July 6, 2005

Hindu groups rage against Indian holy site attack

By Sharat Pradhan

AYODHYA, India (Reuters) - Indian police fired tear gas onWednesday to disperse Hindu activists who blocked roads andclosed shops in dozens of cities to protest an attack on a holysite that has been a tinderbox for Hindu-Muslim violence.

Police nationwide went on alert to prevent violence andrioting a day after unidentified gunmen stormed the site, whichis claimed both by India's majority Hindus and its minorityMuslims, in the northern town of Ayodhya.

Hindu activists smashed windshields of cars trying to evadea blockade in the eastern city of Ranchi. Another crowdshattered potted plants at the airport in the central town ofIndore, delaying a departing flight.

The protests followed Tuesday's attack by five gunmen and asuicide bomber on a complex that houses a makeshift temple ofthe Hindu God-king Ram that was built over a 16th-centurymosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Police killed the men in a two-hour gunfight.

One of the bigger protests against the attack was in NewDelhi, where police fired tear gas and used water canon todisperse about one thousand Hindu activists.

Some activists were armed with tridents, which havereligious symbolism in India, and wore bandannas in the Hinduholy color of saffron. Some held placards reading: "India won'ttolerate an attack on the birthplace of Ram" or "Attack on Ramis attack on country."

"Lord Ram we will come to you. We will build a Ram templeat the same site," they shouted.

Although no group claimed responsibility for Tuesday'sattack, Hindu groups blamed Islamic militants they said weresupported by neighboring Pakistan, an old enemy and nuclearrival which is now engaged in peace talks with India.

"Down, down Pakistan," the crowd in New Delhi chanted.

The attack in Ayodhya has raised fears of sectarian strife.Hindu groups demanded the centrist coalition of Prime MinisterManmohan Singh call off the peace talks with Islamabad, whichon Tuesday condemned the attack.


Hindus claim the site in Ayodhya is the birthplace of LordRam and a temple existed there before Islamic invadersdemolished it and built a mosque in its place in the 16thcentury.

The leveling of the mosque in 1992 triggered violentnationwide riots in which 3,000 people were killed -- the worstreligious clashes since the bloodletting that followed thepartition of the subcontinent and the creation of IslamicPakistan in 1947.

While the identity of the attackers is yet to beestablished, officials in Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya islocated -- about 600 km (375 miles) southeast of New Delhi --privately said five of the six men were apparently Muslims.

On Wednesday, Ayodhya was peaceful as it has largely beensince the 1992 turmoil. Security forces barred Hindu leadersfrom the town while nationalist Bharatiya Janata Partyactivists drove the streets on motorbikes and cycles orderingshops to close.

The attack rattled financial markets and contributed to a0.78 percent fall in the main Bombay stock index on Tuesday.But investors shrugged off political risks on Wednesday,pushing up shares in line with higher global markets.

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,"the Indian 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.

(Additional reporting by Kamil Zaheer in New Delhi)