September 13, 2007 / 11:37 AM / 12 years ago

Indian government accused of blasphemy

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s government is being accused of blasphemy by its political opponents for saying some of Hinduism’s most important texts are not proof of the existence of Hindu gods.

Threats of a nationwide protest forced the government to begin backtracking on Thursday, wary that its Hindu nationalist rivals could use religious disputes to gain political capital.

The government made the claim in a statement on Wednesday to the Supreme Court, which is hearing a dispute over India’s plan to bore a shipping lane through a ridge of rock and sand between India and Sri Lanka which some Hindus think was built by a god.

The Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas, two religious texts, recount the life of Lord Ram, a Hindu god said to have commanded his army of monkeys to build a bridge to Sri Lanka thousands of years ago so he could rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita.

But the government of mainly Hindu but officially secular India says the ridge was moulded by the ocean tides.

“The contents of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and other mythological texts ... cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein,” the government’s affidavit said.

The main opposition, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), immediately accused the government of blasphemy and appeasing people who follow other religions.

L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition, said at a press conference on Thursday that the affidavit showed “contempt for millions of Hindus in India and abroad”.

His party threatened to organise nationwide protests.

Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj said that the government would file a new affidavit, suggesting that the controversial passage would be changed or removed.

“This must have been a lapse in the drafting,” he said. “Any part of it that was disrespectful towards Ram as has been claimed is wrong. We respect the religious beliefs of all people.”

Even before the government had made its statement, thousands of Hindus protested in several Indian states on Wednesday.

They want the government to drop the $560-million (276 million pounds) Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, which its builders say will shave up to 36 hours off ship journeys between India’s western and eastern coasts. It is sometimes called India’s Suez Canal.

Besides religious objections, conservationists say the construction and increased traffic will kill whales and other marine life in the region, and harm fishermen’s livelihoods.

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