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India PM Pledges to Ban Religious Activity at Temple Site - 2002-03-11

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has pledged to ban religious activity at a disputed site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims until the supreme court rules on the matter. The pledge came as efforts to negotiate a bitter row over the holy site failed.

Prime Minister Vajpayee told parliament Monday his government will not allow any activity in Ayodhya until the supreme court rules on a petition that seeks to ban a religious ceremony which a Hindu hardline group, plans to hold in Ayodhya, Friday.

The ceremony is meant to mark the beginning of construction of a temple on a holy site where a mosque once stood. Hindu hardliners tore down the mosque in 1992, saying it was on the birthplace of their god, Rama.

The supreme court is scheduled to consider the issue Wednesday. But Hindu hardliners appear defiant, saying no one can take away the religious right of Hindus to conduct the ceremony.

A top Hindu priest, Ramchandra Parmhans, says he does not know what happens in the court or in parliament. He says he will only heed an inner voice which has told him to conduct the religious ceremony.

Hindu hardliners said they would go ahead with their plans after Muslim organizations rejected proposals for a compromise.

The Hindu clerics had said they would accept a court ruling on the ownership of the disputed site, if Muslims would allow them to conduct their ceremony and begin the temple construction program on land adjoining the disputed site. Muslim leaders said the proposal was incomplete.

The failure of the negotiations has set the stage for a confrontation in Ayodhya, where thousands of Hindu activists have gathered.

Pressure is now mounting on Prime Minister Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party from both the political opposition and its own allies. The BJP is closely linked to the Hindu hardline group leading the temple campaign.

Mamata Banerjee heads the Trinamul Congress party, which is allied to the ruling BJP. She says Hindu hardliners should not be allowed to defy the court's ruling on the disputed site. "They don't listen to anybody, and they are giving one after another statement that they don't want to abide by the court verdict," she said. "We think this is not free and fair for democracy and [the] prime minister should take strong, strong action to stop all this [these] things."

The government has deployed paramilitary forces in Ayodhya and says the security situation is under control.

But there are fears religious tensions may boil over. The temple controversy has already sparked sectarian violence in India's western Gujarat State, where more than 700 people died in recent Hindu-Muslim clashes.