AYODHYA, India (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday launched the construction of a Hindu temple on a site that has been contested by Muslims for decades in a dispute that has sparked some of India’s most bloody communal violence.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that Hindus, who believe the site in the northern town of Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, be allowed to build a temple there, ending years of litigation..
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 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.”
Many Muslims in Ayodhya have welcomed construction of the temple in the hope that it would end years of acrimony with Hindus and help bring economic growth but an influential Muslim group spoke out against it.
“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.
Many members of India’s Muslim minority saw last year’s court ruling awarding the site to Hindus as part of a pattern by the Hindu-nationalist government aimed at sidelining Muslims.
Wednesday’s launch of construction came on the first anniversary of the scrapping by Modi’s government of special privileges for India’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, another highly contentious issue for Muslims.
The BJP had long called for disputed Kashmir’s special autonomy to be revoked. The government said the change was necessary to develop the strife-torn region and integrate it with the rest of India.