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India: Dispute Over Hindu Temple Erupts Again - 2003-08-06

A major political dispute has again erupted in India over an ancient mosque and a Hindu temple. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rejects accusations that he has given in to political pressure and repeatedly changed his position on whether a Hindu temple should be built on the site where Hindu fundamentalists destroyed an ancient mosque in 1992.

It has been over a decade since Hindu zealots demolished the 16th century Babri mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. But the passage of time has done little to cool tempers and the issue periodically erupts into a full blown political argument.

The latest furor erupted last week when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke at the funeral of a Hindu religious leader, promising that the dead man's dream of seeing a temple erected in Ayodhya would be fulfilled.

Opposition lawmakers quickly attacked the prime minister for giving in to pressure from Hindu hard-liners, a charge Mr. Vajpayee vehemently denied. The prime minister defends his statements at the funeral, saying he never specified where in Ayodhya a temple should be built. He also denies he has changed his mind on the issue.

He says the government's position remains that the temple can be built either through negotiations between the Hindu and Muslim communities or through a court settlement. He rejected accusations that he is caving in to pressure - saying he would rather resign than do that.

The Babri mosque once sat on the disputed site. It was built under the rule of the Islamic Moghul emperor, Babar. Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of the god Ram and is therefore holy. They believe a Hindu temple once stood there and was destroyed by Babar to build the mosque. Hindu fundamentalists want the temple rebuilt where the mosque stood.

Muslims say there is no proof of the Hindu allegations and they want the mosque rebuilt.

Political analyst Subhash Kashyap of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi says the core of the dispute is whether a temple should be built on the exact spot where the mosque once stood, or somewhere else nearby. "There is no dispute about the temple being built in Ayodhya," he says. "The Muslims are for it; Hindus are for it, but the dispute is about the particular spot."

Mr. Kashyap says the issue of whether a temple once stood at the site of the Babri mosque and exactly who owned the land on which it stood is still before the courts. But the court case has dragged on for years and the issue remains a very emotional one for Hindus and Muslims. It also has become political fodder. Opposition lawmakers were not impressed by the prime minister's assurances on Monday.

Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, with the opposition Congress Party, says the prime minister's credibility has been eroded by his comments last week. "This is the 12th time he changed his statement on various occasions and on the Ayodhya question, he changed his statement within 72 hours four times."

Political analyst Subhash Kashyap says the issue has been highly politicized. "The political parties on both sides wish to draw political advantage of either supporting or opposing," he says. 'This has been going on for quite some time and one can blame the political parties for trying to exploit the situation for their own advantage."

Mr. Kashyap says a decision by the courts could resolve the dispute. But there are no signs that is likely to happen in the very near future, given the slow pace of movement in the Indian judicial system.