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Hindu Hardliners Could Modify Controversial Temple Plan - 2002-03-08

In India, Hindu hardliners have said they are prepared to accept a compromise in their controversial plan to build a temple on a site considered sacred by both Hindus and Muslims. The government has been asking Hindu hardliners to stand down from their temple construction program due to fears that it may trigger fresh Hindu-Muslim clashes.

Leaders of the World Hindu Council have said they will accept a court verdict in their plans to build a temple in Ayodhya town on a disputed site where a mosque once stood - but which was pulled down by Hindu activists in 1992.

The hardline Hindu group had announced plans to begin constructing the temple on March 15 in defiance of court orders. The commitment by the Hindu hardliners to accept the court verdict is considered a step forward in defusing religious tensions in the country.

But the controversy is far from over. Hindu hardliners said in exchange for their commitment to abide by the court ruling, they want the government to give them land adjacent to the disputed site for temple construction.

The head of the World Hindu Council, Vishnu Hari Dalmia said it also expects the government to give them permission to hold a religious ceremony as a symbolic mark of temple construction on March 15 in Ayodhya where thousands of Hindu activists have gathered.

"We hope that government will now be willing to do so after we have conceded what they wanted. We hope there should be no hitch. We want to perform some religious rites there, and in due course of time before June 2 we expect the land will be handed over to us to start construction work," Mr. Dalmia said.

Several Muslim leaders have welcomed the decision by Hindu hardliners to abide by the law. However, Qasim Rasool Illyas, convener of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said there is some skepticism in the muslim community about their sincerity.

"Merely giving an assurance to the prime minister - will it suffice that Hindu hardliners will abide by their commitment. This is a problem," Mr. Illyas said.

The government - which has close links to the World Hindu Council - has been putting pressure on the group to put off its temple construction program after a wave of sectarian violence swept through the western Gujarat state. The violence erupted after Hindus returning from Ayodhya were burned to death by Muslims. Hindu mobs then went on a rampage in the state killing hundreds of Muslims.

Gujarat is now coping with the aftermath of the rioting. Thousands of people who fled the rioting or whose homes were burned down are homeless, and are sheltered in refugee camps. Police have said dead bodies are still being found in remote areas - many in ponds and wells - pushing up the death toll every day.

On Friday opposition party leaders visited the state to meet victims of the riots. Opposition lawmakers are demanding the resignation of the federal home minister Lal Krishna Advani and the state chief minister Narnendra Modi for failing to stem the violence.