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Hindu Hard-liners Reach Compromise With Government - 2002-03-15

Hindu hard-liners in India have backed away from a confrontation with security forces over a plans to hold a prayer ceremony on disputed land in the northern town of Ayodhya. Fears of widespread violence in the town on Friday did not materialize, as police and paramilitary troops sealed off Ayodhya, detaining 1,000 activists.

About 1,000 Hindu hard-liners paraded through the streets of Ayodhya but the protesters marched peacefully and there was no sectarian violence of the sort that left 700 people dead two weeks ago in India's western state of Gujarat.

Hindu hard-liners set March 15 as the date for the start of construction of a Hindu temple on a parcel of land next the 16th century Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya. The mosque was destroyed in 1992 by a Hindu mob. Ever since, Hindu nationalists, who belong to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP, have said they will build a temple to the Hindu Lord Ram on land next to the mosque.

Recently the VHP activists scaled back their plans saying they only wanted to hold an elaborate prayer ceremony at the site, but on Wednesday, India's Supreme Court upheld a 1994 ruling banning any religious observances at the site.

Until Friday, Hindu hard-liners said they would go ahead with plans to hold a prayer ceremony and Ayodhya braced for violence.

But in a last minute compromise with government authorities the Hindu activists agreed not to enter the disputed site and simply hand over two stone pillars of their proposed temple to a government official near the entrance to the disputed site. Government officials also allowed small groups of the VHP activists to enter a restricted area in front of the destroyed mosque to perform limited religious functions allowed there.

A.K. Mithra is a senior police official who was in charge of making sure thousands of Hindu activists did not slip into Ayodhya on Friday and cause trouble. "The reports we had were that about 50,000 people would collect here. You see up to ten thousand is manageable but more than that you have to use force. And one tries to avoid using that as far as possible," Mr. Mithra said.

Tension mounted in recent days and there were widespread fears of a repeat of sectarian violence that left more than 700 people mostly Muslims dead in India's western Gujarat state. That violence began after a group of VHP activists were attacked by Muslims while they were on a train returning from Ayodhya where they had been holding demonstrations in support of building a temple at the disputed site.

Scattered violence continues in Gujarat despite the deployment of large numbers of paramilitary forces. On Friday, authorities reported at least one person was killed in sectarian violence in Gujarat's largest city Ahmedabad.