July 6, 2005

India on high alert to prevent religious conflict

By Sharat Pradhan

AYODHYA, India (Reuters) - Police went on alert acrossIndia on Wednesday as Hindu groups prepared to launchcountry-wide protests against an attack on a holy site that hasbeen a tinderbox for Hindu-Muslim strife.

Officials said there were no reports of violence overnightafter Tuesday's attack by unidentified gunmen on the religiouscomplex in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya that is claimedboth by India's majority Hindus and its minority Muslims.

"It has been very peaceful everywhere through the night," ahome (interior) ministry official told Reuters. "But we willremain very alert and we are confident that peace will bemaintained."

Security forces stepped up vigil at government and militaryfacilities, nuclear power stations, temples and mosquesfollowing the attack by five gunmen on the Ayodhya complex,which houses a makeshift temple to Hindu God-king Ram builtover a 16th-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Although the men were gunned down by police and a sixthattacker blew himself up, the attack raised fears of freshsectarian strife as the row over the holy site has sparkedbloody Hindu-Muslim conflict in the past.

The home ministry official said police had put up extrametal detectors at sensitive buildings and people enteringtemples, the Bombay stock exchange, large banks and governmentoffices were being frisked and even religious offerings attemples were examined.

The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and its hardline sister groups have called for a nationalprotest on Wednesday saying the raid on the holy site was anattack on "Hindu faith."

Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack,Hindu groups blamed the raid on Islamic militant groups theysaid were supported by neighboring Pakistan.

The Hindu groups demanded the centrist coalition of PrimeMinister Manmohan Singh call off peace talks with Islamabad.

The attack rattled financial markets and partly caused themain Bombay stock index to close 0.78 percent down at 7,220.25points on Tuesday.

Hindu groups claim the holy site in Ayodhya, about 600 km(375 miles) southeast of New Delhi, was the birthplace of LordRam and a temple existed there before Islamic invadersdemolished it and built a mosque in its place in the 16thcentury.

The destruction of the mosque in 1992 triggered nationwideriots in which 3,000 people died, the worst religious clashessince the bloodletting that followed independence and partitionof British colonial India into Hindu-majority India and IslamicPakistan in 1947.

The dispute over the site has since languished in courtsand efforts to resolve it through negotiations have failed.

Analysts said the attack was aimed at igniting sectarianviolence and damaging the India-Pakistan peace process launchedin 2003.

"Those dark ambitions cannot be allowed to succeed," theIndian Express said in an editorial.

"The day after, it is important to remind ourselves of thetragedy averted. And to find the poise that is most needed forthe nation to confront a critical moment like this," it said.