NEW DELHI • Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday said "a long wait has ended" after laying the foundation stone for the construction of a temple for Lord Ram on a site that has been controversial for centuries.
Construction of the temple in the city of Ayodhya, a longstanding promise of Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began nine months after the Supreme Court handed over the site to Hindu groups and provided alternative land to Muslims for a mosque which once stood in the area.
"Many are amazed this has happened in their lifetime... a decades-long wait has come to an end," said Mr Modi.
Calling it an "emotional moment" for the country, he said a grand temple would now be built for Lord Ram.
"The wait of centuries has ended and India is creating a golden chapter in Ayodhya," he added.
Mr Modi took part in prayers along with a handful of others at the ceremony which was live streamed on news channels.
Only 175 people were at the venue itself and the scaled-down attendance was due to the spike in Covid-19 cases.
Home Minister Amit Shah is among more than 1.9 million people who have tested positive for the virus.
The building of the Lord Ram temple propelled the BJP to centre stage in Indian politics as the party - with its message of Hindu nationalism - emerged stronger with a campaign crafted around the issue.
In 1992, a Hindu mob demolished the 16th-century Babri Masjid or Babri mosque, which stood on the same site that many Hindus believe is the birthplace of Lord Ram.
The demolition, which the Supreme Court last year called a "violation of the rule of law", fanned communal tensions and led directly to the deaths of over 2,000 people in communal riots and deepening religious fault lines within the country.
Analysts said Mr Modi's speech after yesterday's ceremony was aimed at BJP supporters.
"It was a clear message to the core supporters of the BJP that we have fulfilled the promise," said political analyst Sandeep Shastri.
The main opposition Congress party welcomed the beginning of the construction of the temple, expected to be completed just before the 2024 general election.
Many hope the start of construction will bring some closure to the fractious history connected with the site and its polarising effect on the South Asian country.
The Hindustan Times newspaper in an editorial said that the temple "is a political, intellectual and legal victory for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for the BJP... for Mr Modi himself whose political life has coincided with the rise of Hindu political consciousness, and for millions of devotees who wanted to see a temple at the disputed site".
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is known as the ideological backbone of the BJP.
"At the same time, the contentious history leading up to the temple cannot be erased. The fact that Muslims have abided by the rule of law and accepted the SC (Supreme Court) verdict in the spirit of closure is laudable - but cannot take away from the insecurity they have felt at the political mobilisation around the issue," the newspaper added.
On Twitter #ReturnBabrilandtoMuslims and #Hindus were simultaneously trending at one point yesterday in a reflection of the strong sentiments still at play.