AYODHYA (India) • Tens of thousands of Hindu hardliners rallied yesterday for a temple to be built at a disputed Indian holy site where an ancient mosque was razed in 1992, sparking deadly riots.
Huge crowds of saffron-clad protesters, some waving swords and chanting "Praise Be to Ram", gathered in Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh state, where right-wing Hindu groups want a grand temple to their God constructed.
Organisers had expected 300,000 demonstrators to attend rallies in Ayodhya and two other Indian cities, with protesters arriving by bus and train throughout the day.
Security measures were stepped up, with about 5,000 additional police officers deployed to protest areas, especially in Ayodhya.
Many Hindus believe a spot there marks the birthplace of warrior God Lord Ram and that a mediaeval mosque that stood there for 460 years was built only after the destruction of an earlier temple.
Hindu zealots reduced the Babri Mosque to rubble in 1992, kicking off riots across India that left thousands dead, most of them Muslims.
The site remains a flashpoint between Hindus and India's sizeable Muslim minority and the show of force by hardliners comes two weeks before the 26th anniversary of the mosque's destruction.
More than 2,000 people had died in riots after the mosque was razed.
Huge banners bearing images of the mosque being torn down by sledgehammer-wielding radicals hung at the protest, where hardline leaders called for Parliament to pass a law allowing for the temple's construction.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand monk who has long campaigned for the temple, unveiled plans yesterday to build the world's largest statue in Ayodhya - a 221m bronze likeness of Ram.
Both Hindu and Muslim groups have petitioned India's Supreme Court to help resolve the temple issue. The top court has sought more time to give its verdict.
The temple controversy has been tied up in courts for decades, but some hardline groups are agitating to make it a campaign issue ahead of general elections in the next six months.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is running for a second term, has faced some disquiet from his core supporters who feel that he has not done enough for the cause despite his parliamentary majority.
The Bharatiya Janata Party he rules is a Hindu nationalist outfit with ties to some of the hardline groups rallying in Ayodhya, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Shiv Sena.
VHP leader Champat Rai told demonstrators that they would accept the entire area only for the Ram temple and would not consider sharing the site with Muslims.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS