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Indian Prime Minister Lays Cornerstone For Controversial Hindu Temple


India's prime minister made a rare pandemic-era trip out of the capital today. He went to a northern Indian town called Ayodhya. It's where Hindu extremists tore down a 16th-century mosque nearly 30 years ago. Now Hindus are building their own temple on that very spot, and the prime minister laid the cornerstone. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer has reported from Ayodhya in the past and is following the news there today and joins us now. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So can you just put what happened today in the context of this place and its history?

FRAYER: Yeah, so Ayodhya's old quarter is this beautiful warren of multicolored alleyways housing small temples, and Hindu faithful believe one of their gods, Ram, was born there. But, actually, it's one of the most sensitive places in all of India for Hindu-Muslim tensions, and that's because there used to be this huge triple-domed mosque right in the middle of town. It was built in the 16th century. But in 1992, Hindu extremists tore it down. Riots spread across India, and thousands of mostly Muslims were killed.

Hindu nationalists have long wanted to build a temple on those ruins, and today, they started doing it. Here's what it sounds like in Ayodhya today.


UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: Those are Hindu priests chanting prayers as the prime minister, Narendra Modi, wearing a surgical mask, inaugurated construction of this temple, saying Hindus have waited centuries for this.

MARTIN: I mean, you note he's wearing a mask, and we are in the middle of a global pandemic, right? Why did Modi prioritize this right now?

FRAYER: We certainly are. Well, Modi is a Hindu nationalist, and this was actually one of his big campaign promises. Many members of his base have been waiting, you know, nearly 30 years for this, especially devotees of the Hindu god Lord Ram, or Rama as he's sometimes called. Suhag Shukla is the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. She's been watching all of this from Philadelphia.

SUHAG SHUKLA: Lord Rama plays so centrally to Hindu beliefs and practices, so there are millions of Hindus who will celebrating as a day of closure and maybe the start of healing.

FRAYER: Part of the reason this is a long time coming is that the actual land under the mosque's ruins had been tied up in a legal battle. Late last year, India's Supreme Court gave Hindus control over that land, and that's what allowed the construction to go ahead today. But, certainly, not everybody sees this as closure and healing.

MARTIN: Presumably, you're talking about the families of the Muslims who were killed there. I mean, how are they reacting to this?

FRAYER: That's right. Well - and also secularists. I mean, India's constitution defines the country as a secular republic. There are people who think, you know, the prime minister shouldn't be involved in religious matters. But India has really changed under Narendra Modi. Hindu priests hold prestigious jobs in his government - and also Muslims, as you mentioned. One prominent Muslim group called today's events unjust and oppressive. India has 200 million Muslims. Rana Ayyub is one of them. She was 9 years old when the Babri mosque was destroyed and riots spread across India. She had to go into hiding.

RANA AYYUB: The word Ayodhya means fear, intimidation, taking our agency away from us, of making us somebody who did not have equal rights over our own country.

FRAYER: And so today is also painful for Muslims because it's the anniversary of a crackdown in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. It's been one year since India revoked Kashmir's autonomy, flooded the streets with troops and cut off the Internet there.

MARTIN: NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer with this story. Thanks for bringing it to us, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "DRAGGED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.