Rally called by far-right Hindu groups draws tens of thousands in northern Indian city of Ayodhya, as demands grow to build a Hindu temple on a site where a mosque was demolished in 1992, sparking deadly Hindu-Muslim violence.
Tens of thousands of Hindu hardliners rallied on Sunday for a temple to be built at a disputed Indian holy site where a 16th century mosque was razed in 1992, sparking deadly riots.
Huge crowds of saffron-clad protesters, some waving swords and chanting "Praise Be to Ram", massed in Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh state where far-right 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, and busloads of protesters were still arriving into the afternoon.
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.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a far-right group, had called a "Dharma Sabha" (religious congregation), in various parts of the country.
"The mosque was a slight on Hindus and it's a shame that we've failed to build a temple on one of the most holy sites for Hindus," said Sharad Sharma, spokesman for VHP, which has close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Hindus are getting impatient and the time has come to build a grand temple for Lord Ram, Sharma warned.
A frenzied Hindu mob razed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India. 25 years later, we take a look at the events that led to the destruction of the mosque and where the dispute stands today pic.twitter.com/N2KDsiDaXv— TRT World (@trtworld) December 7, 2017
Hindus won't 'wait anymore now'
In the run-up to a general election due by May 2019, BJP and many Hindu outfits affiliated with it have ratcheted up their demand for a new temple at the disputed site which most Hindus believe was the birthplace of warrior-God Lord Ram.
In December 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed Babri Mosque, named after the Mughal Emperor Babur. The destruction prompted nationwide riots that left around 2,000 people dead, mostly Muslims.
Since then, Muslims have been calling for building of a new mosque at the site, while Hindus have been demanding a temple.
The case over the dispute has been languishing in India's legal system for years without any final outcome. The Indian Supreme Court, which is hearing the case, has set the next date of hearing in January 2019.
The VHP leaders called on the government to announce the date of setting up a temple in Ayodhya.
"Today lakhs of devotees are meeting in different parts of country. We hope that today's meeting will clear every obstacle (to build Ram Temple) in Ayodhya," Vinod Bansal, spokesman for VHP told Anadolu Agency.
He said that the Hindus have been waiting for the courts to resolve the matter. "But, we will not wait anymore now."
The build-up of Hindu religious leaders and far-right political activists has also raised questions about the safety of Muslims who live in Ayodhya and other nearby areas.
Tasleem Rahmani, president of the New Delhi-based Muslim Political Council, told Anadolu Agency the call for construction of a temple has intensified ahead of the 2019 general election in the country.
"There is an atmosphere of fear among Muslims. We have received reports that Muslims are migrating in large numbers from city and adjoining villages," Rahmani said.
He said that the mobilisation of such a "mob" by Hindu outfits, may lead to a violation of the status quo.
"BJP is actually exploiting religion sentiments to get votes as the elections in five states have already been announced," Rahmani added.
"Those Muslims living in Ayodhya are terrified since the past week," said Zafaryab Jilani, convener of Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) and a lawyer representing the Muslim side in Supreme Court.
He said they have asked Muslims in the town to come to Lucknow city, the capital of the Uttar Pradesh state.
Extremists want government to bypass court
Both the BJP and VHP and their parent movement, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have asked the government to issue an executive order to build a temple and bypass the Supreme Court.
The heavily fortified site, which looks like a small garrison town, is under the control of the Supreme Court.
Sunday's congregation in Ayodhya would be followed up with bigger gatherings in New Delhi, India's capital, VHP leaders said.