- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

NEW DELHI — Hard-line Hindus are stepping up their opposition to India’s ambitious $560 million shipping channel that is being carved in the narrow strip of sea between southeastern India and western Sri Lanka.

They are angry that it will cut through the Hindu holy site of Ram Sethu — the mythical Ram’s Bridge.

Billed as the “Suez of the East,” the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project is a 103-mile-long channel designed to reduce shipping distances and cut costs.

However, it involves dredging a cut in the shallow ocean floor near one end of Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Sethu, a chain of limestone shoals between the islands of Mannar, near northwestern Sri Lanka, and Dhaunshkodi in south India.

Although geologists explain that Adam’s Bridge, which stretches between Dhaunshkodi in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Mannar in northwest Sri Lanka, is nothing but a naturally occurring chain of calcareous limestone shoals created by sedimentation, fundamentalist Hindus claim that it is the remains of a 27-mile-long, 1.2-mile-wide bridge that monkey god Hanuman and his army of monkeys built across the sea 1.75 million years ago to help Lord Ram rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravan.

The Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Organization) has campaigned against the channel for two years and earlier this year formed the Ram Sethu Protection Organization in a further attempt to save the Ram Sethu. VHP recently got a big boost after the country’s most powerful Hindu political party — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — joined the religious group to begin a nationwide campaign for the mythical bridge.

Last week in tandem with VHP and other Hindu organizations, BJP, the party in opposition in Parliament, staged simultaneous demonstrations across the country blocking major roads and railway lines for hours demanding the canal project be scrapped.

Soon, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in an affidavit told the Supreme Court that there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in epic Ramayana ever took place or that the characters, including Ram, depicted in the epic were real.

As the affidavit angered the opposition parties and some United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leaders worried that it could be used as a plank by the opposition to fight in the next round of elections, the next day, the government withdrew the controversial statement by declaring that Ram was indeed a historical figure and not a “mythological character,” as suggested in the court affidavit.

Adding to the embarrassment of the Congress-led alliance and the federal government, some leaders — including some ministers in the ruling federal alliance of UPA — protested against the line of the original affidavit.

Federal Law Minister Hans Raj Bharadwaj said that Ram’s existence could never be questioned and the affidavit had been a mistake on the part of the government.

“Just as Himalayas are Himalayas and the Ganga is Ganga, Lord Ram is Lord Ram. There is no requirement of any proof to establish his existence. Lord Ram is an integral part of life of Hindus and not alienable from Indian ethos. … These are matters of faith and cannot be made a subject matter of debate and litigation. Everything exists because of Ram,” said the senior Congress leader, in a vein similar to that of most religious Hindu or BJP leaders.

Worried about the adverse reaction from the majority Hindu population of the country, some UPA leaders openly said that by questioning the “faith of the million” the government was in the mode of inviting a political disaster for the federal alliance.

Taking responsibility, India’s culture minister and senior Congress leader Ambika Soni offered to resign after having suspended two senior ASI officials involved with the preparation of the controversial affidavit. But, BJP said the party would not scale down its agitation unless Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologized, and the government promised to protect the Ram Sethu.

Although finally the government has asked the court for three months to set up a mechanism to hear grievances and concerns expressed by those opposed to the canal project, BJP and other Hindu bodies say they would not budge from their mode of protest until they see the government in “convincing” moves to protect the Sethu.

Former deputy prime minister and senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani however said, the government’s withdrawal of the controversial affidavit and declaration that Ram was a historical figure should lead to a logical conclusion that the Sethu has to be protected by the government.

“By describing it [Ramayana] as pure myth and a work of fiction the government wounded the very idea of India and sought to rewrite the civilization identity of our ancient nation,” said Mr. Advani.

If the government did not initiate steps to protect the Sethu, then the people will teach the UPA a lesson in the next elections, said Mr. Advani.

BJP chief Raj Nath Singh said Ram Sethu was not an issue of history or science but a matter of faith and belief.

“Ram Sethu is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem is to Christians. Questioning the existence of Lord Ram is like asking your father to prove that he is your father,” said Mr Singh.

Earlier this week India’s shipping minister, T.R. Baalu, announced that his ministry would soon approach the Supreme Court to obtain the appropriate order so that dredging work on Adam’s Bridge can continue. On Thursday, senior BJP leader and former minister Yashwant Sinha said that in the forthcoming elections Ram Sethu will be the key election issue for his party.

Under a Supreme Court order work on only the Adam’s Bridge area has been stopped and dredging of other areas of the 103-mile stretch is continuing as per plan, Mr. Baalu said.

Campaigning for Ram Sethu, some Hindu leaders often say that U.S. space agency NASA supported the Hindu claim of the existence of the Ram bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

But last week NASA clarified that pictures taken by its astronauts did not prove the existence or otherwise of a manmade Ram Sethu bridge as mentioned in the Ramayana.

“I am not aware of any carbon dating either,” said NASA spokesman Michael Braukus, refuting claims by the BJP that the agency had the Adam’s Bridge in Palk Strait — known as Ram Sethu in India — carbon dated as being 1.7 million years old.

“Some people have taken pictures taken by our astronauts to make their claim. No position can be taken on the basis of these photographs in any way,” Mr. Braukus said when asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the site of the canal project off India’s southern tip.

“The age, substratum, geological structure or anthropological status of the ocean bed in Palk Strait cannot be determined by the astronauts’ photographs. So there is no basis for these claims,” Mr. Braukus said.

Mr. Baalu said that the SSCP was also of great significance from the view of national defense, besides boosting the commercial traffic in the region and no well-wisher of the country would go against it.

“It will enable quicker access between the west and east coasts [of India], helping the Indian navy and coast guard vessels in speeding up their movement and shorten the response time during emergency,” said Mr. Baalu.

Now, ships traveling between India’s east and west coasts have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka because they cannot pass through the existing waterway across the Palk Strait made shallow by Adam’s Bridge.

If the Sethusamudram canal becomes operational, it will save up to 485 miles of traveling distance and 36 hours of time for ships sailing between India’s east and west coasts and also for international ships passing through Arabian Sea and calling at most Tamil Nadu ports, including Madras.

Hindu leaders say that they also support a canal that could help the ships cut short their sailing distance, without having to go around Sri Lanka and so they are proposing a land canal through the barren land around Dhanuskodi and Rameswaram of Tamil Nadu.

“We are not against the economic development of India. But we don’t want it at the expense of our holy Ram Sethu,” said VHP President Ashok Singhal.

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