India's Prime Minister appealed for calm on Thursday as Hindu fundamentalists pledged to defy government orders and hold a prayer ceremony at a disputed religious site in the north of the country. Authorities have mobilized thousands of troops to prevent a repeat of religious violence that left more than 700 people dead recently in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Hindu priests prayed for divine guidance in the northern city of Ayodhya, as 15,000 paramilitary troops kept a watchful eye over the ancient city.
Hindu hardliners say they will go ahead with plans to hold a prayer service Friday on disputed land next to a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. The mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. Ever since, Hindu hardliners, led by the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or VHP, have pledged to build a temple on the site which Hindus consider to be the birthplace of their Lord Ram.
On Wednesday India's Supreme Court upheld a 1994 ban on holding religious observances at the site. Leaders of India's Muslim community and opposition politicians hailed the court decision - calling it a victory for India's secular constitution.
VHP activists say they will defy the ban on Friday. Authorities fear violence but Naresh Dayal the Home Secretary of Uttar Pradesh the state where Ayodhya is located says authorities will prevent the sort of violence that broke out in 1992 after the Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed.
"Our strategy this time has been that we would not allow the buildup of a mob - an uncontrollable number of people in Ayodhya - and in that we have largely succeeded," he said. "Today there are less than 1,000 Ram Sevak's [Hindu activists] in Ayodhya very much a controllable number. We do hope that we would actually not have to use force, but in case we do, we have plenty of police forces in Ayodhya and we are very alert. But we do hope that now with the judgement of the Supreme Court the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would soon call off its agitation and we would be able to restore normalcy in Ayodhya."
Authorities have arrested about 1,000 Hindu activists trying to enter Ayodhya and the area surrounding the city has been declared a no-go zone, with all but essential traffic blocked from entering the city.
Two weeks ago about 58 people, mostly Hindu activists, were killed in India's western Gujarat state as they returned home from Ayodhya where they had been holding demonstrations to build the proposed temple. The killings set off several days of riots that left more than 700 people - mostly Muslims - dead. It was the worst outbreak of sectarian violence India has seen in nearly 10 years - ever since the Babri Masjid Mosque was destroyed in 1992.