Hindu pride and Muslim fears overshadow key Indian poll

Congress party leader Priyanka Gandhi (C, atop car waving) waves to the party supporters during a road show in Mathura in India’s Uttar Pradesh state on 8 February, 2022AFP

Hindu worshippers from across India gather each morning to pray in Ayodhya, near where a historic mosque was torn down three decades ago by religious zealots -- triggering inter-faith riots that killed thousands of people.

The demolition of the centuries-old Babri Masjid shook the country's secular foundations and paved the way for the rise of Hindu nationalism as its dominant political force.

Workers are now erecting a Hindu shrine where the mosque once stood, and Muslims fear a coming election in India's most populous state could see such endeavours repeated elsewhere.

"This is no ordinary temple," Anil Mishra, a member of the trust overseeing the construction project, told AFP.

"This is a national temple that carries the emotions and feelings of the masses."

In a cordoned off area nearby, a crowd of devotees chant mantras to Ram, one of the most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, who is said to have been born at the site thousands of years ago.

Prime minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party was instrumental in campaigning against the mosque, built by the Muslim Mughal dynasty which ruled much of the Indian subcontinent centuries ago.

In this picture taken on 5 February, 2022, a shopkeeper waits for customers at a market in Mathura

Since its 1992 destruction, the party has enthusiastically backed the construction of a temple to Ram in its stead and the rejuvenation of several other religious sites.

It is now banking on efforts to style itself as the custodian of India's majority faith to secure re-election in Uttar Pradesh when the state of more than 200 million people votes in marathon seven-week polls starting Thursday.

'They have jailed young Muslims'

Political analysts say Uttar Pradesh is a petri dish for hardline Hindu governance and the blunt edge of the BJP's efforts to refashion secular India into a Hindu nation.

Its chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has been accused of encouraging vigilante violence against the state's Muslim population and introducing discriminatory laws to marginalise the community.

The saffron-robed hardliner, 49, is known for his inflammatory religious rhetoric and is considered a possible successor to Modi, more than two decades his senior.

His administration has introduced a law to make interfaith marriages more difficult and closed Muslim-run slaughterhouses to protect cows -- a sacred animal in Hinduism -- while critics say it has turned a blind eye to mob violence directed at those accused of eating beef.

The city of Mathura, near the capital New Delhi, is popularly held to be the birthplace of Krishna -- another senior god -- and Hindu hardliners claim another Mughal-era mosque there was partially built over a temple to the deity.

Comments from senior BJP figures have foreshadowed another looming religious confrontation in the city.

Punjab Congress party president and Congress party candidate Navjot Singh Sidhu (C) holds a sword during a door to door election campaign for the upcoming Punjab state assembly elections, in Amritsar on 8 February, 2022

"Grand temple construction ongoing in Ayodhya...(now) getting ready for Mathura," Yogi's deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya said last month.

Muslims in the city are already angry after years of discrimination under the BJP and fearful of what another election victory could bring.

"They have jailed young Muslims for treason, are stopping us from eating what we want and have compounded our job losses by shutting meat shops and restaurants," said resident Mohammad Yameen.

'National pride and self-respect'

Uttar Pradesh has struggled through India's recent economic downturn, with widespread unemployment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the BJP has managed to galvanise support from legions of the Hindu faithful who have praised the party for delivering on its promise to build the Ayodhya temple.

"We are really happy and hope that it is a grand structure," said Kusum Gupta, 59, a pilgrim who travelled more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) to visit the site.

Champat Rai, another member of the trust managing the temple work, said its construction was the culmination of "500 years of struggle" and rivalled India's independence from the British in national significance.

The temple will be "a symbol of national pride and self-respect", Rai told AFP, adding that the mosque's demolition had symbolically cast off the historical shackles of Muslim rule during the Mughal dynasty.

"No other country in the world keeps the symbols of its slavery alive," he said.

An army of construction workers have toiled around the clock since Modi laid the foundation stone at a ceremony 18 months ago.

One of them, 23-year-old Manikandan, told AFP it was the "luckiest day" of his life when he was asked to help build the temple.

"What else could you ask for as a Hindu?"