
The French government has earmarked for dissolution more than 50 other organizations it accuses of having links with extremists.
Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack since a trial of alleged accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo attack started last month.
The killing has prompted an outpouring of emotion in France, with tens of thousands taking part in rallies countrywide in defense of free speech and the right to mock religion.
“We will not give up cartoons,” Macron vowed at a ceremony Wednesday in Paty’s honor at the Sorbonne university in Paris.