Narendra Modi is to lay the foundation stone for a new Hindu temple on the site of a razed mosque in the small town of Ayodhya on Wednesday, in a move critics say will mark the end of India’s status as a secular state.

The Hindu ceremonies celebrating the temple’s construction will be the culmination of a decades-long struggle over the religious site. In December 1992, Hindu mobs — mobilised by the then leaders of the Indian prime minister’s now ruling Bharatiya Janata party — destroyed the Babri Masjid mosque that had been there since the 16th century.

The BJP and its activists had argued that the ground the mosque was built on was the birthplace of Lord Ram and that its presence was an affront to India’s Hindu majority.

After a long-running legal dispute, the Supreme Court in November cleared the way for construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the ruined mosque.

BJP supporters arrive before the groundbreaking ceremony © Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty
Hindu devotees before idols of Lord Rama in Kolkata on the eve of the ceremony in Ayodhya © Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty

In its ruling, the court said the destruction of the Babri Masjid had been against the law but upheld the Hindu community’s claim to the land, citing archaeological evidence of a pre-existing temple.

“This is not just the construction of a temple with all the history of the conflict behind it,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political science professor at Ashoka University. “This is the creation of almost a new basic structure for the Indian constitution, with majoritarianism as the dominant idea of India.”

“A political act of razing the mosque in a sense has been legally now rewarded.” he added.

Plans for the new temple’s groundbreaking ceremonies have been overshadowed by coronavirus. The outbreak has infected more than 1.8m Indians, among them BJP leaders including the home minister Amit Shah, Mr Modi’s most trusted lieutenant who is being treated in hospital.

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But the premier’s three-hour visit to Ayodhya will be broadcast on state television and projected on to large screens erected across India and in New York City’s Times Square.

Police guard the town of Ayodhya before the foundation-laying © Pawan Sharma/Reuters
Hindu pilgrims at Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya © Rajesh Kumar/AP

BJP leaders say construction of the temple offers much-needed catharsis for Hindus scarred by past centuries of Islamic rule. Many Hindu temples were damaged or destroyed, including what BJP supporters believe was a Ram temple at the mosque site.

“The cultural devastation that the Hindu community faced 500 years ago . . . has had a very deep impact, and left a civilisational wound,” said Tejasvi Surya, a BJP MP from Bangalore. “By laying the foundation for a grand temple, this wound is being healed.”

In 1992 the destruction of the mosque stunned India’s Muslim minority and led to religious riots across the country. An estimated 2,000 people were killed.

But few expect unrest this week. “People are kind of resigned to this and hoping it ends a very difficult chapter in India’s history,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a spokesman for the Samajwadi party.

The construction of the Ram Temple will bolster Mr Modi and his BJP among the party’s core supporters. “Ayodhya is also a very profound transformation in the nature of Hinduism,” said Prof Mehta. “Hinduism has become an explicitly political religion . . . The creation and maintenance of Hindu identity and Hindu self-esteem is now closely tied to the fortunes of a political party — the BJP.”

Via Financial Times