Tens of thousands of hardline Hindu protesters have marched in India’s capital city, calling for a grand temple to be built on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque destroyed by a mob 26 years ago.
The protesters, along with dozens of Hindu monks, gathered in New Delhi on Sunday under the banner of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and similar groups linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Trident-waving devotees clad in saffron filled the sprawling Ramlila Maidan grounds under tight security, warning Modi that they would not let up until the temple was sanctioned.
Causing a frenzy in a crowd of more than 200,000 people, Hindu monks made a series of fiery speeches laced with religious overtones as demonstrators chanted “Praise be to Ram”.
Some of Modi’s supporters feel he has not done enough to raise a shrine at a site in Ayodhya, a small town believed to be the birthplace of the deity Ram in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The site in Ayodhya was home to a medieval mosque for 460 years until a Hindu mob tore it down in 1992, kicking off riots across India that left thousands dead, most of them Muslim.
The BJP was on the margins until the 1980s when its top leaders, including Modi, backed a growing movement for the construction of the Ram temple.
After the demolition of the mosque, both Hindu and Muslim groups petitioned the Supreme Court to help resolve the issue. The top court has sought more time to give its verdict.
But Hindu hardliners want Modi, who is seeking re-election in 2019, to push parliament to guarantee the temple through an executive order, bypassing the Supreme Court.
“We don’t care about the courts. A grand temple will be constructed in 2019,” Sushil Chawdhary, a VHP leader, told AFP news agency.
The dispute remains at the core of tensions between the Hindu majority and India’s minority Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
While the VHP was the organiser for the Sunday protest, a number of leaders from the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ruling party’s far-right ideological mentor, addressed the crowds.
“I’ve come here to attend the religious congregation as a Hindu woman, not as a politician, as I believe that the issue of Ram temple is linked with the faith of India’s 80 percent people,” said Meenakashi Lekhi, a BJP legislator representing New Delhi in parliament.
“The gathering here is telling you that Hindus won’t sit back until the temple is built, and our wishes are respected,” VHP leader Champat Rai told Reuters news agency.
Some carried maces and tridents – weapons traditionally wielded by Hindu gods – and travelled great distances by train and bus to reach the rally.
“We have come here to protect our religion and Hindu pride. We want a temple for our Lord Ram,” Hitesh Bharadwaj, a teacher from New Delhi’s satellite city, Noida, told AFP.
The VHP has applied pressure on Modi in recent weeks, staging a huge show of force in Ayodhya itself last month, and planning more such protests in the coming months.
In the run-up to the general election due within six months, the BJP and other Hindu groups have ratcheted up their demand for a new temple at the disputed site.
Most analysts expect Modi’s BJP to fare worse than it did in the 2014 election, and critics often accuse the party of using communal issues to whip up support.
For the past three decades, the BJP and Hindu outfits associated with it have resurrected the Ayodhya controversy before elections, stoking tensions between the Hindus and Muslims.