The site at Ayodhya, and divided Kashmir, are two of the most divisive communal issues facing India in the past 30 years, with PM Narendra Modi attempting to draw a line under both.

Hindus watch a live telecast in New Delhi of the groundbreaking ceremony by Indian PM Narendra Modi of a temple in Ayodhya being built at the site of the demolished Babri mosque. August 5, 2020.
Hindus watch a live telecast in New Delhi of the groundbreaking ceremony by Indian PM Narendra Modi of a temple in Ayodhya being built at the site of the demolished Babri mosque. August 5, 2020. (Manish Swarup / AP)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking centre stage at a foundation-laying ceremony for a temple at a flashpoint holy site, where a now demolished 16th century mosque once stood, with at least one influential Muslim group speaking out.

The site in Ayodhya in northern India has long been a religious tinderbox between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, providing the spark for some of the country's worst sectarian violence.

The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu radicals with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. 

A lengthy legal battle ensued, but in November, in a major victory for Modi's BJP party, India's top court awarded the site to Hindus, allowing a temple to be built.

Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned for more than three decades for the temple, unveiled a plaque at the site in an elaborate ceremony on Wednesday to inaugurate construction.

"The whole country is thrilled, the wait of centuries is ending," Modi said in a speech, after taking off a white mask that he wore as a novel coronavirus precaution.

"See the amazing power of Lord Ram. Buildings were destroyed, there was a lot of effort to eradicate his existence, but Ram remains in our mind even today."

Hindus believe the mosque had been built at the birthplace of Ram, one of their religious figures.

The court also ordered that Muslims be given two hectares of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site.

An influential Muslim group spoke out against the new temple.

"Usurpation of the land by an unjust, oppressive, shameful and majority-appeasing judgment can't change its status," the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board said on Twitter.

"No need to be heartbroken. Situations don't last forever."

Many Muslims in Ayodhya welcomed the construction of the temple in the hope that it would end years of acrimony with Hindus and help bring economic growth

Modi's critics see him as remoulding the officially secular country of 1.3 billion as a Hindu nation at the expense of India's 200 million Muslims and taking it an authoritarian direction.

Muslims comprise about 14 percent of Hindu-majority India. 

Prominent Muslims fear the new temple could embolden Hindu nationalists to target two other mosques in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Full speed ahead for Hindu nationalist agenda

Organisers said Wednesday's ceremony was set on an astrologically auspicious date for Hindus, but Wednesday also marked a year since the Indian Parliament revoked the semi-autonomous status of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir.

Other anti-Muslim decisions Modi took in the past year include implementing a new law making it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship, but not if they are Muslims.

More may be in the pipeline, including a mooted nationwide register obliging people to prove they are Indian, and a uniform civil code doing away with Islamic rules in areas such as marriage.

"Clearly, it's full speed ahead with the Hindu nationalist agenda," Kugelman said.

On Wednesday, Modi offered prayers to nine stone blocks with Ram inscribed on them and kept in a small pit amid chanting of Hindu religious hymns to symbolise the start of construction of the temple, which is expected to take 3 1/2 years to complete. 

The blocks will serve as the monument's foundation stones.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies