- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

AYODHYA, India The Indian government averted a potentially violent clash between Hindus and Muslims yesterday by blocking a Hindu ceremony on the site of a destroyed mosque.

Thousands of Hindu activists and holy men, however, chanted prayers and carried two consecrated pillars near the site of a razed mosque where they plan to build a temple. The pillars were later handed over to a government representative.

Nearly 40,000 activists were detained all over the country to prevent a confrontation at the disputed site.

India's top court, on Wednesday, barred the activists from entering the disputed site. The ceremony yesterday was held outside the protected zone established by the court.

Hindu nationalists had planned to defy the ruling and dedicate the pillars near the rubble of the Babri mosque in a symbolic start to building the temple. But in a last-minute compromise, the activists agreed to hand over the pillars to the government for safekeeping and stay away from the disputed area.

In 1992, Hindu hard-liners razed the 16th-century mosque at the site that they believe is the birthplace of a most revered Hindu deity, Lord Rama. Muslims oppose the building of the temple at the site.

About 3,000 Hindu activists led by priests marched toward the disputed site yesterday afternoon, chanting praises of Lord Rama. The ceremony ended without incident, but there were reports of religious strife elsewhere in the country.

Some violence was reported in the western state of Gujarat; parts of Ahmedabad, the state's largest city, were placed under curfew.

A train carrying Hindu activists was torched in Gujarat last month. In the religious clashes that ensued, more than 700 Hindus and Muslims were killed.

Associated Press reported that clashes broke out in Gujarat yesterday between Muslims, who were leaving at the end of Friday prayers, and Hindus, who were chanting and beating drums to coincide with the ceremony in Ayodhya. At least one man was killed, and seven were injured.

Security was heaviest in Ayodhya, where more than 1,000 Hindu activists were arrested on the eve of the ceremony.

Activists of the hard-line Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, did not try to break the police cordon around the disputed 67-acre zone, despite earlier warnings that they would defy the ban by "facing police bullets" if need be.

The Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had appealed for calm and urged the activists to stay away from the disputed site.

VHP spokesman Praveen Togadia said the ceremony was a success because the government accepted the ceremonial pillars, signaling in principle support for the construction.

"No power on earth can stop the construction of the temple" at the disputed site, he said.

Some Muslim leaders criticized the government for sending an official to receive the pillars, saying it points to taking sides in the dispute.

"It is simply a green signal for the construction of the Rama temple" while the case is still before the court, said Mohammed Aslam Bhure, a prominent Muslim leader.

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